Managing the Laminitic Pony Going Into Spring

If managed with the right nutrition plan, horses and ponies with histories of laminitis can have successful careers.
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Some ponies may only need a ration balancer while in work, but others might need to be placed on a low-carb, high-calorie performance feed. | iStock

Q: How can I manage my laminitic pony as we head into spring? She is still in work and shows often, so I want to make sure she has the proper nutrition without causing her to founder.

A:  I’m glad to hear she is able to stay in work, as that is so important to horses’ and ponies’ long-term health and happiness! In addition to careful vet and farrier care, nutrition is a big part of managing these special cases. For horses with laminitis, as with many other nutritionally related health concerns, there are some general “rules” about how to feed them… but the right diet for a certain horse should always be based on the animal’s individual calorie needs. There are horses with laminitis or other metabolic issues that are thin and those that are overweight, and we have ways to provide a diet low in soluble carbohydrates for them all.

First off, remember that no matter what goes in the bucket, the bulk of the sugars and starches that a horse consumes in a day come from forage because they eat so much of it. So, it is important to find a hay that strikes the right balance between being low in sugar but not so stemmy and mature that it is unpalatable or poses an impaction risk. Without going into a full hay-quality lecture here, suffice it to say you should seek out a lower-sugar hay (possibly testing it if you will have a consistent source of that same hay), but if the hay is unpredictable or high in sugar you can soak for 30-60 minutes to reduce soluble carbohydrates by up to 30%. 

Now we can focus on the concentrate portion of the diet. Emphasize nutrient density- providing all the right nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, and minerals) with a low amount of sugar while meeting calorie needs. It’s quite simple when they are of the “air fern” or very-easy-keeping variety. A ration balancer fed as directed for body weight and workload is all you need. 

If she “needs feed” or could eat several pounds of feed without getting too fat, then I recommend a low-carbohydrate performance feed. These will range from about 10-20% sugar + starch and from about 1,000-1,900 kcal/lb. Choosing the right one will, again, depend on calorie needs, and there are many ways to accomplish a correct diet- none of which rely solely on seeking out the lowest NSC number on a feed tag. A feed with 11% sugar + starch but that is only 1,200 kcal/lb will provide the same amount of carbohydrate to the horse as a feed that is 17.5% sugar + starch and 1,900 kcal/lb, but you will have to feed 2 ¼ more pounds of the lower-carb feed to meet the horse’s nutritional requirements.

I see these horses fitting into three categories: 1) ration-balancer easy keepers; 2) highly carb-sensitive medium keepers that need a low-carb, low-calorie feed; or 3) hard keepers who need a low-carb, high-calorie performance feed. When in doubt, reach out to an equine nutritionist.

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Anna Pesta Dunaway, PhD, is a nutritionist on the equine technical solutions team at Purina Animal Nutrition. She is responsible for helping bring innovative solutions from the research team out to the field. Pesta Dunaway spends most of her time providing technical consultations and support to the sales team on the East Coast, as well as speaking on equine nutrition at horse owner meetings and professional conferences. She earned her BS in animal science from Kansas State University and received both her MS and PhD in animal nutrition from the University of Nebraska. Her graduate research focused on the use of high-fat diets and manipulating the microbial community in the gut. Anna resides in Aiken, South Carolina, and is a lifelong equestrian with a special interest in the nutrition and development of the future sport horse.

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