Low Starch Horse Feeds

It seems many feed companies are jumping on the low sugar/ low starch bandwagon these days due to the apparent rise in conditions like Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance (IR), and Cushing’s disease (PPID), but is every feed labeled ‘low starch’ safe for these horses?  The answer may surprise you.

Some equine nutrition experts recommend that the NSC (non-structural carbohydrates) value (usually calculated by adding WSC + starch) of the feed or hay be 12% or less, while others recommend it be 10% or less for horses with metabolic issues.

Let’s take for example the well-known feed made by Nutrena called ‘Safe Choice’.  At 22% sugar+starch content, I would say this is definitely not a safe choice for metabolic horses or even overweight horses.  So you can’t always trust the name or even the claims on the feed bag.

I feed a forage-based diet to my horses, but even forage can be unsafe for metabolic horses.  I get my hay and pasture tested to ensure that it has a low enough sugar and starch content for my two IR mares.  I’ve fed several different concentrates to my horses, but right now, I’m feeding Standlee’s Timothy hay pellets mixed with a little bit of Standlee’s Alfalfa pellets (soaked) as a carrier for my supplements.

Finding a truly low NSC feed can be difficult sometimes, but I’ve put together a list of low starch horse feeds that are generally considered safe for metabolic horses (testing at 12% or less NSC):

  • Ontario Deyhdrated Balanced Cubes
  • Poulin Carb-Safe
  • ADM Forage First Hay Replacer
  • ADM Staystrong Metabolic Pellets
  • Sterett Low Carb Complete
  • Blue Seal’s Carb Guard
  • Nuzu’s Stabul 1
  • LMF – Low Carb Complete Stage 1
  • Triple Crown Safe Starch Forage
  • Standlee Timothy Hay Pellets
  • Standlee Timothy/ Alfalfa Pellets
  • Lucerne Farms High Fiber Gold
  • Purina Wellsolve L/S

These feeds are also usually safe, but the NSC value can vary by brand:

  • Un-mollassed beet pulp (or thoroughly rinsed-soaked-rinsed mollassed beet pulp)
  • Alfalfa cubes/ pellets

Side note:  To lessen risk of choke, soak hay pellets and cubes for several minutes before feeding.  (I learned this the hard way!)

To know the NSC of a feed, you should contact the feed company and ask for the actual or analyzed NSC or send a sample of the feed to be tested by a company like EquiAnalytical.

I should also caution that some of these feeds (such as ADM’s Staystrong Metabolic Pellets) have been shown to have very high iron levels–this might be a concern for metabolic horses as well, as attested to in this article I wrote for The Horse.  Once again, getting your feed (or forage) tested is the only sure-fire way to know what’s in it!



Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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31 Responses

  1. Susan says:

    I think the “Safe Choice” you are referring to in paragraph 2 is actually a *Nutrena* product, not Purina. Thanks for the info!

  2. There is one feed on the US market, that is really low in NSC. CoolStance is pure copra meal, high in fat, which is coconut oil, ~ 11% NSC, and high in medium chain triglycerides. Best of all, there are no toxins in this feed. Horse owners feeding this feed are reporting health improvement of their horses all around. To learn more, please go to http://www.stanceequine.com
    Thank you.

    • then5925 says:

      I have heard of Coolstance and from what I understand, the high fat content in it is a concern for IR horses.

      • Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCT) that are easier to digest, absorb and utilize in comparison to the long-chain fatty acids found in other oils such as maize, soy, canola and rice-bran oil. MCT absorbed directly into the portal blood and transported to the liver. By comparison, long chain fatty acids are absorbed into the lymphatics and slowly transported to the liver. Further, MCT appear to behave more like glucose than other oils, meaning coconut oil provides a ready source of energy for use during exercise.
        Some of the MCT (lauric, capric and caproic acids) in coconut oil possess antibacterial and antiviral properties. These fatty acids may assist the horse’s immune system in fighting off viral and bacterial challenges, leading to improved overall gut health and wellbeing. MCT have been shown to control Salmonella in chickens, and it is suggested that MCT may be of benefit in horses with Dysbiosis.
        Coconut oil may have performance benefits. A study by Pagan et al (1993) found that horses supplemented with coconut oil versus soybean oil had lower blood lactate and ammonia and higher free fatty acids than a control group of horses who were not supplemented with fat during the gallop and the warm down phase of a standardized exercise test. These effects may have a positive influence on performance. In addition, a study by Matsumoto (1995) found that mice supplemented with medium chain fatty acids took longer to reach a state of exhaustion whilst swimming than unsupplemented mice.

        • Gloria Thomas says:

          Would you consider Seminole Safe and Lite to be appropriate for an IR horse?

          • then5925 says:

            Hi Gloria–I’m not familiar with that feed. The only way to know is to contact the company and ask for the NSC value or send a sample off to be analyzed. 10-12% NSC or less is appropriate for these horses.

  3. Kim Davis says:

    Where can these feeds be purchased?

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Kim, You’ll just have to check their websites. Some of them are widely available while others are not. The Standlee products are pretty common in chain farm stores like Atwoods, Orschlens, Tractor Supply, etc. I’ve spoken with the owner of Nuzu feeds and he’s willing to ship his feed to about any store that will work with him. If you can’t find one you want near you, it’s always good to contact the feed companies directly–some of them are willing to work with you.


  4. Nose-It.com says:

    I even use several of the above listed feeds as treats! Slow feeders such as the Nose-It! make their hay cubes and pellets last for hours and limits any chances for choke since they only get a cube or handful of pellets at a time – keeps their thinking side of their brain engaged too. (Remember that beet pulp expands exponentially – so still limit what you put in your slow feeders).

