Why your horse needs starch – but not too much

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stock-tongue-feed_6033There has been a big campaign by lots of feed companies and people against starch in the past decade and I’m not convinced the rationale is correct, let alone the science.

I’ve recently seen some very misleading statements about starch and energy from feed and supplement companies. These statements are aimed at “scaring” horse owners away from starch and selling low-starch “safer” products.

Starch is high in cereals such as oats, barley, wheat, maize, rice and low in forages (most) and zero in linseed, soyabean and sunflower seeds. It may be a surprise that it is also zero in molasses!

barley1And yes, feeding a lot of starch is not good or necessary for a horse at maintenance or in light work. For horses in moderate to hard work, it is not good to feed starch in a few, large meals. It is not good to feed starch on an empty stomach; you should always try to feed after forage. This is because forage slows the passage of starch-based feeds along the small intestine and reduces the chance of undigested starch reaching the large intestine where fermentation can lead to increased acidity and hindgut disturbance, possibly even leading to colic and or laminitis.

Also, please note I said “a lot” of starch. I’m referring to the amount. It is not the concentration of starch (grams of starch per kg of feed) that is the issue but the absolute amount (grams) fed per day.

As an example, if you have a feed that is 40% starch (40g per 100g of feed), for example oats, and feed 100g in total of that feed you are feeding your horse 40/100*100 = 40g of starch. If you feed something else which is 2.5% starch but feed 10kg, for example grass hay, then you are feeding 2.5/100*10000 = 250g of starch. Very obvious, I’m sure but often misunderstood or forgotten!

Horses store energy in two ways. Either as fat or as carbohydrate (sugar units chemically joined together). Sugar units linked together in plants is called starch and sugar units linked together in animals (including horses) is called glycogen.

Around 90% of glycogen is stored in the muscles and 10% in the liver. Around 10% of fat is stored in the muscles and 90% in other sites around the body.

Horses rely on glycogen as their main energy source for all types of exercise, whether that is jumping, dressage or running short and fast (eg, racehorses) or longer and slower (eg, endurance horses). Performance in all these sports is dependent on muscle glycogen.

We have many different pieces of evidence that indicate that horses in moderate to hard work require starch to maximise muscle glycogen stores and for optimal performance. For example, ask any racehorse trainer if he can train racehorses on a high fibre and high fat, low starch diet. Those that have tried it soon revert to the evil starch!

Whilst a high forage low starch diet alters their metabolic response to exercise it also results in lower muscle glycogen stores before exercise.

Swedish study, published in 2012, showed that feeding a low starch and high fibre diet altered the metabolic response to exercise and may have some health benefits (compared with a traditional high starch diet) but the downside was a lower muscle glycogen level before exercise. Everything we know points to a relationship between muscle glycogen and performance – low muscle glycogen, low performance and vice versa.

And study by Joe Pagan presented around a year ago demonstrated that horses on a low starch diet have low muscle glycogen.

So starch in the diet may carry risks, but eliminating it totally for horses in more than light work may also carry a risk … of reduced performance. And this effect would be highest in the sports that use most glycogen: short explosive and fast sport such as racing, eventing, showjumping, carriage driving and longer duration sports such as endurance.

» Feeding endurance horses: Oil, fibre, and the carbo connection

» More on Horsetalk.co.nz by David Marlin

Visit David Marlin’s website for more on equine nutrition and supplements

David Marlin

Dr Marlin has worked with the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) and IOC (International Olympic Committee) and as a consultant to the British Equestrian Teams since 1994 and has been a member of the World Class Performance Scientific Advisory Group. » Read David's profile

One thought on “Why your horse needs starch – but not too much

  • November 6, 2018 at 4:07 am

    I found this article to be refreshing. My 14 year old Arabian mare who tipically does just dressage did a full season of endurance last year. She lost quite a bit of weight even though her diet consisted of a lot of fat. We have been using Timothy hay and or teff hay as her foliage. Of course she is supplemented with E, probiotics, stabilized rice bran, salt and a small amount of a complete feed and a high end vitamin. But my gut feeling has been that her carb intake is too low as her energy level seems to be less, even though I gave her six weeks off at the end of the season and now am back focusing only on dressage workouts. I have toyed with buying a sack of crimped oats just to see what would happen but wasn’t sure how much to start with.


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