Revista Brasileira de Zootecnia
© 2009 Sociedade Brasileira de Zootecnia
ISSN 1516-3598 (impresso)
ISSN 1806-9290 (on-line)
R. Bras. Zootec., v.38, p.270-276, 2009 (supl. especial)
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Carbohydrate metabolism and metabolic disorders in horses
Rhonda M. Hoffman
Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN.
ABSTRACT - Horses evolved consuming primarily fermentable forage carbohydrates, but forage diets have been
traditionally supplemented with grain meals rich in starch and sugar in order to provide additional calories, protein and
micronutrients. Starch and sugar are important for performance horses, but the consumption starch-rich meals may cause
equine digestive and metabolic disorders. The critical capacity for preileal starch digestibility appears to be 0.35 to 0.4% but
may be as little, depending on the source of starch. Small intestinal absorption of simple sugars is limited by the activity and
expression of two classes of glucose carrier proteins, which are affected by chronic intake of hydrolyzable carbohydrate but
may be sluggish to respond to abrupt changes in diet, further exacerbating the risk of overload. The most rapid fermentation
occurs during starch overload or in the presence of fructans. Rapid fermentation perturbs the microbial and pH balance of
the cecum and colon, favoring proliferation of Lactobacillus spp and acid production and increasing the risk of colic and
laminitis. In addition to digestive disturbances, feeding grain concentrates rich in hydrolyzable carbohydrate may increase
the risk of insulin resistance, which has been associated with obesity, laminitis and chronic founder, developmental orthopedic
disease, and Cushing’s disease in horses. This threshold concentration of starch intake may be a starting point for horse owners,
feed manufacturers and veterinarians that may be claimed to be “low” enough to reduce risk in insulin resistant horses sensitive
to grain-associated disorders.
Key Words: carbohydrate metabolism, glucose, horse, insulin resistance
Metabolismo de carboidratos e disfunções metabólicas em equinos
RESUMO - Equinos desenvolvem-se consumindo primordialmente os carboidratos fermentáveis das forragens, porém
as dietas a base de forragens vem sendo suplementadas com dietas a base de grãos, ricas em amido e açúcar, visando fornecer
adicionais calorias, proteínas e micronutrientes. Amido e açucares são importantes para os equinos atletas, porém o consumo
de dietas ricas em amido pode causar problemas digestivos e metabólicos aos equinos. A capacidade critica da digestão pré-ileal
do amido varia entre 0,35 a 0,4%, podendo ser inferior, dependendo da fonte de amido. A absorção de açucares simples, no
intestino delgado, depende da expressão de suas proteínas carreadoras de glicose, as quais são afetadas pela ingestão continua
de carboidratos solúveis, porém podem ser mais vagarosas a responder a mudanças abruptas na dieta prevenindo o risco da
sobrecarga. A fermentação mais rápida ocorre quando amido não digerido no intestino delgado adentra o intestino grosso e
na presença de frutanas. A rápida fermentação perturba o equilíbrio da microbial e do pH de ceco e colon, favorecendo a
proliferação de Lactobacillus spp e produção de ácido lático, aumentando o risco de cólicas e laminite. Adicionalmente aos
distúrbios digestivos, dietas a base de grãos com alta concentração de carboidratos hidrolisáveis, pode aumentar o risco de
resistência a insulina, a qual vem sendo associada com obesidade, laminite, distúrbios crônicos e desenvolvimento de problemas
ortopédicos. O valor mínimo de ingestão de amido pode ser um ponto inicial na dieta de cavalos vencedores, processamento
de alimentos e veterinários que podem estar recomendado a ser baixo o suficiente para reduzir o risco de resistência e insulina
em equinos sensíveis a distúrbios associados a grãos.
Palavras-chave: equinos, glicose, metabolismo de carboidrtatos, resistência a insulina
The horse evolved primarily as a grazing and browsing,
hind-gut fermenting herbivore, with a wide range of forage
carbohydrates—hydrolyzable to fermentable—as its main
source of energy. Pastures provide the main habitat and
nutrition for most horses, and the remaining stall-confined
horses have at least one-half of their nutrition supplied by
conserved pasture. Horse owners supplement a diet of
pasture and hay with grain concentrates in order to meet
energy demands of performance and to provide a carrier for
micronutrients that are marginal or deficient in forages.
