The “Low-Carb Conundrum”: Does My Horse Need a Low-Carb Feed?

The “Low-Carb Conundrum”: Does My Horse Need a Low-Carb Feed?

In the first article of this three-part series, you were introduced to tools to use for evaluating your horse’s body weight, body condition and topline. In the second article, we discussed feeding examples using these evaluation tools to increase or decrease body weight and to increase topline or muscle development for better health and performance. For this last article, discussion will be on carbohydrate composition of horse feeds and what we know of their effects on the horse.

“Low-carb” or “low-carbohydrate” refers to low amounts of dietary starch and sugar when we describe foods that we eat. Humans consume very small amounts of fiber in their diets and fiber digestion is very limited. For equine nutrition it becomes more complicated, as horses consume carbohydrates in the form of grains or concentrate feeds and forages (hay and pasture). Starch and sugar are nonstructural carbohydrates in equine feedstuffs that are primarily digested in the small intestine of the horse, which is like human digestion. Forages contain mainly fibrous carbohydrates that are fermented in the large intestine and are usually the largest portion of the horse’s diet.

Did you miss Part 1? Understand the tools you need to evaluate your horse's weight for his discipline. 

The carbohydrate composition of feedstuffs for horses is defined as nonstructural and structural carbohydrates. Grains, such as oats and corn, contain large amounts of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) and very little fiber or structural carbohydrates. Forages contain mainly structural carbohydrates, which are found in the cell wall or fibrous portion of the plant cell. NSC has different definitions based on the specific fractions of the laboratory analysis of an equine feedstuff. We define NSC as “Dietary Starch” and “Sugars”, these are the terms used when you read the guaranteed analysis listing on a horse feed tag or bag.

So, there is no such thing as a “low-carb diet” for horses, as horses consume large amounts of carbohydrates from grain and especially forage for energy needs and proper digestive function. But we can select low NSC feeds for horses, which can be determined by simply adding the values for “Dietary Starch” and “Sugars” together, if that information is provided for the horse feed or hay is analyzed for those values.

Did you miss part 2 of this series? Check out three feeding examples for three different disciplines.

There are feeding recommendations for horses with metabolic issues including insulin resistance, Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Equine Cushing’s Disease for low levels of NSC in the grain or concentrate and hay to reduce risk of laminitis.  A practical feeding guideline for these metabolic issues is to select a feed with a maximum guaranteed NSC (Dietary Starch + Sugars) of 20% or less and feed no more than 0.5% body weight per meal (e.g. 5 pounds/meal for 1,000-pounds body weight). Also, several equine nutrition studies have shown that horses exhibit less reactive or excitable behavior, and became better behaved over time when fed concentrate feeds with similar NSC values that ProElite Horse Feed guarantee.

The ProElite line of horse feeds is unique in that it has controlled starch and sugar values with guaranteed maximum NSC values of 20% or less for all nine feeds and supplements. Many horse feed manufacturers make claims for low sugar or starch content but don’t have guaranteed maximum NSC values. ProElite Horse Feeds provides guaranteed maximum NSC values due to consistent and comprehensive ingredient analysis of all feed ingredients. This provides assurance that NSC values will remain safe and efficacious for horses with metabolic and behavioral issues. Many horse feed manufacturers provide NSC values based on formulation or laboratory analysis, but don’t provide guarantees on their bag or feed tag. The American Association of Animal Feed Control Officials, which makes feed regulations and laws for all states to follow, recommends that any horse feed making low or controlled sugar and starch claims have guaranteed maximum values for Dietary Starch and Sugars as part of the guaranteed analysis for nutrients. Unfortunately, many companies don’t perform consistent ingredient analysis to provide these guarantees and can’t provide the confidence and assurance that starch and sugar values will remain the same over time.

Please take advantage of this information to select a ProElite Horse Feed to improve your horse’s performance, health and behavior. Go to for more information on ProElite Horse Feeds and contact us if you would like a FREE on-farm consultation.

Feature photo by Tori Repole for 

Want to manage your horse like a professional? Check out Max Corcoran’s Masterclass - Horse Care For All Four Seasons.