What does low carb mean?

“Low-carb” or “low-carbohydrate” refers to dietary starch and sugars when we describe foods we eat.

Humans consume very small amounts of fiber in their diets compared to horses. Fiber is also a carbohydrate and fiber digestion is very limited in humans compared to horses.

For equine nutrition it becomes more complicated, as horses consume carbohydrates in the form of grains or concentrate feeds and forages (hay and pasture).

What should you know about starches and sugars?

Starch and sugars are known as nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) for equine feedstuffs.

NSC are primarily digested in the small intestine of the horse, which is like human digestion.

Forages contain relatively low amounts of NSC compared to cellulose and hemicellulose, which are the main fibrous or structural carbohydrates that make up the plant cell wall.

These fibrous carbohydrates aren’t digested in the small intestine but are fermented in the horse’s large intestine.

Grains, such as oats and corn, contain large amounts of NSC and very little fiber or structural carbohydrates.

Forages contain mainly structural carbohydrates, cellulose and hemicellulose.

NSC has two definitions based on the specific fractions of a laboratory analysis of an equine feedstuff.

We define NSC as “Dietary Starch” and “Sugars”, these are the terms used when you read the guaranteed analysis listing on a horse feed tag or bag.

There’s no such thing as a low carb diet for horses.

That’s because they consume large amounts of carbohydrates from grain and forage.

But we can select low NSC feeds for horses, which can be determined by simply adding the values for “Dietary Starch” and “Sugars” together.

But only if that information is provided as a guarantee for horse feed or hay is analyzed for NSC values.

What are the feeding recommendations for horses with metabolic issues?

For horses with metabolic issues including insulin resistance, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, and Equine Cushing’s Disease, feeding recommendations recommend low levels of NSC in the grain or concentrate and hay to reduce risk of laminitis.

A practical feeding guideline for these metabolic issues is to select a horse feed with a maximum guaranteed NSC (Dietary Starch + Sugars) of 20% or less and feed no more than 0.5% body weight per meal (e.g. 5 pounds/meal for 1,000-pounds body weight).

Several equine nutrition studies have shown that horses exhibit less reactive or excitable behavior and became better behaved over time when fed concentrate feeds with low levels of dietary starch.

Research has shown that low NSC feeds are recommended for horses with gastric ulcers and several types of genetic forms of tying up disease as well.

How is the ProElite® line unique?

It has controlled dietary starch and sugar values with guaranteed maximum NSC values of 20% or less for all eight feeds and supplements.

ProElite Horse Feeds provide guaranteed maximum NSC values due to consistent and comprehensive ingredient analysis of all feed ingredients.

This provides assurance that NSC values will remain safe and efficacious for horses with metabolic and behavioral issues.

Many horse feed manufacturers provide NSC values based on formulation or laboratory analysis, but don’t provide guarantees on their bag or feed tag.

The American Association of Animal Feed Control Officials, which makes feed regulations and laws for all states to follow, recommends that any horse feed making low sugar and starch claims have guaranteed maximum values for Dietary Starch and Sugars as part of the guaranteed analysis for horse feeds.

Unfortunately, many companies don’t perform consistent ingredient analysis to provide these guarantees and can’t provide the confidence and assurance that starch and sugar values will remain the same over time.

Want more expert information?

Contact us at 1-888-247-8066 for more information on ProElite Horse Feeds and contact us if you would like a free on-farm consultation.


By Marty Adams, PhD, PAS – Cargill Technical Services Equine Nutritionist