Common experience has been supported by epidemiological
and experimental studies that associate grain concentrates
© 2009Sociedade Brasileira de Zootecnia
with several digestive and metabolic disorders, including
colic (Clarke et al., 1990; Hudson et al., 2001), laminitis (Pass
et al., 1998), gastric ulcers (Murray, 1994), developmental
orthopedic disease (Kronfeld et al., 1990; Ralston, 1996),
insulin resistance (Hoffman et al., 2003a; Treiber et al., 2005)
and some forms of exertional rhabdomyolysis (Valentine et
al., 2001). The abundant starch in grain concentrates has
been implicated as the culprit, leading to development and
marketing of “low starch” concentrates for horses.
Corresponding trends in human nutrition towards “low
carb diets” have fed wide consumer support of low starch
feeds for horses, perhaps to excess.
While low starch grain concentrates provide an
alternative energy source that is critical for horses with a
history of digestive and metabolic disorders that are sensitive
to starch, these concentrates are not a “one fits all” solution.
Specifically, exercising horses require some dietary starch
in order to appropriately fuel performance. Horses have an
opportunity for small intestinal metabolism of starch and
simple carbohydrates to glucose, which is more
metabolically efficient than hindgut fermentation of fibers
to volatile fatty acids. Compared to fatty acids, glucose (or
its stored form, glycogen) is aerobically metabolized nearly
twice as fast to generate ATP for muscle contraction. As
speed and exertion increase to the point of anaerobic work,
glycogen is metabolically favored over fatty acids.
Carbohydrates may be hydrolyzed or fermented in
horses, depending on the linkage of their sugar molecules:
carbohydrates with a-1,4 linked molecules are subject to
enzymatic hydrolysis, while b-1,4 linked molecules must be
fermented. Hydrolyzable carbohydrates include hexoses,
disaccharides, some oligosaccharides (e.g. maltotriose)
and starches not resistant to enzymatic hydrolysis.
Fermentable carbohydrates include soluble fibers (e.g. gums,
mucilages, pectins), some oligosaccharides (e.g. fructans,
galactans), starches resistant to enzymatic hydrolysis,
hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignocellulose.
Enzymes secreted in the small intestine specific to
carbohydrate hydrolysis include a-amylase, a-glucosidases
(sucrase, glucoamylase, maltase), and b-galactosidase
(lactase). Relatively little a-amylase is present in equine
saliva, so limited hydrolysis occurs prior to arrival of
carbohydrates in the stomach. In the stomach, gastric acid
hydrolyzes carbohydrates to an extent, independent of
In the small intestine, hydrolysis of carbohydrates is
initiated primarily by pancreatic a-amylase. In the lumenal
phase, a-amylase cleaves a-1,4 linkages but not a-1,6 or
terminal a-1,4 linkages of starch molecules. Amylopectinase
cleaves a-1,6 linkages. The end products of the luminal
phase are disaccharides and oligosaccharides—no free
sugars are yielded. Sucrase, lactase and maltase are
expressed along the length of the equine small intestine at
the brush border mucosal cells (Dyer et al., 2002). Sucrase
activity was higher in the duocenum and jejunum than the
ileum, while maltase activity was similar in duodenum,
jejunum and ileum (Dyer et al., 2002). Functional lactase
was present in all portions of the small intestine of mature
horses, higher in the duodenum and jejunum than the
ileum. Although its activity was lower in mature than
weaned horses, the presence of functional lactase suggests
that mature horses can digest lactose (Dyer et al., 2002).
The action of these disaccharidases at the brush border
mucosal cells completes hydrolysis to yield free sugars,
glucose, galactose and fructose, providing relatively high
Fermentation occurs predominantly in the hind gut of
horses but may occur in any area of the digestive tract
where microorganism populations are sufficiently
established as a result of favorable conditions, such as
adequate retention time and pH greater than 5 (Van Soest,
1994). The presence of viable anaerobic bacteria as well as
acetate, propionate, butyrate and lactate suggests that
limited fermentation occurs in the equine stomach,
particularly in the fundic region and favors lactic acid
(Argenzio et al., 1974; Kern et al., 1974). The brief retention
time in the stomach and the dorsal to ventral pH gradient of
the gastric mucosa likely supports only nominal fermentation
(Murray & Grodinsky, 1989). Some fermentation occurs in
the small intestine of horses (Zentek et al., 1992; Moore-
Colyer et al., 2002), but it is not well known if small intestinal
fermentation occurs independent of large bowel
fermentation or is merely due to reflux of large bowel
contents. Fermentative gases in breath exhalation indicate
that microbial fermentation in the stomach and small intestine
partially degrades starch and fructans, but not pectin and
cellulose (Coenen et al., 2006).