  5. nicole says:

    I noticed that Triple Crown Senior (10.9? NSC and Legends Performance Pellets at 12.9% (probably because the legends is over that 12% marker). But was there a particular reason you didn’t include the TC Senior or the TC low starch?

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Nicole–No, there is no reason. When I did my research for this post, I must have missed those TC feeds (or did they change the formula recently?) But thanks for letting me know. I can add them in. 🙂 I will likely do a revised list of low NSC feeds soon as well as more companies are coming on board with this.

    • Lila Bett says:

      The triple crown LITE is even lower…

  6. John Fitch says:

    Just wanted to make a correction: NSC is ESC and starch not ESC and starch. If you are testing your hay it makes a big difference.

    • Casie says:

      Hi John,

      Assuming you’re referring to WSC + starch here… It depends on who you ask though. Some nutritionists (like Dr. Getty and Katy Watts) calculate NSC using WSC + starch and some use ESC + starch. I actually calculate it both ways with my hay just in case.


  7. Doni says:

    Do the bags list the NSC percent on them or do you have to do the calculations yourself?

    • Casie says:

      No, not usually, Doni. You have to ask the company directly or send off a sample to be analyzed. If it’s a low NSC feed though–they will often times advertise that on their website.

  8. Christina Turissini says:

    Have you had any luck with Mountain Sunrise’s Bermuda grass pellets? I’ve heard contradictory things about them, but my vet insists on my Cushings/IR horse being on them, plus alfalfa hay. I’ve always fed mountain timothy hay for the relatively lower sugar/starch levels. I’m testing this last year’s crop right now.

    • Casie says:

      Hi Christina,

      I’ve never fed Mountain Sunrise feed (not sure they carry that around here) so I don’t think I can be of much help here. Best way to know is to test it though.


  9. Brandi says:

    Another one to add: Nutrena SafeChoice “Special Care”, which is only 11% starch. ( http://www.nutrenaworld.com/products/horses/safe-choice/safechoice-special-care-horse-feed/index.jsp ). I have not used it, but recently heard about Stabul 1 feed which is less than 10% starch/sugar. (http://stabul1.com/stabul-1/ ). Thanks for all the info!

    • Casie says:

      Thanks for the info, Brandi. I have Stabul 1 listed (have talked with these nice folks and they even sent me samples!), but haven’t heard of the Nutrena Special Care. Maybe it’s new since I did this research?

  10. Karen says:

    What about Essential K by Tribute? I have used this feed and liked it. They suggested feeding 2lb. a day to mare instead of one and she lost fat pockets. Really weird 🙂 I was concerned about feeding soybean to horses, what have you learned about this?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Karen,
      I looked at their website and it says the NSC level is 13% which is lower than a lot of feeds, but not below the recommended 12% which is why I didn’t include it. As for soybean, there’s a lot of mixed advice out there. Personally, I don’t have a problem feeding it, but would prefer non-GMO soy (which is practically impossible to find in feeds). I’ve had to resort to a senior feed (TC senior) in the winter with my oldest two and soybean is an ingredient. They do fine on it though. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do!

  11. Terry says:

    Triple crown lite at 9.3 is what I feed

  12. Hi, I’ve just started my gelding on Triple crown Safe Starch Forage. I was feeding Timothy hay with Purina enrich as a balancer. Unfortunately I am highly allergic to timothy hay so started a search. My vet recommended soaking orchard hay or alfalfa hay mix. This is terribly inconvenient if you are not highly regimented and at my age, I forget or get distracted too easily. I should also add, my horse hates timothy in just about any form. The result is right now I feed two pounds alfalfa and 4 lbs Triple crown forage and guess what, he does not seem resentful of the Triple crown at all. If this attitude continues and he keeps in good weight and bloom it will be worth the ridiculous expense. I may even switch to it completely. Time will tell. Hope it works.

    • Casie says:

      TC Safe Starch is good stuff from what I hear. Wish I could get it around here! Hope all goes well for you and your horse. 🙂

  13. LEIGH MEYER says:

    Casie, I have two EMS horses. Both are teenage, Arabian geldings in performance training for Hunter Pleasure. Both are also hard to get weight on. We have been feeding Wellsolve LS and soaking the Alfalfa/grass hay twice daily for one of them for the past three years and he’s doing ok. (Although I think we’re headed into full blown Cushings now). The second horse is a recent diagnosis. My concern is energy and weight gain. Can I safely add coconut oil to the feed? If so, how much and how often and for how long? Thanks for sharing your information.

    • Casie says:

      Hi Leigh,

      You can add coconut oil to the feed, but I’m afraid I don’t know how much to recommend. I’ve only fed it in small amounts (1/4 cup or so), but I don’t normally feed oils as I don’t see them as a natural part of the diet (though I’d say coconut oil definitely better than processed vegetable oils). I have two senior horses that have trouble with their weight in the winter. One doesn’t eat much hay at all because of her teeth and the other is just naturally thin. For the past several winters, I’ve fed Triple Crown senior to them both because it’s the only complete feed I can find around here that is low in sugar and starch. It gets them though the winter. During the warm seasons, we have plenty of grass and I feed a small amount of soaked hay cubes along with their supplements.

      Have you tried increasing the amount of grass hay your horses get? Also, there is a newer feed out called Crypto Aero which is a whole foods horse feed and many people are raving about. (I can’t get it in my area unfortunately). I’ve even heard stories about people turning around their horse’s Cushings with this feed (and certain supplements). Jessica Lynn at Earth Song Ranch could tell you more. (www.earthsongranch.com). You might google the feed and see if it’s available near you.

      One thing I would add to your horses feed is Chaste Tree Berry (if you’re not already). This should help with the Cushing’s symptoms.

      Hope this helps!

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