Equine Metabolic Syndrome

What is Equine Metabolic Syndrome or EMS for short? Many of you have probably heard it mentioned, but what do you need to look for and how does it occur? 

Once upon a time horses were just grazing animals only eating grasses and high-forage diets. As they evolved so have their diets and exercise. They have gone from just grazing to being working animals used for transport and industry, to the domestic animals we see today. With this as their energy needs changed, so did their diet. We now supplement their diets, which combined with the improved pastures we now have, changed how our horses eat and their nutrition levels. These higher-calorie diets have helped contribute to some of the metabolic issues we see today.  

So what is EMS? 

It is a disease in relation to the hormone insulin. Insulin helps regulate glucose in the blood and tissues. Basically, insulin sends signals to cells and tissues to take up glucose, when the cells/tissues don’t respond to those signals (insulin resistance) the body secretes even more insulin to try to help control the rising sugar levels, thus leading to high insulin levels in the blood.  

  Horse eats feed ——> Glucose levels increase ——> Body secretes insulin ——> poor response to insulin  ——> body compensates by secreting more insulin ——> high insulin levels in blood 

EMS is more commonly found in horses aged between 8-18 years of age, with particular breeds such as ponies and quarter horses seem to be a little more susceptible to the condition than others. It can often be a genetic predisposition and may require a more regulated diet to help maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight.  

There are a few signs of EMS. Many people refer to their horses as good doers, but this can be an indicator of EMS. Increased weight or obesity especially in the areas of the neck/crest, top of tail, above the eyes, and sheath area can be an indication. EMS is often associated with laminitis, which can be caused by higher-than-normal insulin levels. Contacting your veterinarian is important if you have any concerns that your horse may be suffering from EMS. They can do testing to confirm a diagnosis and help you manage the condition, assisting with working out a diet plan, corrective farrier visits (if your horse is suffering from laminitis), and an exercise program. 

 It’s important to manage the diet of a horse with EMS. A diet more focused on high fibre/ lower calories is essential, together with a suitable exercise program to help maintain a healthy weight range. Remember every horse is different and will require different management to ensure they are happy and healthy going forward.  


Written by Selena P.  


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