Stop Starving Your Horse – Learn More About Your Horse’s Metabolism and How to Manage It

by: Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS

When the veterinarian or farrier tells you that your horse is overweight and perhaps in danger of foundering, the usual recommendation is to starve your horse into weight loss. Not only is this hard on the horse, it’s hard on us caregivers. We hate to see our horses miserable, and our horses hate to be miserable. But even worse is dealing laminitis, both for the horse and the guardian. So, what’s the answer?

The answer lies in understanding your horse’s metabolism and how to alter it, along with what dietary changes are beneficial. Most horses who are overweight are Insulin Resistant (IR), but some just are just eating too much rich food and a simple dietary restriction in the form of a muzzle or less turn out time will be enough.

Simply put, IR is an inability of the body’s insulin system to take the glucose from the blood and get it into the muscle for fuel. There are many more details as to how that happens, but you can read more technical details here. When this occurs, the muscles tell the brain they are hungry, the brain is happy to eat more, but it is not satisfied. So, it’s possible to see a ravenous horse with no energy, who is also overweight. To us, this does not make sense, but it all goes back to the muscle cell that is starving.

When the muscle cell is not getting glucose, starving your horse will not solve the weight issue, and will increase stress. Stress actually increases weight gain, a well-studied effect in humans. However, if your horse is getting too much to eat, it will be difficult to change the metabolism, so some adjustment in food intake might need to happen.

The next choice in conventional treatment is to give the drug Prascend® or pergolide. This is usually done after a blood test that indicates if your horse has high levels of insulin or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) (commonly seen in horses with PPID–previously called Cushing’s). Pergolide is a drug that can have a positive effect by reducing the ACTH levels, and sometimes the insulin levels in the blood, but often it has serious side effects. Since the side effects often come on slowly many people and veterinarians do not recognize them as problematic. Side effects can be headaches (see sidebar), general malaise, poor appetite, weight loss and what many people describe as brain fog or a change in normal personality.

Some horses will feel fine on Prascend, and if that is the case, it may be OK for your horse. However, unless the bloodwork shows extremely high levels, it’s often best to help correct the metabolism and get some weight off the horse before turning to the drugs. The drug tends to get prescribed for any deviation from normal, rather than trying other methods first and saving the drug for a time when the alternatives do not work.

There are many alternative choices that work with the metabolism and the hormonal balance to correct both IR and PPID. This article will concentrate on IR horses. IR is a problem in human medicine also, so the human research can be transferred to horses. Years ago I created the first supplements to assist horse with insulin issues, OB formula and INR formula. The OB formula is designed for the fat or obese horse without a lot of complications. It will help bring the insulin numbers down, reduce the crest and fat pads and generally help with weight loss. The INR is similar but has higher levels of the ingredients and some herbs for detoxification and support for horses with more serious conditions or that are being treated with drugs for laminitis. These formulas help correct the metabolic pathways that allow insulin to work properly. This then allows many horses to have more pasture time, and to eat more hay if the grass is too rich.

Many other formulas have come on the market since, but most incorporate the herb cinnamon. Cinnamon is a useful herb but is very warming. This is fine in the older horses, but can backfire in the younger ones, if they are already internally warm. How do you tell if you horse is warm natured or cold natured? Does she hang out in the sun, or seek shade at every opportunity? Does he want his blanket on at the least bit of cold, or is he ripping it off at every opportunity? The OB and INR formulas are neutral so they can be used on warm or cold natured horses.

Muzzles are not a horse’s favorite thing to wear but have many advantages. The biggest advantage is they reduce grass intake and allow more pasture time, and time with friends, along with the increased movement that pasture time brings. The Harmany Muzzle was designed to make wearing a muzzle less of a torture since it’s light and adjustable.

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