It is commonly believed among horse owners today, that horses suffering from laminitis should be put onto a starvation diet for forced weight loss.
Starvation is not the answer. It never will be. Alternatively (and I know this statement will be controversial), you should be providing free access to forage. More than the horse can actually consume.
I realize that sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me as I explain...
A diet low in sugar and starch is essential, but the horse should still be in a position to behave instinctively and eat with regularity. In fact, reducing availability to food is part of the source of laminitis.
Horses have evolved to eat continuously throughout the day, in small quantities, moving as they chew. Today,we keep them confined to small areas and in many cases restrict their food consumption to 2-3 hefty meals a day with nothing in between. The fatter they get, the less food we provide.
We know that the primary cause of laminitis is raised insulin levels and that insulin levels increase as a result of consuming simple sugars. Insulin levels are also increased by other factors, namely stress (in the form of travel, intense exercise, mental or physical discomfort, pain, and most importantly having an empty stomach). When an animal (or a human) experiences stress, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline. This in turn triggers the need for energy and releases glucose stored in the liver and the muscle into the bloodstream, which in turn results in insulin secretion. Stress = insulin = increased risk of laminitis.
Let’s not forget that having an empty stomach is a stress situation for a horse. The more they’re starved, the more they release stress hormones and the more insulin continues to be secreted as a result.
Insulin resistance is actually a survival mechanism employed by the body to avoid starvation. When insulin levels in the body are high, the cells of the body cannot release fat to be used up and burnt away. By restricting forage, we manufacture a survival response in the horse. Again, leading to more stress, reduced muscle and a slower metabolism. It very quickly becomes an incredibly vicious cycle that seems nearly impossible to break. But it can in fact be broken.
The research and experiences of equine nutritionist Juliet Getty (PhD) has demonstrated the complex workings of laminitis and other equine health conditions related to insulin levels, such as equine metabolic syndrome and cushings. Her teachings and philosophy are leading the way for this approach.
There is an incredibly simple way to mange an equine with laminitis (or any other metabolic condition) and return their metabolism to a healthy state, allowing them a lifetime of well-being and normal nutrition and eating routines. The answer is in free-choice forage.
Because they are foragers, horses need to be grazing for much of the day. When they stop eating for even a short period of time (15 minutes or so), the stress response starts to ramp up. Excessive acid production begins to cause pain to the unlined segment of the stomach and the cecum struggles to remain active and empty normally.
By providing ad-lib forage (and by that I mean enough that they never have to go without food, for even a few moments – when you return from one day to the next, there should be hay left over), the horse can begin to eat instinctively again. The ability to recognize feeling satisfied will be instilled once again. Many owners find this a challenge to put into place and be consistent with. The adjustment can take anywhere between 1 week and 2 months depending on how damaged the metabolism is. Initially, you will likely see the horse gain some weight, as its instinct is to eat as it has been – to get enough in as quickly as possible because it could be hours or even a day before they next get the chance to eat.
As they come to realize that every time they feel the desire to chew, roughage is available for them to do so, and that they can keep food flowing through their digestive tract continuously, they will consume less and the weight loss process will begin. The horse will self-regulate its intake and the metabolism will adjust to a healthy state that allows the animal to burn fat and reduce the amount of insulin being secreted.
Exercise also plays a crucial role in managing weight loss. Any amount of exercise is good. The more the better. Finding a way to get and keep your horse moving is essential to ensuring that repeated episodes of laminitis are avoided.
Again, it’s also important that sugar and starch levels are low. The best way to know the sugar and starch levels of your roughage, is to have it tested. The simple sugars and starch should come to less than 12% when added together. The digestible energy (DE) of the roughage shouldn’t exceed 1.94 Mcal/kg.
Once the acute situation of obesity, insulin resistance and laminitis has passed, it may be worth providing access to a vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure the horse is getting its daily needs although it is crucial that it doesn’t contain added sugars. A salt and mineral lick should be sufficient in the early days of the free-choice forage approach.
The most important thing to remember is that starvation is not the answer, and that when feeding your laminitic horse, simplicity is key.