Understanding Your Horse’s Equine Metabolic Syndrome Diagnosis

For many horse owners, it can be confusing and scary when their horse is suddenly diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

Many horse owners also don’t know exactly what this syndrome is.

In this article, you’ll learn what Equine Metabolic Syndrome is, which horses are prone and why, and how it’s treated.

What Exactly is Equine Metabolic Syndrome?

Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) often, but not always, affects overweight horses.

Insulin dysregulation is one of the main problems EMS causes. The disease is similar, although not exactly the same, as the metabolic issues that are found in humans with type 2 diabetes.

In normal horses, insulin is released by the pancreas after a horse eats, signaling to their tissues to take up glucose.

In horses with EMS, glucose is not cleared from the blood in response to normal levels of insulin. The pancreas responds by continuing to release insulin. This results in a concentration of insulin in the blood after eating, and possibly throughout the day.

High levels of circulating insulin are linked to increased risk of laminitis. With laminitis, the tissues that anchor the hoof wall to bone are weak. Then, the tissue becomes damaged by inflammation caused by these abnormal hormones and metabolic issues of EMS.

What Factors can Exacerbate Equine Metabolic Syndrome?

Greater quantities of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) in the diet increase the glucose levels in the blood, which leads to risk of accumulating high insulin levels.

This can often be triggered more easily during times of rapid pasture growth, such as during spring, partly because this type of grass is higher in sugar. 

EMS is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors, like when a horse is overweight or an easy keeper. Additional illnesses, such as untreated PPID can also trigger it in predisposed horses.

While any breed of horse can get EMS, ponies, Warmbloods, Morgans, Arabians and Spanish Mustangs are at higher risk.

High sugar diets and lack of exercise also contribute to both the horse being overweight and the horse’s odds of getting EMS.

When determining the definitive diagnosis for EMS, a blood test to check for insulin and glucose concentration is typically done.

However, if EMS is still in the mild stages, this test may not be able to detect these metabolic abnormalities. A more dynamic test might be done instead to check for insulin resistance.

Treating Equine Metabolic Syndrome

When treating Equine Metabolic Syndrome, the first step is to identify and resolve the main source of the problem: the horse’s weight or other underlying issues like PPID. Long term diet changes will be required, even for horses that fall in the healthy range of body condition scores.

If the horse is overweight, weight loss can be addressed several different ways, such as increasing exercise and making dietary changes.

For a horse with EMS, a change in diet is especially vital. First, it’s important to assess the horse’s calorie intake. If the horse is out on lush pasture grass for long periods of time, a grazing muzzle might help cut the additional calories consumed during turnout. As mentioned above, this might also help with additional sugar from grass. It is a common misperception that grass is only high in sugar during the spring.

If the amount of grain the horse is getting can be cut back without going under the minimum recommended feeding rate, this is a great first step. In addition, it might be time to reevaluate the type of grain your horse is receiving, and if this is the best type for their condition.

If the grain being fed is high in sugar and calories, altering this could help significantly. Horses with EMS will benefit from minimizing non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) intake in their feed.

Products like Kalm ‘N EZ and Seniority Low NSC are low in sugar and starch (NSC), and ideal for horses with metabolic disorders and sensitivities.

Because these “easy keeper” type horses are so efficient at utilizing calories, and require less to maintain their body weight, it might also be a good idea to look into using a ration balancer, such as Essential K or Wholesome Blends Balancer, as an option.

Ration balancers provide the essential nutrients that hay lacks, are low in sugars and starches (NSC), and keep calorie intake low for horses that need to lose weight due to EMS.

Pay attention to the type of hay forage your horse is being fed as well, as the NSC content should be low in forage for horses with EMS.

There are a number of labs that can quickly test your forage to determine the NSC levels. These values should ideally be less than 10% for a horse with EMS. If you are waiting for the results of the forage test, hay can be soaked in water to help lower the amount of NSC’s it contains.  

Getting a feeding plan with an equine nutritionist is a great idea for horses with Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

It’s important to note, equine weight loss should be a gradual change to prevent any health issues that occur with rapid weight loss.

Article By: Sarah Welk Baynum
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