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AskHQ: Insulin-resistance

Q: I have a question regarding insulin-resistant horses. I know about the condition, but would like further input about management?

A: Management of the insulin-resistant horse or pony requires a multi-faceted approach:

  • Minimising the sugar and starch level in the horse’s total diet (including that in the hay given) is key: the less grain and concentrate that can be fed in the diet, the better. Soaking hay prior to feeding is also a valuable tool, as this can dramatically reduce the sugar content. Ideally an insulin-resistant horse should be fed soaked hay and a mineral and vitamin supplement, with little to no concentrate. This serves to keep sugar levels at a minimum and avoids large peaks in sugar concentration, which can occur after a meal of concentrate. If concentrate is required it must be low in sugar (you need to look at the NSC level specifically) and should be fed in smaller meals, more frequently, rather than one or two big meals a day.
  • Avoiding very green grass is also important. Very green grass contains high levels of sugars. It may be necessary to fit your horse with a grazing muzzle (to reduce intake) or use a paddock with reduced grazing quality. It is not acceptable, however, to reduce turn-out time to cut down grazing, as the horse needs exercise to keep his sugar levels under control.
  • It is also important that a healthy body weight is maintained. Obesity is strongly linked to insulin resistance, so keeping a horse in a healthy body condition score is very important. This can be done through both exercise and nutrition.
  • Optimising nutrient levels and their balance is another management factor. In addition to monitoring the level of carbohydrate, the levels of essential fatty acids and minerals can also affect insulin resistance. Magnesium, zinc, chromium and biotin are just some of the nutrients that can positively affect insulin resistance.
  • Increasing activity and exercise levels forms a critical part of the management strategy for these horses. Increased exercise serves to reduce the blood sugar levels and in turn the insulin levels. Turning horses out for longer periods of time and working them more frequently can have beneficial effects.
  • Proper hoof care is vitally important in the insulin-resistant horse. Laminitis is a real concern for these equines. Regular farriery by an experienced farrier is therefore essential.