Autumn Pasture Cautions

As we approach the second month of Autumn, it serves as a timely reminder on the importance of managing grazing on pastures, especially for horses or ponies with metabolic issues, insulin resistance, laminitis, or those who are overweight.

Autumn is a picturesque season, with the potential for fresh growth following the dryness of Summer, depending on your location. This period often signifies new and more vibrant growth, ushering in greener pastures and cooler temperatures.

For various reasons that will be elaborated on, this time of year could pose risks for horses and ponies that are already overweight or metabolically predisposed to laminitis, such as those with Cushing's disease.

It is crucial to remember that laminitis is a significant cause of equine mortality, underscoring the importance of vigilance for all horse owners. Additionally, it is essential to gradually adjust your horse's feed to ensure their safety and well-being, especially if they have conditions like laminitis, Insulin Resistance (IR), or Cushing’s.

While your horse may eagerly anticipate grazing on lush fall grass, the high sugar and starch content can lead to health issues like laminitis and diarrhoea if not carefully monitored during the transition from Summer to Autumn.

At GutzBusta, we are dedicated to assisting you in safeguarding your horse, which is why we have compiled news, tips, and advice to help you navigate the Autumn season.

When is your pasture safest?

Higher levels of easily digestible carbohydrates in your pasture can pose a potential danger to all horses during the transition from a low-grass/hay-based diet in the summer to the abundance of feed in autumn. However, horses that are insulin resistant (IR), have Cushing's disease, or are overweight are even more susceptible to laminitis.

Therefore, it is crucial to determine whether or not your pasture is safe for them. The safety of your pasture can be assessed based on the temperature and sunlight affecting the plants. Here are some general guidelines:

  1. When night temperatures drop below 5°C, the grass becomes high in sugar and starch due to the stress on the plants.
  2. If the night temperatures remain above 5°C, the lowest levels of sugar and starch in the pasture plants are typically between 3am and 10am.
  3. Any factors that stress the plants, such as drought, frost, or overgrazing, can increase the sugar levels.
  4. On sunny days, the sugar and starch levels are highest in the afternoon and evening.

Overcast or cloudy days result in less sugar and starch production in the grass, making the pasture slightly safer. Unfortunately, some horses and ponies may not have the opportunity to graze in the pasture for more than an hour a day, or not at all during certain times of the year.

Spring and Autumn are usually the highest-risk periods. When dealing with cases of chronic and acute laminitis, it is crucial to seek help from a veterinarian, trimmer, farrier, or equine nutritionist.

Making informed decisions and receiving the correct advice can make a significant difference in the life or death of your horse or pony, as well as their overall well-being. For horses and ponies with these conditions, it is important to note that sunny afternoons are never safe for grazing.

Carbohydrates levels = ESC + Starch < 10%

This is particularly important when you are getting hay tested for laminitic-prone horses and ponies. It is not the NSC that is what you need to know, but the ESC + Starch level. This should be under 10% to be considered safe for at-risk equines. These figures are equally important for pasture, however, pasture carbohydrate levels change all of the time due to many factors already discussed above.

Dr Eleanore Kellon's page - Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance has some fantastic information on managing, emergency protocol, and general education on this topic.

All horses are capable of getting laminitis under the wrong conditions.

Depending on where you live, high rain during this time of year before the weather gets too cold, can equal prolific growth.

Factors to consider!

There are many other factors that can affect the ESC and Starch content of your grass and hay, including soil quality, nutrient levels, drought, flooding, ambient temperature, and type of pasture (native V’s improved).

If you are uncertain and need some help working out which slow feeder will suit your needs best in this transition period or all year around, be sure to reach out to us here at GutzBusta. We’ll help put your mind at ease and help you decide which slow feed hay net will work for your horses.💖

This link contains a lot of information that will help you decide what hay net hole size will best suit your animals and situation.

When requesting actual feed advice we suggest speaking with an Equine Nutritionist or Veterinarian that may be familiar with your individual animals and locality.

Be prepared as we continue into Autumn, and have your hay net stock levels up so if you have to lock up your equines to get them off the grass, you have an excellent management tool ready!

Why is starvation NOT the answer?

Stress causes the release of Cortisol and starvation is a form of stress for an animal that should be eating for 18 to 20 hours a day. Therefore it makes NO sense to starve a laminitic horse as this cortisol release interferes with the hoof wall/coffin bone connection and will delay the improvement of a stronger hoof wall connection once correct management begins.

