Laminitis (EMS) - diet















There are lots of old wives tales about feeding laminitic ponies:


As long as I feed old hay I can feed a normal amount, as it is low quality hay – true or false? FALSE!!

People say that leaving hay in a shed for a year renders it ‘safe’ for horses with laminitis. It is true that hay loses vitamins A and E after a year in storage. Perhaps this can be construed as ‘loss of nutrients’ if using very general terms, but depletion of vitamins will not prevent laminitis or obesity, which is caused by excess sugar and calories. Forage researchers have shown that when hay moisture is below about 40%, the enzymes that control respiration stop, so sugar can’t be lost through respiratory mechanisms. If hay is kept dry, sugar can’t leach out. Carbohydrate loss may also occur when mould feeds on the hay. Again, horse owners know better than to buy hay that is mouldy, because horses cannot tolerate mouldy hay like cows can. Hay baled at 12-15 % moisture, which should be the target for good quality horse hay, will not heat up, should not mould if stored properly and therefore will not change in quality from the time it is baled for several years if stored in a dry barn or shed in an arid environment.


I have to restrict amount (bulk) that my pony eats – true or false? FALSE!!

Reduce calories not bulk; all horses should eat a minimum of 2.5% of their bodyweight as food, (includes hay, chaff, and bucket feed, i.e. ANYTHING he consumes!). Restricting intake to less, means your horse is at greater risk of developing stereotypic behaviour, chewing wood, gastric ulcers, some types of colic, and dental problems. Soak hay for 12hrs or feed oat or barley straw. Soaking (at least 12 hours) removes most of the nutrition especially the calories, making it the horse equivalent of celery. You can then feed ‘adlib’ satisfying the horse’s need for trickle feeding. 


I can feed my pony/horse normal rations as long as I feed one of the feed “suitable for laminitis” – true or false? FALSE!

When deciding what feed is suitable for the laminitic pony it is very important to first find out the reason for the laminitis (e.g. Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Cushing syndrome, etc.) and then take into account the weight and the body condition score of the horse and the amount of exercise it is doing daily. Horses in good body condition (score 2.5 or 3) that are in full work can be fed one of the many products on the market labelled “suitable for laminitis” and the energy intake should be equal to the energy spent daily. 

However, the same “suitable” food (even in smaller portions) would be completely inappropriate for a pony with body score of 4 or 5, that has been diagnosed with Equine Metabolic syndrome. Dietary management of such a pony will require reduction of total caloric intake as well as the non-structural carbohydrate intake. 



This table compares some of the feeds suitable for laminitic horses that are currently available on the market. The recommended amount is calculated for a 500kg horse, which enable us to compare different brands (they are in order from the least caloric to the most caloric). The maintanance requirement for 500kg horse is 69 MJ per day. It is recommended that NSC (%) must not exceed 40% of the dry matter of the feed to be suitable for laminitic prone horses (NSC is used as an estimate for the hydrolysable and rapidly fermentable carbohydrate feed fractions). Recommended feeding rate per meal should not allow NSC intake exceed 0.25% of bodyweight. 


  Energy MJ/Kg NSC % Starch % Protein % Oils/Fats % Fibre %  

Daily amount recommended for 500kg horse

=MJ per day

(for 500 kg horse)

