Managing equine metabolic syndrome

  • Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a hormonal condition involving obesity, insulin resistance and existing or previous laminitis.

    Inappropriate diet, lack of exercise and the development of obesity in genetically susceptible breeds — most commonly natives — can all lead to EMS.

    Many of the techniques for managing equine metabolic syndrome are the same as those that have been used for decades to help manage horses with laminitis, but the discovery of EMS has helped explain why these techniques are so useful and why some horses get laminitis so easily.

    The link between high insulin levels, due to resistance and subsequent overproduction by the body, and laminitis remains the subject of intense research — in one study, overweight Welsh and Dartmoor ponies with high insulin levels were 10 times more likely to get laminitis than their herd-mates on the same pasture.

    How to prevent equine metabolic syndrome

    Management changes are vital when treating EMS. Good management means feeding according to the work being done and adopting a suitable exercise regime when the horse is sound enough to do so.

    Walking horses with sore feet owing to laminitis is not recommended, but it is important to remember the simple maxim — exercise burns off excess calories. Another benefit is that research has confirmed that regular, steady exercise alters a horse’s hormonal balance by increasing sensitivity to insulin.

    Because fat produces some of the hormones involved in EMS, it is important to stop horses becoming overweight in the first place. Monitoring their weight is, therefore, vital. Care should be taken to give feeds with fewer calories rather than simply reducing the total amount of feed.

    Weigh tapes can be used to monitor weight and are available from most tackshops.

    A more precise way of keeping a tab on weight gain is to use condition scoring, which involves assessing the amount of fat covering different areas of the horse: the neck, shoulders, ribs, rump and tailhead.

    The World Horse Welfare website offers good, practical advice on monitoring weight gain. [See also H&H’s Feed to Win campaign in conjunction with Dodson & Horrell, 30 April and 9 July 2009].

    Managing equine metabolic syndrome in these ways may be enough to return insulin sensitivity to normal, but sometimes medication may be used to make the horse’s body more sensitive.

    Thus far, no large-scale trials have taken place, but studies with the drug metformin, which is commonly used in humans who are in the early stages of diabetes, have shown promising benefits.

    For the full article on equine metabolic syndrome, see the current issue of Horse & Hound (28 January, ’10)

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