What is Low Grade / Subclinical Laminitis?

Many of us are familiar with the typical laminitis stance where the horse is leaning backward taking weight off its toes. However, with low-grade or sub-clinical laminitis, it is much more insidious and can creep up on you without realizing it.

Little bit by little bit the hoof wall/coffin bone connection becomes further and further separated. If not checked, your horse can fall further down the cascade of laminitis. This is a condition not to be taken lightly as it is the second biggest killer of horses.

Many people get away with sub-optimal management for a long time, even years... until the horse or pony crashes.
Watching your beloved Equine battle through this condition is heartbreaking.

Be prepared as we head into Autumn, then Winter and have your hay net stock levels up so if you have to lock up your equines to get them off the grass, you have an excellent management tool ready!

Signs of Sub-Clinical Laminitis?

There are MANY signs of subclinical laminitis.

  • Uncomfortable on hard ground, when previously ok.
  • Shortening stride on hard ground.
  • Horizontal Ridges (rings) on the exterior of the hoof wall.
  • Reluctance to pick up feet for cleaning.
  • Sore after a trim when usually ok.
  • Digital Pulse.
  • Shifting weight.
  • Stretched or blood in the laminae line.
  • Flattened sole.
  • One of the biggest tell-tale signs is the rings in the hoof wall. Too often this is ignored, but it is hugely significant.

Management is the key to success. Although working progress with the photos above, the above hoof photos are 6 months between them showing the difference regular trimming and management can make. 

EVERY horse is capable of becoming Laminitic

There are just those that are more prone than others. Some horses may spend a lot of their life in a sub-clinical state but due to seasonal variations, they may 'cope' ok. That is until too many cards become stacked against them and they succumb to this debilitating condition.

Laminitis isn't just a 'Pony' thing!

All horses and ponies are susceptible under the wrong/right conditions.

Management Plans:

  • Do you have somewhere that you can safely lock up your horse or pony during higher-risk times or if they are already getting sore or showing signs of sub-clinical Laminitis?
  • Have you checked your GutzBusta Hay Net supply to make sure you have them on hand if you do need to start locking your horse and pony up?
  • Are you getting your equine's hooves regularly attended to? In Spring and Summer, they can tend to grow faster. 6 weeks is way too long in most cases. This applies to both shod and unshod hooves.
  • Diet - Have you found 'safe' hay that is less than 10% in ESC and starch?
  • Are you watching weather, growth rates and times of day and taking these into consideration for managing your horse or pony? See our last email for more information on this topic and post above.
  • Exercise - even 20 minutes of hand walking 3 to 4 times a week can be helpful.
  • Movement - Horses are meant to move. Having a buddy will increase this movement and keep them content.
  • Reduce stress.

What is the difference between laminitis and founder?

These 2 terms are often used interchangeably, however, the following gives a little more insight into their definitions.

Laminitis: Weakening of the laminae hoof wall connection - the tissue that connects the coffin bone to the hoof wall inside the foot. Horses and ponies, like us humans are experiencing more and more metabolic issues often from too much feed/inappropriate feed and not enough exercise. The first sign of PPID/Cushing's or IR can often be laminitis. Laminitis can be sub-clinical or low-grade and in our previous email, we discussed these signs. Left unchecked, or unresolved, laminitis can progress to what some call 'founder'. This commonly occurs in cresty-necked, or obese horses and is a great reason why horses should exit winter more on the lean side. There are many varying degrees of laminitis - mild or low grade to severe (founder).

Founder: Often used synonymously with laminitis, but often indicates disease progression if this term is used. Most people use the term founder to show a horse whose coffin bone has come separated from its hoof wall attachment and is displaced.

Not just limited to grass, Carbohydrate/Grain overload can also be a major cause of laminitis. Nutritionally induced laminitis through carbohydrate overload (grain, fruit, snacks, molasses) is another common cause. An excess of starch and sugars overflowing into the hindgut upsets the microflora (bacteria), which in turn, produces lactic acid, increasing the acidity of the hindgut. A toxic environment is created and toxins are released into the bloodstream via leaky hindgut epithelium.

