You know the type: easy keeper, cresty neck, weird fat deposits. He’s prone to laminitis, and you’ve heard “pre-Cushing’s” comments from the vet, or maybe he is Cushing’s. Most of these horses also have insulin-resistance problems. In fact, they’re said to have “metabolic syndrome,” somewhat like Syndrome X in “pre-diabetic” people. These horses require a strict diet, just like human diabetics do.
Theories abound regarding what causes the insulin resistance, from something as simple as overfeeding to a suspicion that they’re all really in a stage of Cushing’s. Regardless of why, however, one thing is clear: This horse should only consume feed that won’t produce a rise in blood sugar. Hay is fine, but grain is definitely out, as it’s high-carb.
• Flax seed is a good substitute for grain. Feeding 3 to 4 oz./day of flax seed is safe and healthy. In its favor, the antioxidant profile of either freshly ground or stabilized whole flax seed is excellent, especially with those hard-to-come-by omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, flax seed has more protein and fat than grain, reducing the intake of easily digestible carbohydrates. The downside of flax is that it packs a lot of calories, more than an overweight horse needs.
• Beet pulp, with no molasses added, is an excellent choice for horses with insulin resistance. It doesn’t produce a rise in blood sugar and therefore won’t aggravate already high insulin levels. Although digested like hay, beet pulp is a more concentrated source of calories, even more than early cuttings of alfalfa, and can be used to safely keep weight on an insulin-resistant horse or late-stage Cushing’s horse with weight-loss problems.
Although most insulin-resistant horses don’t need extra calories, beet pulp offers something flax doesn’t: It can swell to a fairly good size meal. A small amount of beet pulp soaks up water to three times its original volume and weight. Most horses enjoy these mashes, and the mash-style feeding is a great way to get needed supplements into these horses, making beet pulp a likely first choice for most metabolic-syndrome horses.
• Rice bran is another solid option that also won’t cause a blood sugar rise, although it’s high in fat. Rice bran has high levels of natural antioxidants and essential oils but is heavier on the omega-6 fatty acids, which horses usually already have plenty of, than it is on omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, rice bran’s phytate level can help block iron absorption from high-iron hays, like some clovers, and few horses need extra dietary iron.
Of course, mineral levels and balances are extremely important to the horse’s overall diet, too. Once you’ve settled on your hay and concentrate, calculate the mineral levels in the entire diet so that you use the correct supplements to fill in any gaps (see September 2001).
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