If your horse is obese, has fatty deposits along the neck or rump, or has experienced intermittent episodes of laminitis, he may very well be suffering from Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), a condition which is unfortunately becoming increasingly common these days.
Your veterinarian may want to do radiographs to look for evidence of rotation in the feet and may also perform blood tests, but if your horse shows Equine Metabolic Syndrome symptoms or has a history of laminitis, that is often enough to make a diagnosis.
EMS affects a horse’s ability to release and utilize insulin and these horses typically have higher than normal insulin levels circulating in the blood. Any horse can develop EMS but “easy keeper” breeds, ponies, and donkeys are at highest risk. EMS is also more likely to develop when a horse is between the ages of 8-18.
So once the diagnosis of EMS has been made, what’s a horse owner to do? Can Equine Metabolic Syndrome be reversed?
These two questions go hand in hand: if horses are managed properly, yes, they can and often do improve, but dietary and management changes will be a crucial part of this process. Here are some tips regarding dietary modifications and weight management for metabolic syndrome in horses:
- Cut out all grains and processed feeds, instead feeding a forage-based diet of late-maturity (low NSC) grass hay along with a comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement or ration balancer. Slow feeders are a great way to ensure that your horse has hay on a near-continual basis (which will help to regulate blood sugar).
- Eliminate or greatly reduce pasture grazing. If your horse can tolerate some grass, it’s best to allow grazing during the early morning hours as this is when sugars are lowest in grass. Grazing muzzles are also a great tool for reducing grass intake.
- Increase your horse’s exercise by turning them out in a dry lot, creating a track system, and/or longeing or riding on a more frequent basis.
- Some horses may need medication to induce weight loss or help manage EMS. Your veterinarian can advise on this.
What’s my horse’s gut health got to do with it?
Another factor appears to come into play with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, and that has to do with the gut microbiome. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the bacteria present in the large intestine of EMS horses are either overgrown or depleted when compared with the bacteria levels of healthy horses.1 Because of this imbalance, adding probiotics, dietary supplements containing beneficial live microorganisms, may be an instrumental part of reversing EMS in your horse.
Although healthy horses can experience disruptions in the gut microbiome on occasion due to stress from competition or travel or sudden changes in hay or feed, the balance is usually naturally restored in a short period of time. Animals undergoing chronic stress from illnesses such as horses with EMS, however, may need additional support.
Remember, when devising a treatment plan for your EMS horse, consider adding probiotics along with the recommended dietary and management changes. This may very well speed up your horse’s road to recovery.
1Elzinga, S. E., Weese, J. S., & Adams, A. A. (2016). Comparison of the Fecal Microbiota in Horses With Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Metabolically Normal Controls Fed a Similar All-Forage Diet. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 44, 9–16.doi:10.1016/j.jevs.2016.05.010