Although laminitis is commonly caused by feed, grass, or grain overload, it is also important to realize that not EVERY case of laminitis is feed or metabolically related. There are other causes such as:

  • Snakebite.
  • Retained fetal membranes (placenta) after the birth of a foal.
  • Toxaemia - Many different causes, but horses that have high levels of toxins in the bloodstream are at high risk of laminitis. Bacterial, viral, plant, chemical and fungal toxins have all been implicated in causing laminitis. Keep an eye on horses that are suffering from fever, diarrhoea, colic (particularly after surgery), pneumonia, and pleurisy. Treatment of the initiating cause must be accomplished before improvement in laminitis can be expected.
  • Medications and Steroids - Although controversial, prolonged use or high doses of corticosteroids may contribute to the development of laminitis in some horses. Routine vaccinations have also been known to cause laminitis for some horses, therefore careful consideration needs to be given of the time of year they are given for metabolic-type horses and ponies.
  • Trauma - If a horse is injured and therefore is excessively weight-bearing on one leg. Fast or prolonged work on hard surfaces is another cause that has been associated with mechanical laminitis.

WSC, NSC, and ESC - what are these?

What are WSC, NSC, and ESC? These are terms for various carbohydrate fractions in forage or feeds.

Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC) are carbohydrates solubilized and extracted in water. Includes monosaccharides, disaccharides and some polysaccharides — mainly fructan.

  • Fructan is a major storage carbohydrate in grasses.
  • Non-Structural Carbohydrate (NSC) is calculated by adding Water Soluble Carbohydrate (WSC) and Starch.
  • Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC) are simple sugars. Only ESC and Starch will cause glucose spikes and insulin spikes.

It is the ESC and Starch levels added together that give the percentage of carbohydrates in the hay. For laminitic, IR/Cushings, or any obese or metabolically challenged horse or pony, this should be under 10%, with the starch portion being 4% or lower.

How much should a horse be fed?

As a feeding guide, a horse should receive approximately 1.5 – 2.5% of its body weight in forage. Therefore on average, a 500kg horse in maintenance up to moderate work should be getting 7.5 to 12.5 Kg of forage (hay/grass from grazing) per day, depending on its condition score.

If your horse is overweight, then aiming for 1.5% is ideal and if underweight then heading for 2.5% would be ideal. If your horse needs to lose weight, feeding 1.5% of its current body weight, or 2.0% of its ideal body weight (whichever is more) is recommended.

Purchasing a handheld weigher or scales is a great way to help owners weigh their hay and feed to know exactly what weight they are feeding.

Horses should never be fed per biscuit but by weight. For example; a biscuit of Lucerne compared to a biscuit of pasture hay can be very different and the horse might be getting too much or too little.

This is where a slow feeder comes in handy as it can be loaded up with hay and the horse can get the amount of forage it requires in the speed and quantity needed for optimum health.

The right hay is SO important!

No matter if there is a short period of fasting or if you have ad-lib 24/7 grazing, the MOST important factor is the sugar and starch content of the hay. If your horse has 24/7 access to high sugar hay then you will never get on top of the laminitis and your horse will head on a downhill run to more severe laminitis or 'founder'.

I personally used to get my hay tested by Equi-Analytical/Dairy One in the USA. I now use Feed Central in Toowoomba (who send the sample there on your behalf). There is no way that you can look at hay and know its sugar levels, protein levels general mineral profile, or the quality of the hay. So if you are buying quantities large enough, then testing the hay to take the guesswork out or knowing you don't have to soak to reduce sugar levels, is well worth the extra small expense.

Ryegrass and Clover are among the biggest Equine no-no's of hay. There are however many hays that are really good for horses such as Cocksfoot, Teff, Native grasses, Smooth Bromegrasses etc. Phalaris can be ok, under the right circumstances.

Every species has its pluses and minuses, so it is a good idea to research what species are in your area and are likely to be the best for your individual horses. The time of day that the hay is cut holds a BIG bearing on the sugar levels, so finding a farmer that cuts in the morning is a great asset to find.

Learning about endophytes and plant toxicity levels is also an important thing to consider when choosing a suitable hay variety.

Mowing your Pasture!

I often hear advice given to people to mow their pastures to reduce the amount of feed and make it 'safer' for their horses and ponies to graze.

This unfortunately has quite the opposite effect on pasture sugar levels. Anything that stresses a plant, raises the sugar levels. Mowing stresses the plants, so although there may be less volume, what is now available is now fully loaded with sugar.