Balancers & Vitamins
DailyVits&Mins(1) 6.0 4.5 1.5 11.0 2.5 13.5   0.05 kg 0.30
Lite Balancer (2) 10.0 - 9.0 15.0 4.8 17.0   0.5 kg 5.00
Ultimate Balancer (1) 11.5 - - 25.0 6.0 5.0   0.5 kg 5.75
Feed & Mix
Safe & Sound (1) 8.5 5.0 ? 8.0 4.0 23.0   1.5 kg 12.75
Shape Up (3) 9.0     9.5 2.8 16.0   1.5 kg 13.50
Fibergy (1) 9.5 ? ? 8.0 7.5 35.0   1.5 kg 14.25
Hi-Fi Lite (4) 7.5 7.0 1.5 10.0 1.5 35.0   2.0 kg 15.00
Alfalfa (1) 10.0 ? ? 15.0 2.5 30.0   1.5 kg 15.00
Fiber-beet (5) 11.0 5.0 ? 10.0 3.0 22.0   1.5 kg 16.50
Speedi-beet (5) 12.0 5.0 ? 9.0 0.7 16.0   1.5 kg 18.60
Healthy Hooves Molasses free (4) 8.5 2.5 1.5 9.0 5.0 27.0   2.5 kg 21.25
Healthy Hooves  (4) 8.5 5.0 1.5 9.0 2.5 27.0   2.5 kg 21.25
Hi-Fi Molasses free (4) 8.5 2.5 1.5 10.0 6.5 35   2.5 kg 21.25
High Fibre Cubes (2) 8.4 ? 10.0 10.0 2.75 20.0   3.0 kg 25.20
Alfa-A Molasses free (4) 11.5 4.5 2.0 14.0 8.5 27.0   2.25 25.87
Happy Hoof (2) 8.8 ? 4.0 8.0 4.0 25.0   3.0 kg 30.00
Pasture Mix / Cubes (1) 10.0 ? ? 9.5 4.0 15.0   3.0 kg 30.00
Low quality pasture* 8.0             12.5 kg 100.00
Average hay* 8.7     9.5   30.0   12.5 kg 108.75
High quality pasture* 12.5             12.5 kg 156.25


Dodson & Horrell (

Spillers (

Saracen horse feeds (

Dengie horse feeds (

British horse feeds (


* Forage analysis of your hay/grass is of utmost importance when you preparing your horse's weight loss plan. 



So what should I feed?

First establish the body score of your horse and the amount of work he is currently doing:


1 (Poor)

Neck - "ewe" neck, narrow and slack at base. Back and ribs - ribs easily visible, skin sunken either side of backbone. Spinous processes well defined. Pelvis - rump sunken but skin supple, plevis and croup well defined, cavity under tail.

2 (Moderate)

Neck - narrow but firm. Back and ribs - ribs just visible, backbone well covered. Spinous processes felt. Pelvis - rump flat either side of backbone, croup well defined, some fat, slight cavity under tail. 

3 (Good)

Neck - no crest (except stallions), firm neck. Back and ribs - ribs just covered, easily felt. No gutter along back. Spinous processes felt. Pelvis - covered by fat and rounded, no gutter, pelvis easily felt. 

4 (Fat)

Neck - slight crest, wide and firm. Back and ribs - ribs well covered. Gutter along back bone. Pelvis - gutter to root of tail. Pelvis covered but soft fat, felt only with firm pressure. 

5 (Very fat)

Neck - marked crest, very wide and firm, folds of fat. Back and ribs - ribs buried, impossible to feel. Deep gutter, back broad and flat. Pelvis - deep gutter to root of tail, skin distended, pelvis buried, impossible to feel.


Convalescence Most of the day in a bare paddock
Light work Maximum of 1 hour per day hacking, mostly at walk with some cantering, or 30 minutes of schooling or lunging, mostly at the trot with some canter.
Medium work Schooling, dressage, show-jumping, novice or intermediate 1 day eventing or hunting 1 day per week.
Hard work Advanced one day events, 3 day events, hunting 2 days per week, polo and all forms of racing. 



Following examples of feeding are using Dodson & Horrell range, but please see the table above for comparison with other manufactures (use the similar energy and fibre content):


Overweight pony/horse:

  1. horse/pony in early stages of laminitis (box rest; no exercise) and body score 4 or 5
    • Soaked hay (at least 12 hours) – 1.5% of bodyweight (e.g. 7.5 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Daily Vits & Mins (mixed in small handful of Safe & Sound)
  2. horse/pony in light work and body score 4 or 5
    • Soaked hay (at least 12 hours) – 2% of bodyweight (e.g. 10 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Ultimate Balancer (e.g. 0.5 kg / 500 kg horse)
  3. horse/pony in hard work and body score 4 or 5
    • Fibergy or soaked hay - 2% of bodyweight (e.g. 10 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Safe & Sound (e.g. 1.5 kg for 500 kg horse) 

