New Study Aims to Provide Targeted Nutritional Recommendations for EMS/ID Horses

Group of horses eating from a feeder containing grain and hay.
Group of horses eating from a feeder containing grain and hay. Smerikal

Newsdate: Wednesday, July 14, 2021 - 11:35 am
Location: LEXINGTON, Kentucky

Obesity is on the rise, not only in humans and companion animals, but also in our beloved horses and ponies. In humans, dogs and cats, we hear the term diabetes mellitus; however, in the horse it is very rare to develop diabetes. Instead, equids of all ages can develop Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS).

Red bucket accenting basic horse nutrition including forage, grain and an apple.

Red bucket accenting basic horse nutrition including forage, grain and an apple

A follow-up study is being done to help to identify whether additional starch or sugar is the main driver for the insulin response and further define the likely NSC threshold range.
© 2020 by Equine Guelph New window.

EMS is composed of three characteristics. First, the consistent feature of EMS animals is that they demonstrate insulin dysregulation (ID), a collective term for both tissue insulin resistance and basal/postprandial hyperinsulinemia.

This means that typically the concentrations of insulin in the blood are higher than what's considered normal either before and/or after eating feeds and forages especially those rich in starch and/or sugar.

Second, there is an increased risk of developing endocrinopathic laminitis, which is laminitis resulting from hormonal (in particular insulin) disturbances rather than in association for example with severe infection (sepsis) or certain intestinal conditions. Finally, most, but not all, EMS animals show increased general or regional adiposity meaning that many are overweight or more typically obese.

The main risk factor for endocrinopathic laminitis is now believed to be insulin dysregulation although the exact link between abnormally high circulating insulin concentrations   and the development of laminitis is not known. However, it does mean that what we feed our horses may directly impact their risk for endocrinopathic laminitis.

Unfortunately, limited work has been undertaken in the EMS/ID horse and our current recommendations were largely derived from horses that suffered from polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a very different condition. Thus, we set out to explore and, help define nutritional recommendations for EMS/ID horses and thereby improve their welfare.

In our recent publication1 in the Equine Veterinary Journal, carried out in collaboration with Pat Harris, MA PhD VetMB DipECVCN MRCVS, head of the Equine Studies group at the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, we fed various feedstuffs to EMS/ID horses as well as healthy horses in two separate studies.

Currently, it is typically recommended  that EMS/ID horses are fed low sugar and starch feeds and forages that contain <10-12% non-structural carbohydrates (NSC i.e. starch and water soluble carbohydrates) on a dry matter basis with an appropriate ration balancer. In our first study, various feeds with different levels of protein and NSC were fed in a cross-over study to both ID and non-ID horses.

The results of this study showed that, even when fed low amounts (~1g/kg BW)  of  certain feeds that did not provoke any insulin response in Non ID horses, exaggerated insulin responses may occur in ID animals confirming the need to undertake work specifically in such individuals.

In addition, the study suggested that non-structural carbohydrates were the main driver behind the post-meal insulin response rather than protein in the ID horse. In our second study we fed diets with a range of NSC contents and showed that under these conditions the threshold for the exaggerated insulin response in ID horses appeared to be between 6-15% NSC on a dry matter basis.

We are currently undertaking a follow-up study, which will hopefully help to identify whether additional starch or sugar is the main driver for the insulin response and further define where the likely NSC threshold range may be when fed such simple diets. 

Erica Macon explained that ‘when combined with other work showing the potential effects of other nutrients on the insulin response, such as oil inclusion, these results should help with the development of rations that decrease the risk of endocrinopathic laminitis’.

As our team is composed of equine enthusiasts, we are dedicated to improving our understanding of this endocrine disorder and the welfare of EMS/ID horses.

This work has been generously funded by Mars Horsecare and The Waltham Petcare Science Institute. Thanks are also owed to Pat Harris, PhD VetMB DipECVCN MRCVS, EBVS® European specialist in veterinary and comparative nutrition and member of European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition, and Amber Krotky MS, PAS and manager of quality and product development at Mars Horsecare US, for their support in completing this project.

Erica L. Macon, MS, is a PhD student in the laboratory of Amanda Adams, PhD, MARS EQUESTRIANTM Fellow and associate professor at the Gluck Equine Research Center.

Macon, E.L., Harris, P., Bailey, S., Barker, V.D. and Adams, A., 2021. Postprandial insulin responses to various feedstuffs differ in insulin dysregulated horses compared to nonā€insulin dysregulated controls. Equine Veterinary Journal online

About the Gluck Center

The mission of the Gluck Center is scientific discovery, education and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of the health and well-being of horses. Gluck Center faculty conduct equine research in seven targeted areas: genetics and genomics, immunology, infectious diseases, musculoskeletal science, parasitology, pharmacology, therapeutics and toxicology and reproductive health. The Gluck Equine Research Center, a UK Ag Equine Program, is part of the Department of Veterinary Science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the 

About MARS EQUESTRIAN™

MARS EQUESTRIAN™ Sponsorship, funded by Mars, Incorporated is the link between our iconic brands and the equestrian community. For generations, Mars has celebrated a rich equestrian heritage, and through purposeful partnerships, MARS EQUESTRIAN is committed to the sport and building an enduring legacy. From world-class competitions across all equestrian disciplines, to stewarding the power of horses on society and sustainability, the MARS EQUESTRIAN Brand is dedicated to our purpose to improve the lives of horses, pets, and the people who love them.

About the Waltham Petcare Science Institute

The Waltham Petcare Science Institute is Mars Petcare's pet research center. Our work focuses on the nutritional and behavioral needs of pets, as well as preventive health. We use this knowledge to support development of innovative products and services, advancing science to deliver our Purpose: A BETTER WORLD FOR PETS™. The WALTHAM™ Equine Studies Group, which is headed by Professor Pat Harris, MA, PhD, VetMB, DipECVCN, MRCVS, is dedicated to advancing the science of horse nutrition and provides the scientific support for  Mars Horsecare globally including the BUCKEYE™ Nutrition, SPILLERS™, and WINERGY™ brands. By collaborating with key research institutes and universities around the world its work remains at the forefront of equine nutritional science.

About the BUCKEYE™ Nutrition Brand

The BUCKEYE™ Nutrition brand combines science, innovation and a genuine passion for horses to produce the highest-quality, safest feed possible. Every product is formulated by equine nutritionists and produced in a state-of-the-art, medication-free facility. The BUCKEYE Nutrition brand takes feed safety seriously, using only 100 percent pure ingredients delivered daily and traced from field to feed bucket. These stringent quality standards are backed by the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, a world-leading authority on animal care. In business since 1910, Mars Horsecare US is passionate about unlocking the full potential of horses, allowing them to live longer, healthier and happier lives.


Press release by Erica Macon

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