Does Your Horse Need a Low-Starch Diet?

Your horse’s health status might call for a low-starch diet. Learn which conditions benefit from low starch levels and how to make the change.

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Does Your Horse Need a Low-Starch Diet?
Horses that are anxious or hyperactive might benefit from less starch in their diets.| Photo: iStock

Conditions that benefit from low starch levels and how to make the change

My students at Midway University often ask my if their horses should be on low-starch (starch being a type of carbohydrate) diets. This has led to some great discussions about low-starch and low-carbohydrate diets and how all horses must consume carbs— they just need to be the “right” ones. It’s also important to realize that a low-starch diet is not ideal for all horses but, rather, depends on their caloric requirements, the disciplines they perform, and existing health conditions.

“Low-carb for humans essentially means restricting all easily digestible sugars, starches, soluble fibers, and other digestible fibers from our diet to lose weight,” says Rhonda M. Hoffman, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, professor and director of the Horse Science Program at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro. “Horses, in contrast, rely on carbohydrates as the largest portion of their diet, especially soluble and insoluble fibers.”

Forages, which should be the basis of any diet, are 75-90% carbohydrates. The types of carbohydrates found in pasture and hay fall into two very broad categories: nonstructural and structural

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Janice L. Holland, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of Equine Studies at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. A graduate of both Penn State and Virginia Tech, her equine interests include nutrition and behavior, as well as amateur photography. When not involved in horse activities she enjoys spending time outdoors enjoying nature.

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