Carbohydrates fermented by intestinal microflora yield
volatile fatty acids, mainly acetate, propionate, butyrate,
and to a lesser extent, lactate and valerate. The relative
proportions of volatile fatty acids produced are dependent
on substrates, i.e. the proportions of dietary forage and
Carbohydrate metabolism and metabolic disorders in horses272
© 2009 Sociedade Brasileira de Zootecnia
concentrate (Longland et al., 1997; de Fombelle et al., 2001;
Hoffman et al., 2001). Increasing proportions of grain
favored production of propionate and lactate at the expense
of acetate (Hintz et al., 1971; Willard et al., 1977; de Fombelle
et al., 2001). Feeding higher percentages of grain depressed
the efficiency of fiber utilization by altering the microbial
ecosystem in the equine cecum and colon (de Fombelle et
al., 2001). Rapid fermentation favors proliferation of
Lactobacilli spp and production of lactate, which is poorly
absorbed (Argenzio et al., 1974; Garner et al., 1978).
Two classes of glucose carrier proteins have been
identified in mammalian cells (Shirazi-Beechey, 1995): the
high affinity, low capacity, Na
/glucose cotransporter type
I (SGLT1) and facilitative glucose transporters (GLUT). The
SGLT1 is present on the intestinal lumenal membrane and
in kidney proximal tubule absorptive epiethelial cells. It
transports primarily D-glucose and D-galactose across the
brush border membrane against the concentration gradient
by active transport of Na
and the Na
et al., 2002). The sugars accumulate within the enterocytes
and are transported down gradient into systemic circulation
via GLUT (Joost & Thorens, 2001). The major site of
glucose absorption in horses is the proximal small intestine,
with glucose transport highest in the duodenum, followed
by jejunum and ileum (Dyer et al., 2002).
The lag time between an abrupt change in dietary
hydrolyzable carbohydrate and the appearance of enhanced
SGLT1 was 12 to 24 h in mice (Ferraris and Diamond, 1993).
Equine SGLT1 has 85% homology with mouse SGLT1 and
92% similarity at the amino acid level (Dyer et al., 2002). In
mice, dietary regulation of glucose transport involves
increased transcription of SGLT1, mainly in crypt cells
(Ferraris and Diamond, 1993). Comparatively in horses,
expression of SGLT1 is regulated at the level of mRNA
abundance (Dyer et al., 2002). The differences in length and
function of horse and mouse digestive tracts may play a role
in appearance of SGLT1 after changes in dietary
hydrolyzable carbohydrate, so direct comparisons should
be considered with caution. If a similar lag time for SGLT1
exists in horse, then in the event of an abrupt change in diet,
sugar transport would be inadequate, thus exacerbating
hydrolyzable carbohydrate overload to the hind gut.
Metabolic disorders in horses associated with
Sugars and starches are hydrolyzed in the equine small
intestine up to the point at which the enzymatic capacity
becomes overloaded, and the excess is rapidly fermented in
the hind gut. The critical capacity for starch overload
appears to be in the range of 0.35 to 0.4% of body weight per
feeding (Potter et al., 1992), but may be as little as 0.2%,
depending on the source of starch (Radicke et al., 1991;
Kienzle et al., 1992). Prececal digestion of corn starch
increased from an intake of 0.1% to peak at approximately
0.35% of body weight, then decreased at starch intakes
above 0.4% of body weight (Potter et al., 1992). Similarly,
the presence of ileal starch remained at a plateau from
intakes of 0.1% to approximately 0.25% of body weight
then increased exponentially at intakes above 0.25% of
body weight. Compared to oat starch, feeding corn starch
resulted in lower cecal pH at all levels of starch intake (from
0.1% to 0.4%), and differences in cecal pH between the
starch sources increased in proportion to starch intake
(Radicke et al., 1991). Accumulation of lactic acid may
overpower the buffering mechanism of the hind gut and
lower pH, normally at 6.4 to 6.7 in grazing horses. A cecal
pH of 6 was considered to represent sub-clinical acidosis
(Radicke et al., 1991). A pH less than 6 favors production
of lactic acid (Garner et al., 1978; Van Soest, 1994) and was
associated with clinical conditions such as osmotic
diarrhea, overgrowth of undesired bacterial populations
and lysis of desired bacterial populations, thus increasing
the risk of endotoxemia and laminitis (Sprouse et al., 1987;
Bailey et al., 2002).
