Are you feeding a tested low sugar hay? 

     It began for Pam Janssen, when her friend and fellow horse owner suffered the loss of her two horses in close succession. The first, a 25-year-old gelding, succumbed to Cushing’s disease – a not uncommon health problem in older horses. However, the second gelding was just 11 years old when he suddenly developed a severe case of founder that ultimately proved to be fatal.

     “[The horse] wasn’t overweight, he was ridden six days a week, and his owner always made sure to get the best quality hay she could,” says Pam. “So it was such a shock. We wanted to figure out why it happened.”

     The answer remained elusive until Pam’s internet research turned up information that led her to suggest to her friend that she get her hay tested for sugar content. The hay analysis indicated that the second cut Timothy hay Pam’s friend had been feeding to her geldings had a non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) value of 18.4 percent.

     While the average mature horse in regular work might typically do well on hay with a NSC up to 18 percent, metabolically challenged horses (typically characterized by health problems such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome, insulin resistance, and Cushing’s disease) should only consume hay with a NSC value of less than 10 percent.

     The relatively high sugar content in the hay that Pam’s friend had been feeding to her horses almost certainly precipitated the demise of her older horse and, if her younger gelding happened to have had an underlying metabolic disorder, would also explain his sudden case of founder.

It was around this time that Pam also began to be more aware that something was “not right” with her own horse, a seven-year-old Quarter Horse mare named Precious.

     “She was experiencing weight fluctuations,” said Pam, “and she had fat deposits and shelly hooves.”

     Concerned, Pam sent her hay for analysis and learned that her mare had been eating hay with an NSC value of 24 percent. She immediately began seeking out a source of low sugar hay, but when she began asking around the local horse community, she was shocked to discover how many people – experienced hay farmers and suppliers and knowledgeable horse people alike – knew next to nothing about sugar content in hay and its implications for horse health. Even worse, she learned that the majority of suppliers don’t have their hay analyzed, making it very difficult for an owner of a metabolically challenged horse to find the necessary low sugar hay.

     As Pam’s hunt for low sugar hay continued, it began to occur to her that if she was having so much difficulty finding low sugar hay, other horse owners were likely struggling as well. And so what began as an effort to improve her horse’s health, led to the creation of Pam’s own business, Hay…Girl!, in April 2012.

     For a year and a half now, Pam as Hay…Girl! has been supplying horse owners across the Lower Mainland of BC with low sugar hay sourced from all over BC and Alberta. After confirming the low sugar of a batch of hay from a particular farmer by means of hay analysis, Pam arranges for its transport to Delta, BC, and its storage there, and then proceeds to market it for sale to local horse owners. The initiative has been wildly successful, but for Pam it’s less about turning a profit and more about educating horse owners about the potential dangers of sugar in hay so that none of them will ever experience a tragedy like the one her friend suffered with the loss of her two horses.

     To this end, she has organized two informational sessions to date that featured lectures about the importance of hay analysis, the basics of equine nutrition, and health problems such as Cushing’s disease, laminitis, and insulin resistance from a local farrier, equine veterinarian, and equine nutritionist. The first Hay…Girl! informational session was held in January of this year, and a second session followed in May, with both attracting a healthy crowd of interested horse owners.

     “I am glad to say that I did reach quite a few people that really got on board with the situation with hay testing,” says Pam. She looks forward to organizing more sessions in the future, but sourcing new supplies of low sugar hay is doing a more than adequate job of keeping her busy in the meantime.

     “Out of 20 or 30 hay analyses that go in, I might find one or I might not,” she explains. “There are so many different factors.”

     But, for Pam, the work required by her new career is worth it to know that she is helping horse owners ensure better health for their horses.

     “There’s a problem here and we need to fix it,” she says. “Most people just don’t know. They think if the hay looks good and smells good, it’s good for their horse. And hay doesn’t come with a nutritional label.”

     The satisfaction is there for Pam on a personal level, too. She is pleased to report that Precious is currently thriving on her diet of low sugar hay, maintaining a healthy weight and exhibiting all the signs of good general health, a fact that thrills her to no end. “Had I not made these changes for my mare, Precious, she would not be here today – she had all the signs of becoming laminitic. But, she’s my buddy and she brings such joy to my life on a daily basis, so when you get that all balanced and everything in ticks and checks, it’s an amazing feeling!”

"Article courtesy of Canadian Horse Journal, Careers with Horsepower, September 2013"
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