Taller, mature pastures, after the seed head has matured are safer than short, stressed pastures.

Although there may be some merit to mowing to keep the seed head from forming in the pasture species as the sugar content is greatest while the seed head is forming and maturing, this needs to be individually evaluated for your particular paddock and plant species. It is said that the pastures remain higher in sugar levels for 2 to 4 weeks after mowing, so mowing may just not work as by the time the pasture is 'safer' to graze after the stress of moving, it will by then have seed heads up and growing again.

This is such an individual situation and all species of grass have their own way of dealing with being mowed, rate of seed head production etc. The more species you have, the more you have to take into consideration.

Over Grazing

As I keep mentioning, anything that stresses a plant raises its sugar content levels. Overgrazing will certainly do that.

This is very important to realize for at-risk horses and ponies as they are often locked up in a small yard or paddock that seemingly has little to graze on. However, that short stressed grass that they are picking that is growing at ground level can be VERY high in sugar and starch and although well-meaning, may keep these horses in a laminitic state and not aid their return to soundness.

Dirt is the best place for these horses and ponies in a laminitic state, with low sugar hay that has an ESC and Starch content of less than 10%.

New shoots of grass are also higher in sugar and starch which will be seen in an overgrazing situation.

Another important consideration is that most of the sugar in grasses tends to be in the bottom 3 to 4 inches of the plants. While it might be tempting to think that a very short, overgrazed pasture is safe because there’s “nothing much there,” such pastures present several risks—grasses are very stressed and only the lower inches of the plant are available, meaning these pastures can be very high in sugar. Add a frost to this and this short, stressed grass can be diabolically high in sugar.

Frosts and High Temperatures

One of the general rules of assessing whether your pasture is ‘safe’ or not is determined by both temperature and sunlight on the plant:

  • When the night temperatures are below 5°C, the grass is too high in sugar and starch due to the stress on the grass. At this temperature and below, the plant’s growth rate is slow, which means stored sugars aren’t used up. As such, they’ll still be high in the early morning. In this situation, potentially at-risk horses should not have pasture access.
  • Once it gets above 5° C at night, the lowest plant sugar and starch level is before sunrise
  • However, once temperatures are heading over 32 to 40°C (depending if the plant is a C3 or C4 species), the plant is also stressed and its sugar levels are raised.

Balanced Soils

It makes sense that if the soils are not balanced and are nutritionally depleted, then you can only expect the plants growing on these soils will also be the same. This of course adds more stress to the plant and is another factor to take into consideration.

You can easily do a soil test yourself. Over-fertilization is also not a good thing and can lead to nutrients being 'locked up' and not available for the plants.

Regenerative farming techniques can lead to healthier soils without high fertilizer input costs.

What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative farming is a way of working with nature’s own perfect cycles and processes, cultivating biodiversity and letting the circle of life flow as it should.

This differs from large-scale, conventional farming, which focuses on efficiencies at the cost of a life well-lived for the animal, and respect for the ecosystem surrounding the farm. This may involve planting lots of trees, and visiting and moving animals every day.

Regenerative farming combines ancient knowledge, constant observation, and the mimicking of nature’s own processes to raise animals in a way that actually improves the land, the soil, and the overall ecosystem.

Grass is still the best!

Nothing can ever replicate grass in terms of its nutritive value to the horse. There are vitamins and minerals that can't be replicated by any supplement or bag mix.

Horses have evolved to graze 16-20 hours a day eating high-fibre diets. A diet high in fibre is super important to aid in horses having a healthy and correctly functioning digestive tract. If grass isn't safe for a particular horse or pony, then finding a safe and good hay source is critically important for your horse or pony.

It is little wonder that horses fed high grain/low fibre diets are those horses with a higher incidence of colic, stomach ulcers and other forms of digestive upset such as diarrhoea. Fibre is paramount for happy, healthy horses and ponies (and all grass-eating livestock).

Seek Assistance

None of the information contained in our emails is intended to be diagnostic or advice. EVERY animal, soil type and nutrient levels, management strategies, nutritional requirements, work levels (retried V's showjumper), and metabolic state are all DIFFERENT.

Please consult your local Veterinarian, Equine Nutritionist, or other professional to ask for advice for your specific animals, property, and their individual requirements relevant to your locality.


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