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Risk Factors for Equine Metabolic SyndromeBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · August 2, 2017

Equine metabolic syndrome, or EMS, is a term that refers to a set of factors including obesity, insulin resistance, and a tendency toward laminitis. Because laminitis causes intense pain and often signals the end of a horse’s useful life, it would be helpful if owners were aware of signs and risk factors for EMS in its beginning stages. Detected early, EMS might be managed to minimize the likelihood that a horse would actually develop laminitis.

Clinical signs such as abnormal lipid and insulin levels can be found only by having a veterinarian draw a blood sample for analysis. However, some physical signs and characteristics can be seen by owners. These include obesity or a high body condition score; a cresty neck, even if the horse’s body does not appear excessively fat; little or no exercise; previous bouts of laminitis; and a high intake of forage and/or grain. Many cases of EMS are seen in horses that have finished growing but are not very old, approximately 5 to 8 years of age. Ponies and horses from heavier-bodied breeds are diagnosed with EMS more frequently than lighter-built equines.

Owners who see one or more of these signs in their horses should recognize that equines with these characteristics may be at higher risk of laminitis than those in the general population. Checking with a veterinarian is a good idea, as this professional can use the results of blood tests and a physical examination to help diagnose EMS.

In order for obese horses lose weight, veterinarians and equine nutritionists may suggest cutting out grain and calorie-laden treats, switching the horse from top-quality hay to forage with a lower carbohydrate content, and increasing the horse’s exercise program if this is possible. While these steps can’t guarantee that a particular horse that shows signs of EMS can avoid laminitis, it may prevent the disease in some equines. Whether or not a horse has EMS, some added benefits of losing excess body weight are better exercise tolerance, more energy, and reduced strain and wear on joints.

Micro-Max, a product developed by Kentucky Equine Research, can be used to optimize nutrient intake in horses and ponies that have been diagnosed with EMS. This product provides vitamins and trace minerals in a low-starch, low-calorie form for equines that are overweight or consuming forage-only diets. In Australia, horse owners should choose Gold Pellet for the same effect.