Aside from the rapid fermentation of excess
hydrolyzable carbohydrates, other rapidly fermentable
carbohydrates include resistant starches and
oligosaccharides, especially fructans, which may comprise
5 to 50% of the dry matter in cool season grasses (Longland
et al., 1999; Cuddeford, 2001). The b-2,6 glycocidic bonds
in fructans are not hydrolyzed in mammalian small intestine
but may be partially degraded by small intestinal microbes
(Coenen et al., 2006). Fructans were used to initiate equine
carbohydrate overload and laminitis (Pollitt et al., 2003; van
Eps and Pollitt, 2006) and produced a more rapid fall in cecal
pH than an equal amount of corn starch (Bailey et al., 2002).
Insulin resistance has been generally defined as a
abnormal metabolic state when normal concentrations of
circulating insulin fail to elicit a normal physiologic response
in target tissues (Kahn, 1978). More specifically, cells in
muscle, adipose tissue and liver that become insulin resistant
require larger concentrations of circulating insulin to
stimulate glucose uptake. In humans, insulin resistance is
© 2009Sociedade Brasileira de Zootecnia
fundamental in the pathology of type II diabetes and is a
risk factor in obesity (Frayn, 2001), cardiovascular disease
and hypertension (Reaven, 1988), polycystic ovaries
(Legro et al., 1998; Legro, 2002), pregnancy loss (Craig et
al., 2002) and colorectal cancer (Kim, 1998; Sturmer et al.,
Diets rich in simple sugars have been associated with
insulin resistance in several animal and human studies
(Storlien et al., 2000; Bessesen, 2001), and the common
practice feeding starch-rich cereal grains with high glycemic
indices may promote insulin resistance in horses (Hoffman
et al., 2003a; Treiber et al., 2005). Insulin resistance has been
observed in obese (Hoffman et al., 2003a, Frank et al., 2006)
and sedentary (Powell et al., 2002) horses. Similar to
humans, mares became insulin resistant during late
pregnancy and recovered to normal sensitivity during early
lactation (Hoffman et al., 2003b; George et al., 2007). Insulin
resistance may be a risk factor in horses with hyperlipaemia
(Jeffcott & Field, 1985; Jeffcott et al., 1986), osteochondrosis
(Ralston, 1996), Cushing’s disease (Garcia & Beech, 1986;
Johnson, 2003), colic (Hudson et al., 2001), and laminitis
(Pass et al., 1998; Treiber et al., 2006; Hoffman et al., 2007),
especially chronic grass founder (Hoffman et al., 2007).
Dietary therapy alone may not be sufficient to reverse
insulin resistance (Hoffman et al., 2003; Frank et al., 2005).
Exercise is beneficial, as both obese and lean mares had
improved insulin sensitivity after seven days of moderate
exercise training (Powell et al., 2002).
Carbohydrates in horse forages and feeds
During photosynthesis, green plants produce
glucose and other simple sugars, with oxygen as a
by-product, from water and atmospheric carbon dioxide
in the presence of light:
+ 12 H
O + light energy
+ 6 O
+ 6 H
When the production of sugars exceeds the energy
requirements of the plant, they are converted to storage
carbohydrates, most commonly starch or fructans. Cool
season pasture grasses accumulate fructans, while warm
season grasses and legumes accumulate starch. The
accumulation of storage carbohydrates in plants is affected
by temperature, light intensity and plant growth rate
(Longland et al., 1999; Hoffman et al., 2001). While plants
that accumulate starch are limited to maximum storage when
their chloroplasts are saturated, plants that accumulate
fructans have no self-limiting mechanism, so high
concentrations may accumulate.
Abrupt changes in fructan concentrations were
observed from day to day in rapidly growing pastures and
diurnally as plant composition changed from night to day
or from shade to sunlight (Longland et al., 1999; Longland
& Byrd, 2006; McIntosh et al., 2007). Fructan
concentrations usually rose during the morning, peaked in
the afternoon, and declined to a low overnight until the
early morning hours. Horses grazing in the afternoon, as
compared to morning, may ingest between two to four
times as much fructans (Longland et al., 1999).
