Holistic Horsekeeping for Insulin Resistance
past few years we have learned so much about how manage our horses'
diets so that we keep our horses healthy and happy. Specifically, we
have developed a great deal of practical research about insulin
resistance, laminitis, the glycemic indexes of different feed, and the
carbohydrate content of pasture grasses, as well as how all of these
factors interact. With all of this data in hand, this month I explore
how we can provide our metabolically-challenged horses with a high
quality of life.
As the role of the horse has shifted from that
of work animal to companion our breeding programs have changed. Our
ideal equine companions are gentle, calm, steady creatures who are
happy to be ridden but don't mind just hanging out and receiving
affection. This same laid-back horse is often also an easy keeper. He
gains weight when he does nothing more than catch a whiff of feed! He
is also the one horse out of the herd who is most likely to encounter
the metabolic challenge of insulin resistance.
Insulin is the
hormone responsible for moving glucose out of the bloodstream and into
the cells to be transformed into energy. The insulin-resistant horse
possesses a unique genetic makeup that affects this process, making it
less efficient than normal. As a result he is able to conserve more
glucose than usual, allowing him to survive in some very sparse
So what happens when we turn out the easy-keeping
horse into a pasture full of cultivated and rich grass? Disaster! As
the horse consumes rich grass his blood glucose levels climb, causing
his body to produce more insulin to compensate. Eventually the
sustained high intake of carbohydrates in the grass overwhelms his
body's ability to control the glucose released into his blood. As
result, the glucose levels rise, triggering laminitis and other
symptoms of metabolic imbalance such as ravenous appetite, exercise
intolerance, fertility problems, excessive thirst, or obesity.
prevent your horse from becoming such a walking disaster, the first
step is to identify whether he is at risk for becoming
insulin-resistant. Here are a few traits to watch for:
2. Heavy cresty neck
3. Fat pons over the withers and at the base of the tail
4. Elevated levels of insulin and triglycerides in the blood
you discover that your horse has one or more of the traits for insulin
resistance you may be tempted to put him in a dry lot and starve him.
Unfortunately, while this may keep your horse safe from the serious
consequences of insulin resistance, it can also produce a very unhappy
horse with a poor quality of life. Instead, try some of the suggestions
listed below for giving your insulin-resistant horse a high quality of
1. EXERCISE: Regular exercise helps prevent obesity by
allowing the insulin to work more efficiently (fat cells actually
produce hormones that interfere with the action of insulin). Even if
you are not able to ride your horse daily you can exercise him by
ponying him off another horse or driving him around the arena or
pasture. Long slow walks are as good as or better than short periods of
2. CHECK YOUR PASTURE: Monitor your pasture
grass and limit your horse's grazing when grasses are likely to be high
in sugar, such as when the nights are cool and the days are sunny,
after a rain or frost, or during a severe drought. Remove or severely
limit access to clover.
3. MOW: Keep your pastures mowed to
encourage the grass to grow steadily, a process that causes the grass
to use rather store sugars.
4. FERTILIZE NATURALLY: It's better
to use natural rather than synthetic products to fertilize your
pasture. Although most articles on pasture management suggest using
liberal amounts of
synthetic substances such as NPK fertilizers, I
recommend against this approach. These types of fertilizers have a
negative effect on the microorganisms in the soil that are necessary
for plants to absorb minerals.
5. FEED PROBIOTICS: Probiotics
have a similar effect on mineral absorption in horses that
microorganisms in the soil have on plants. Your horse needs minerals
like chromium and magnesium for proper glucose metabolism, and
probiotics assist your horse in absorbing these with maximum efficiency.
FEED MINERALS: Offer your horse high quality minerals that are designed
specifically for horses and include a wide range of trace minerals.
Horses do best with chelated minerals, of which there are two types:
plant-based products that are naturally chelated and synthetic products
that artificially chelate minerals by combining them with certain
proteins. My favorite mineral supplements include blue-green algae,
kelp, and free choice minerals from Advanced Biological Concepts.
FEED LOW AND SMALL: If you must offer grain to get supplements into
your horse, I suggest giving low glycemic index feeds such as Purina
Equine Senior, beet pulp, or wheat bran in small amounts only.
USE A MUZZLE: If pasture conditions are unacceptable for long periods
of time, consider letting your horse graze for limited amounts of time
wearing a grazing muzzle to limit intake. It's safest to turn your
horse out during the early morning or on cloudy days.
FAT: As counterintuitive as it might seem, giving fat to your
overweight horse in the form of rice bran, cold-processed vegetable
oil, or ground flax seed can be very helpful. These
forms of fat help curb your horse's appetite and slow the release of glucose into the blood.
MAKE YOUR HORSE WORK: By placing your horse's feed, water, salt, and
shade in different locations your force your horse to cover as least a
little ground every day. If your horse has to spend time in a dry lot
then scatter his hay as widely as possible to keep him moving while he
11. GO NATIVE: Utilize native grass pastures if
possible for grazing. Native grasses are safer since they have not been
genetically selected for either rapid growth or high sugar content. If
these pastures are mowed regularly and not overgrazed they may not need
any fertilizer or additional weed control.
12. ADD ANTIOXIDANTS:
The laminitic horse needs more antioxidants than the average horse to
stay healthy and comfortable. Because his cells function less
efficiently his body is more prone to create a heavy free radical load.
Adding natural antioxidants such as Tahitian noni to your horse's diet
can significantly reduce the free radical load.
Material is written and edited by Madalyn Ward, DVM. Copyright (c) 2006
HolisticHorsekeeping.com. All rights reserved.
You may reprint material in other electronic or print publications provided the above copyright
notice and a link to http://www.holistichorsekeeping.com is included in the credits.