Moderate or good body condition horse/pony:

  1. horse/pony with minimal amount of exercise (convalescence) and body score 2 or 3
    • Soaked hay (6 - 12 hours) – 2.5% of bodyweight (e.g. 12.5 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Ultimate Balancer (e.g. 0.5 kg / 500 kg horse)
  2. horse/pony in light work and body score 2 or 3
    • Soaked hay (at least 12 hours) – 2.5% of bodyweight (e.g. 12.5 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Safe & Sound (e.g. 1.5 kg for 500 kg horse) 
  3. horse/pony in hard work and body score 2 or 3
    • Fibergy or soaked hay – 2.5% of bodyweight (e.g. 12.5 kg for 500 kg horse)
    • Safe & Sound (e.g. 1.5 kg for 500 kg horse), Leisure mix (e.g. 1.5 kg for 500 kg horse) or Pasture mix (up to 3.0 kg for 500 kg horse)



Top tips to remember:


  1. Maintain dry matter intake at 2.5% bodyweight to minimise the risks of colic, stereotypes and gastric ulcers
  2. Reduce calories by soaking hay for 12 hours or feeding oat straw
  3. Ensure optimum nutrition by balancing vitamins, minerals and protein (e.g. by adding Vits & Mins or Ultimate Balancer)
  4. Remember that grass intake is the biggest supplier of calories for your horse! Research shows that some horses eat 5% of their bodyweight in grass and can gain 4% in weight per week. A 250 kg pony can consume 10kg dry matter grass (50 kg fresh weight or 104 heaped scoops!!!) per day!
  5. The number of calories (MJ of digestible energy) he eats needs to be less than the number of calories he uses. 
  6. Most horses resting, retired or in light work will consume excess calories just from grazing. Ignore the traditional advice of 1 horse/acre and overgraze the paddock with a minimum of 3-4 horses/acre, (make sure you pick up droppings and pull ragwort).You will be surprised just how little grass cover is needed to maintain weight on your horse.  Horses and ponies don’t get fat on ‘fresh air’; they get fat on grass. 
  7. Rather than strip graze, put an electric fence in a ‘U’ shape around the field so that the water is at the opposite end to the gate. This will increase the amount of exercise your horse has to do and therefore he will use more calories.
  8. Weight loss must be slow and does not require you to ‘starve’ your horse. Rapid weight loss or restriction of food will lead to hyperlipaemia (high blood fat)  or a reduced metabolism making subsequent weight loss more difficult. If your horse is obese, (20% over his optimum weight, then it will take at least a year to shift the weight)
  9. It might be tedious but weigh any food you are giving including hay the first time you use the products. If the advice is to feed 500g a day of a balancer then find a yogurt pot or similar that holds 250g EXACTLY. This means that you will not be tempted to sneak the ¼ scoop up to ½ scoop!!
  10. Take a photo on a monthly basis; you don’t notice weight changes when you see your horse every day. Weigh using a scientifically validated weight tape fortnightly at the same time of day and fat score at the same time. Keep a diary of the changes.
  11. Consider a muzzle. Horses standing in a stable use considerably less calories compared to those out moving around.
  12. Remember that steady but active walking burns up more fat than trotting or canter work. Ensure that your horse gets at least ½ hr per day of brisk walk. Exercise is also protective against insulin resistance for both horses and humans.
  13. Leave that rug off. Horses use 80% of their feed energy to keep warm. Insulate them with a rug and the extra calories will go on their back as fat
  14. Remember that calories are energy and energy is calories. If you have a cuddly laid back horse, he doesn’t need extra calories to give him energy. Extra calories = more weight gain
  15. Fat horses are in poor condition as they are not fit for purpose and they are a welfare concern.
  16. Last but not least, remember that minimising the risk of EMS and laminitis in your horse is a lifetime commitment not a quick fix!

​Copyright. East Kent Equine Ltd. 2015