EMS and ‘Low-Carb’ Diets: What’s Right for Your Horse?

Not all carbohydrates are created equal, and “low-carb” definitely doesn’t mean “no-carb.” A nutritionist explains.

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EMS and
Because the foundation of any horse’s diet should consist of forage (i.e., hay, legumes, beet pulp, etc.), it’s important for the EMS horse to consume forage that has a low NSC level. | Photo: Thinkstock
Q. What recommendations do you have for feeding a horse with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) a low-carb diet, and is low-carb and sugar-free the same thing?

A. This is a great question and gets at one of my biggest concerns as a nutritionist, which is the belief that all horses with EMS need “low-carb” or even “no-carb” diets.

“What?!” I hear you say, “But I thought EMS horses couldn’t have starch and sugar.” That is a truer statement, although not completely accurate either. Now, I know you are probably completely confused! Let me explain.

Understanding Different Carbohydrates

The horse’s body uses types of carbohydrate, and the key is to understand the difference. There’s starch, or sugars such as glucose, and other sugars that break down into glucose in the small intestine; but there are also complex carbohydrates such as hemicellulose, cellulose, pectins, and lignin. These complex carbohydrates are digested in the hindgut by bacteria and don’t result in elevated insulin levels. For horses relying mainly on forage as a large proportion of their diet, these complex carbohydrates provide the majority of their daily calorie intake

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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