What is Equine Insulin Resistance?
The most basic explanation when discussing Insulin Resistance in horses is that we are dealing with an insulin problem within the horse. When a horse consumes carbohydrates, the pancreas is triggered to produce and release insulin. Insulin regulates and lowers glucose levels in the bloodstream by assisting the transport of glucose into the cells. When we have an Insulin Resistance problem, the cells become resistant to the action of insulin. As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas secretes more insulin in the attempt to regulate blood sugar. Blood glucose levels begin to rise along with insulin levels when the pancreas reaches the limit of insulin production.
Horses at Risk of Insulin Resistance
Although all horses are at risk of developing insulin resistance, factors such as age, diet, exercise, and genetics can increase the risk. For example, certain breeds are more conducive to developing insulin resistance. These breeds include:
- Pasa Finos
- Peruvian Pasos
Another example is the average age of these horses. If we look at the correlation between age and Insulin Resistance, horses in the 5-15 age range are predisposed to the development of Insulin Resistance. Insulin Resistance is a metabolic issue, so diet and weight also play a significant factor. Horses that are overweight with a body condition score (BCS) between 7 and 9 or who receive diets rich in sugar and carbs have a higher risk of developing Insulin Resistance than a horse who receives regular exercise and a balanced diet.
Clinical Signs of Equine Insulin Resistance
Since Insulin Resistance is a metabolic problem occurring within the horse, it may be difficult to see the signs of a problem. A common warning sign that can be associated with the development of Insulin Resistance is an obese horse. Other signs we can look at include:
- Fast weight gain
- Inability to lose weight
- Fatty deposits on the body of the horse
- Development of a “cresty” neck
- Loss of topline
- Increased appetite
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Frequent bouts of laminitis
Laminitis & Insulin Resistance
Most Insulin Resistant horses are prone to bouts of laminitis. This can be attributed to the abundance of fat tissue, which is extremely common in insulin-resistant horses. In overweight horses, research has uncovered evidence that there is an “insulin resistance” hormone factor produced by the excessive adipose (fat) tissue that contributes to the cells’ inability to uptake glucose from the bloodstream. Adipose tissue may also contribute to higher cortisol levels. The high glucose and cortisol levels are inflammatory and therefore predispose the horse to laminitis. We highly recommend including a quality hoof supplement in the diet of these Insulin Resistant horses
Preventing Insulin Resistance in Horses
The first ten years of your horse’s life often sets the stage for the development of metabolic conditions. Horse owners should start providing the correct nutrients and a balanced diet to the horse at conception. This balanced diet must be continued throughout the horse’s life to maintain health and prevent future metabolic problems. Other factors that can help prevent the development of Insulin Resistance:
- Regular work and/or exercise
- Maintaining a healthy body condition score
- Feeding grass/hay with a quality hay balancer
- Refraining from feeding “sweet” feeds or treats
Caring for the Insulin Resistant Horse
There is no cure for Insulin Resistance, but we can help make the life of these horses as comfortable as possible. The first step in this process is to examine the horse’s current diet and develop a feeding plan that will assist the horse in dropping excess weight. This new diet will be focused on reducing the number of sugars and carbs the horse consumes daily. This means no sweet feeds, limited treats, and no grasses with high fructan. Grasses likely to have high fructan content include:
- Fertilized and growing pastures
- Pastures stressed from drought or frosts
- Grazing in the afternoon and evening
- Tall fescue and ryegrass
Monitored grazing, dry lotting, and grazing muzzles may also be necessary depending on the horse and pasture.
Adding exercise to the horse’s daily routine is the next step. If the horse is not accustomed to exercise, it should be introduced slowly, 2-3 times a week, and built up over time. Eventually, we want the horse to exercise daily with body condition steadily improving.
Supplementation for Insulin Resistance
Supplementation is vital for horses with Insulin Resistance, especially when we begin cutting calories from the diet. We want to cut calories without cutting the horse’s required daily nutrients. If the horse’s diet is not balanced nutritionally, we are not providing the support needed to maintain our horse’s health.
As mentioned above, a quality hoof supplement is essential for insulin-resistant horses to help improve hoof wall density. A denser hoof wall is more resilient to the effects of laminitis and may reduce the risk of founder. One good option is to utilize a hay and pasture balancer alongside a hoof supplement to replace the missing nutrients from the low-calorie diet. Another option is to use a quality hoof supplement and a supplement specifically formulated to support horses with Insulin Resistance.
Life Data® Recommendation
Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength and the new Life Data® Insulin R Formula work in conjunction to support horses with Insulin Resistance by supplying active ingredients to assist with glucose metabolism, fat metabolism, insulin action, and help reduce inflammation. Life Data® Insulin R Formula also supports proper metabolism to encourage weight control and general health.