Feeding Metabolic Horses

What, when, and how to feed horses with EMS, ID, and PPID

Every owner’s goal is to provide good care for their horse. But when your horse has a metabolic issue such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), insulin dysregulation (ID), or pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, formerly called equine Cushing’s disease) or is overweight, good care takes on a whole new meaning. It boils down to what, when, and how to feed.

Horses with EMS have fat cells that produce a hormone that causes cortisol (which has a variety of functions, including regulating metabolism and immune response) levels in the body to increase. Although operating by a different mechanism, horses with PPID also synthesize more cortisol. As a result, the horse’s normal response to insulin is disrupted (e.g., insulin dysregulation). Horses with ID have high insulin and glucose concentrations circulating in their blood. When you add obesity to the quagmire, horses’ risk of developing EMS only increases. Horses with PPID or EMS are also at greater risk of developing ­laminitis.

Because each of these conditions affects horses’ ability to metabolize soluble carbohydrates, including sugars and starches, developing appropriate feeding strategies is of paramount importance for their welfare. Many owners of metabolic horses do not know how many calories these individuals need and how much feed and forage will provide that amount, says Paul Siciliano, PhD, professor of equine nutrition and management at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. Putting together a balanced ration designed to target an appropriate energy intake—a neutral energy balance where intake equals expenditure—is one key to understanding what to feed your horse.

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