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Managing forage carbohydrate content

Quick facts

  • Forages high in carbohydrates (sugars) can be problematic for horses prone to laminitis and metabolic disease.

  • Forages with 10 to 12 percent or less carbohydrates are thought to be safe for sensitive horses.

  • Cool-season grasses in pasture and hay can be higher in carbohydrates.

  • Soaking hay for short durations can reduce carbohydrate content in hay.

  • A mature alfalfa-grass mix can be ideal for horses with laminitis.

Carbohydrate sensitivity in horses

Horses require carbohydrates in their diet. But some horses are sensitive to the carbohydrate content of hay and pasture forages. This could lead to health problems such as:

  • Laminitis (founder)

  • Equine metabolic syndrome

  • Cushing’s syndrome

  • Some forms of tying-up

Forages high in carbohydrates, whether hay or pasture, can be problematic for horses with these conditions.

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Safe carbohydrate levels

Currently, it’s thought that a safe carbohydrates content for sensitive horses is 10 to 12 percent or less.

Testing your hay is a good starting point for determining its carbohydrate content. Make sure you take a representative sample. Simply looking at a forage sample or species of forage won’t give you a good estimate of carbohydrate content.

If necessary, you can reduce the carbohydrate content of hay by soaking it in water for 15 to 60 minutes. Please see soaking your horse’s hay for more information.

Please see grazing horses prone to laminitis and metabolic disease to learn about grazing horses that are sensitive to carbohydrates.

What carbohydrates are in forage?

Cool-season grasses are common in horse pastures and hay fields in the upper Midwest. Most of these grasses can be higher in carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are in the form of fructans and simple sugars like glucose. 

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Forage carbohydrate content

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Ron Genrick, formerly with Assurance Feeds and Stephanie Valberg, DVM, formerly with the University of Minnesota

Reviewed in 2018

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