An association between an abrupt increase in pasture
plant fructans and the incidence of laminitis has been
suggested. Laminitis has been clinically induced with
3.75 kg of fructan (Pollit et al., 2003; van Eps & Pollit, 2006),
thus establishing a link between pasture fructans and
laminitis. Considering pasture intake and cool season pasture
fructan concetrations, a horse grazing in the summer
potentially could ingest 5 kg or more of fructans per day
(Longland et al., 1999; Longland & Byrd, 2006). Although
the amount of fructans ingested while grazing can be as
much as that used to clinically induce laminitis, it is relevant
to consider that the gradual dose encountered over time
during grazing likely has a far different impact than the
entire dose in a single bolus during clinical induction of
laminitis. Circadian and seasonal patterns in plasma glucose
and insulin in grazing horses have been noted, however,
to correspond with changes in pasture forage sugars,
starches and fructan content (McIntosh et al., 2007a,b).
These changes during periods of pasture growth may
increase the risk of laminitis by exa cerbating insulin
resistance in affected horses.
The glycemic index is a reflection of plasma glucose and
insulin responses to a meal, an in vivo estimate, rather than
a chemical analysis of the hydrolyzable carbohydrates in a
feed. The glycemic index provides information about the
food but not necessarily the animal. It has been applied
primarily in human nutrition for diabetics in order to formulate
diets with a low glycemic impact, with glycemic index
calculated as a percentage of the response to a standardized
reference: an oral glucose dose or white bread (Jenkins et
al., 1981; Englyst et al., 1996; Wolever and Mehling, 2002).
In horse nutrition, meal-related responses of blood glucose
and insulin to different diets have been quantified in several
reports (Stull & Rodiek, 1988; Rodiek et al., 1991; Pagan et
al., 1999; Williams et al., 2001). Most studies compared
ingestion of different feeds as either equal-weight or
isocaloric meals and did not calculate glycemic index as a
Carbohydrate metabolism and metabolic disorders in horses274
© 2009 Sociedade Brasileira de Zootecnia
percentage of a standardized reference. More recently,
glycemic indices were quantified in a series of studies by
Rodiek (2003) and reported using whole oats as a
standardized reference feed, with the calculated area under
the curve for oats set to a standard value of 100. The range
of feeds tested and their glycemic indices included beet
pulp, 1, alfalfa hay, 26, timothy hay, 32, carrots, 51, oats, 100,
barley, 101, and corn, 117 (Rodiek, 2003). Several factors
may affect glycemic response including meal size, amount
of hydrolyzable carbohydrates in the meals, fiber and fat
content of the feed, processing, intake time, gastric emptying,
digestibility and rate of absorption (Pagan et al., 1999;
Hoekstra et al., 1999).
In human nutrition, the glycemic index provides a
physiological classification of foods useful in developing
nutritional programs for patients with insulin resistance or
non-insulin dependent diabetes. Similarly, glycemic indices
of horse feeds may be useful in developing nutritional
programs for horses with metabolic problems associated
with carbohydrate intake. There is currently a trend in the
horse feed industry to manufacture low or controlled starch
feeds, with claims of reducing the risk of grain-associated
metabolic disorders; however, lack of reports elucidating
the effect of various starch intakes on blood glucose
response leave questions regarding exact concentrations
of dietary starch for horses that may be considered “low.”
A study in this laboratory examined glucose responses in
equal-weight meals that provided intakes of nonstructural
carbohydrate ranging from 0.6 to 2.0 g/kg bodyweight
(Hoffman et al., in press). The magnitude of each glucose
response was calculated as the incremental area under the
curve (AUC) by graphical approximation. The threshold of
glycemic sensitivity, i.e. the inflection point, or knot, after
which higher nonstructural carbohydrate intakes produced
less of a slope in AUC changes, was determined using
nonstructural carbohydrate intake as the independent
variable and blood glucose AUC as the dependent variable.
The results indicated that glucose AUC data have a positive
slope (37.9, r
= 0.76) at low nonstructural carbohydrate
intakes, and become more flat (slope = 4.3, r
= 0.31) at
higher nonstructural carbohydrate intakes. Thus, dietary
changes in intake at lower nonstructural carbohydrate
concentrations have a greater influence on blood glucose
response compared to dietary changes at higher NSC intakes.
The segmented regression indicated an inflection point at
nonstructural carbohydrate intake equal to 0.3 g/kg BW
(Hoffman et al., in press). These data provide a concentration
of nonstructural carbohydrate intake for horse owners,
feed manufacturers and veterinarians that may be low
enough to be below a threshold at which a glycemic impact
may be noted, and perhaps low enough to thus reduce risk
in horses sensitive to grain-associated disorders.
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