Keeping Weight on a Horse With a Laminitis History

Our equine nutrition expert offers a reader advice on how to feed a thin horse with a history of laminitis without causing another bout of the disease.

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Help Keeping Weight on a Horse With a Laminitis History
Horses with a history of endocrinopathic laminitis don’t have to be on 'starvation rations.' Like any horse, they need to be fed to condition, monitored carefully to ensure they do not get beyond a body condition score of 5, and have their diets managed accordingly. | Photo: iStock

Q.​ I help manage a 22-year-old Tennessee Walking horse that some years ago had a feed-related episode laminitis episode due to unlimited pasture access. He hasn’t had an episode in five years, and his owner has diligently managed his diet. Due to concerns that he might be metabolic, he gets relatively little grass hay, wears a grazing muzzle in the pasture, and receives a balancer pellet and a small amount of a high-fat supplement. In the last month his weight has dropped significantly. We’re worried and are considering putting him on a newly available senior feed but are concerned about the ingredients, which include sugar beet pulp, molasses, and vegetable oil. This feed’s energy content must be quite high—is that okay for this horse?

—Annamaria, via email

A. You’re right to be careful when creating a feeding plan for a horse with a history of endocrine-induced laminitis. It sounds as though the diet he is currently eating no longer meets his calorie needs and that his calorie intake does need to increase to maintain his condition. I assume you’ve ruled out other common causes of weight loss, such as dental issues or internal parasites? The trick with increasing calorie intake is to do it in a safe way. For horses with metabolic issues, this means increasing the calories while maintaining a low nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) level in the diet. Ideally, the items in the diet should be kept below 12% whenever possible.

With this horse, his feed’s NSC content should be of more concern than the immediate calorie content. Some high-calorie feeds on the market have NSC levels below the 12% threshold, and some contain all three of the ingredients you mention. Sugar beet pulp is actually a low-NSC feed ingredient, and just because a feed contains molasses doesn’t necessarily mean it’s too high in sugar to be safe. The only way to be sure this feed is suitable is to contact the manufacturer and ask about the NSC content.

You also need to review the feeding directions to see whether the recommended amounts are reasonable for this horse. If you don’t foresee feeding at the recommended level, you might need to continue with some amount of the balancer you are currently feeding to ensure the horse receives adequate minerals and vitamins.

Of course, you could start by increasing the amount of hay being fed, because it sounds as though this horse’s hay intake is currently heavily restricted. This would be my preferred starting point, as long as I knew the hay had a suitably low NSC level. If you don’t know the NSC level, or it’s higher than 12%, consider soaking it for 30 to 60 minutes before feeding it. You might be “getting away with” not soaking it currently due to the relatively small amount being fed. As you increase the total hay intake, the resulting higher levels of NSCs could potentially push him over his threshold and trigger a laminitic event.

One thing to keep in mind with horses in this age bracket is the possible complicating factor of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), especially this time of year (early fall). The seasonal rise in adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) hormone in horses with poorly managed PPID can result in an increase in circulating insulin and potentially an endocrine-induced laminitic event. I am not sure whether the weight this horse has lost is overall condition or, more specifically, lean muscle mass and topline, but horses with PPID can struggle to maintain their topline muscling. If this is, in fact, the cause, your veterinarian will most likely prescribe a drug to help support the PPID, which should help your horse maintain better condition. You might want to consider having your veterinarian assess the horse for PPID in conjunction with making dietary changes.

Taking measures now to increase body condition before we get into winter is very sensible. Start by increasing his grass hay intake. If you do not start to see an improvement in his condition in a couple of weeks or want slightly faster weight gain, I would recommend finding a suitable higher-calorie feed to add to the ration, such as the senior feed you are considering. Remember that NSC content is the concern. Horses with a history of endocrinopathic laminitis don’t have to be on “starvation rations.” Like any horse, they need to be fed to condition, monitored carefully to ensure they do not get beyond a body condition score of 5, and have their diets managed accordingly.


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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.

2 Responses

  1. My boy foundered before I bought him 2 years ago. The lines in his hooves appeared two weeks after purchase. He was on a strict diet as recommended by my vet. Since then, his weight has ping ponged and he will get a bit chubby and look good then lose weight. My vet gave him a shot of a non-steroidal muscle building supplement two weeks ago, but he doesn’t appear to be gaining muscle or weight. What would you suggest to gently increase his weight before the winter sets in. I want him at a good weight before the temperatures drop for good. The weather in New York has been crazy. Fluctuating between 45 degrees two weeks ago to 82 degrees today. It makes it difficult to gage what will work best for him without endangering him. Thank you

  2. Thank you for sharing this post.
    I am going through a similar event. My 21 year old thoroughbred suddenly had her first laminitic episode. We have since discovered she has cushings. She was already on a low sugar diet but had access to pasture most of the summer (as she does every summer). Not sure if just the cushings caused the laminitis or if it was a combination of the new cushings as well as the pasture?
    I am now trying to balance her laminitis (rotation in both fronts), her cushings (now on prascend) and her weight (she has always been a thin hard keeper).
    She has free access to low sugar hay (under 10%) and I am just starting to gradually add back in her low nsc feeds. Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated! We don’t yet know if she is IR as vet isn’t keen to test at this point and says treatment would be the same. Want to make sure I am doing everything right for her.
    In future what will be the ideal time for her to get grazing time, when are sugars lowest?
    Thank you

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