Your horse is a grazing animal; he needs access to grass or hay all the time, all day and all night. Left with an empty stomach, the horse may develop ulcers, be prone to colic, experience laminitis or its relapse, and exhibit sensitive, irritable behavior. If you have an overweight horse, the hormonal stress response to forage restriction will actually keep him from losing weight. The solution? In short, provide low starch/low sugar forage and get your horse moving.
Straw is often touted as a low NSC (non-structural carbohydrates) feed source for insulin resistant horses because, while not terribly nutritious, it can “keep them busy” in between hay feedings. After all, straw is just empty calories, right? The answer may surprise you.
What is straw?
Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants such as wheat or oats, but it generally contains no grain kernels (as we often see with oat hay, for example). After the grain is harvested, the stalks are left standing to dry. They are then cut and baled. Typically, straw is used for animal bedding or industrial usages. It is not a worthwhile food source mainly because it is very high in lignin, a fibrous substance that binds nutrients and cannot be digested by the microbial population in the horse’s hindgut. The NDF (neutral detergent fiber) value of straw tends to be high, meaning it is not digestible, and hence, provides few calories. But, before it reaches the horse’s hindgut, the carbohydrates, fats, and protein are extracted and digested inside the small intestine. Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), which include sugars, fructans, and starch, are a concern when feeding the insulin resistant horse. So the questions become: “Is straw low enough in NSC?” and “How does it compare to other commonly fed forages?”
Every forage is unique; its nutritional content will vary depending on the soil, amount of rainfall, exposure to sunlight, and degree of stress. Consequently, testing is the only true way to know what is in your hay, or what is in straw. Some straw will test low enough in sugar and starch to best safe to feed to an insulin resistant horse, but oftentimes this is not the case. Most farms (unless they use it as bedding) do not have enough straw on hand to warrant testing it, so feeding it may not be worth the risk.
Straw may seem like the ideal way to fill in the time between hay feedings for the insulin resistant horse, but it is not likely worth the risk. It can be as high or even higher in sugar/starch as grass hay. And because it is extremely dry and coarse, feeding it increases the risk of the horse developing colic. A better way is to test your grass hay to confirm that it is suitable to feed free-choice, thereby feeding your horse the way his predecessors remained healthy for millions of years. Respect his need to be what he is – a horse.
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is the Contributing Nutrition Editor for the Horse Journal, and is available for private consultations and speaking engagements. Buy Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book Feed Your Horse Like a Horse at Dr. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com , and have it inscribed by the author. Or buy it at Amazon ( www.Amazon.com ), Barnes and Noble ( www.barnesandnoble.com ) or Books A Million ( www.booksamillion.com ). The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered Spotlight on Equine Nutrition series are available at her website, where Dr. Getty offers special package pricing, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty provides a world of useful information for the horseperson at www.gettyequinenutrition.com .