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Sugars in spring grass
Winter sees most domesticated horses in the Northern Hemisphere being fed dried forage for months on end to make up for the poor (or, in some cases, non-existent grass) in their field during the cold, dark months. But, once the weather starts to warm up and the days lengthen, grass growth can suddenly go mad with the arrival of spring grass. Even though it looks hugely appealing, and historically spring grass was referred to as ‘Dr Green’ for the therapeutic effect it was thought to have on equines, it can present a problem for horse owners. Horse health company Haygain takes a look at why spring grass can be disruptive for both a horse’s digestive system and its metabolism, and what owners can do to mitigate the risks.
Why is spring grass dangerous for horses?
Spring grass is high in a type of sugar called fructan, which is present as a by-product of photosynthesis and is used to fuel plant growth. Fructans are non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) that horses can’t digest, and they boost the energy content of grass enormously. If a horse has been fed dried forage for months on end, the sudden introduction of large amounts NSCs in the horse’s gut can disturb the balance of natural bacteria and release a wave of bacterial toxins called endotoxins. These changes can trigger laminitis in horses, particularly if they are predisposed to the condition due to obesity or suffering from Equine Metabolic Syndrome. The disturbance of the gut bacteria can also trigger colic in horses who are not used to rich, sugary grass.
Is it true that spring grass is most dangerous on frosty mornings?
It is - photosynthesis requires light and therefore occurs only during daylight hours, producing non-structural carbohydrates which are then used by the plant during the night time to fuel growth. If the temperature drops below zero during the night after a sunny day, the plant will not be able to utilise the abundance of NSCs it produced during daylight hours, and they will still be present in high concentrations the next morning.
How can you manage a horse’s intake of NSCs?
When is it safe to let horses graze normally again?
As we move into summer the grass will start to mature and you will see it grow more long thin stems and fewer lush, thick green leaves. This is a sign that that initial mad growth period is coming to an end, and the grass NCS content is returning to normal levels. It is worth staying vigilant to any changes in your horse’s weight and condition, particularly if you know they are prone to laminitis and obesity.