Carbohydrates Defined

Carbohydrates are the main source of dietary energy for horses and are important for fast, quick-burning power.
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Carbohydrates are the main source of dietary energy for horses and are important for fast, quick burning power to blast out of the gate or clear a jump.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, also known as saccharides, are made up of sugar molecules and classified as either structural or nonstructural. Structural carbohydrates contribute to the fiber portion of the horse’s diet, while nonstructural carbohydrates (you might have heard them called NSCs) do not.

Monosaccharides contain one sugar molecule (e.g. glucose, fructose, and mannose). Disaccharides contain two sugar molecules (lactose and maltose). Oligosaccharides contain several sugar molecules, of which the most common in horse feeds is fructooligosaccharide. Polysaccharides contain 10 or more sugar molecules, and are more commonly known as starch, cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectin.

Are carbohydrates important in the diet?

Carbohydrates are absorbed quickly from the small intestine, which results in a rise in blood glucose concentration and a readily available energy source. Glucose is also essential for brain function. Even horses with metabolic problems need some, albeit limited, carbohydrates.  If carbohydrates aren’t burned off, they can be stored for later use in the muscle, liver, or kidney as glycogen, or as fat in other parts of the body.

Is there a carbohydrate requirement?

The National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Horses (2007) does not list a specific requirement for carbohydrates in the equine diet.

Take-Home Message

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates are important for energy, and the amount in any equine diet will depend on individual need. Carbohydrates shouldn’t be fed in large quantities at once but rather spread over several meals to even out the release of energy over time and minimize the digestive upset risk.  

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Written by:

Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS, is an equine nutritionist based on Long Island, New York. She is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she studied equine exercise physiology and nutrition. Liburt is a member of the Equine Science Society.

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