horse pellets

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 Equi-Analytical.

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!


21 thoughts on “Low Starch Horse Feeds

  1. 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
    Thank you.

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

      1. 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.

          1. 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.

    1. 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.


  3. 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).

  4. 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?

    1. 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.

    1. 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.


    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.


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