What NSC means and why it matters for horses!


NSC’s are nonstructural carbohydrates! But that’s only part of the plant – plants also have structural carbs, too.


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  • Plants have structured things – like cell walls that literally give them structure. At its simplest level, it’s fiber. These structural carbohydrates pass through the small intestine intact as they can’t be broken down there.


  • Structural carbohydrates end up in the hindgut to be fermented. This is how your horse gets his energy. The fermentation process yields volatile fatty acids – part of his energy source.


  • Plants are also made up of nonstructural carbohydrates. This is the NSC! Found inside the plant’s cells, the NSC’s are the plants’ stored food.


  • When the plant is cooking its own food with the help of sunshine during photosynthesis, starches and fructans are made. BUT – not all grasses have fructans, those that do not are warm-season grasses. More on cool and warm-season grasses here!


lush green pasture with barn in the background

Horse salad isn’t good for all horses. NSC values can spike according to temperature, season, how stressed the grass becomes.


  • In the small intestine of your horse’s digestive system, the local enzymes there do their best to break down the NSC. However – when too much is eaten, the small intestine can’t digest and absorb all of the starches so they end up in the hindgut. All fructan survives the small intestine and lands in the hindgut.


nsc values on a horse feed label

Feed labels can tell you about the NSC values.


  • Now you have the NSC in the hindgut. The microbe population of the hindgut is very happy to ferment these sugars…but the volatile fatty acids are made too quickly. This changes the pH of the hindgut, making things more acidic. The fiber-digesting microbes start to die as a result. The pH and the dead and dying microbes can create endotoxins that permeate the intestinal wall and end up in the bloodstream.

This is how laminitis can happen. Well, one version of laminitis.


  • So – to sum things up. NSC’s are starch + fructan (sometimes) that live inside the plant’s cells so the plant can grow. Your horse can only digest so much in the small intestine, so the rest passes to the hindgut for the microbial population to eat. Consequences of this can be dire if too much NSC lands in the hindgut.


flakes of grass hay stacked

Hay becomes more delicious as the NSC values rise.


  • Some feed labels might be able to tell you about the NSC of your horse’s feeds, and knowing what type of pasture your horse is eating can tell you a little bit also. Of course, this is all part of the bigger picture of your horse, so involve your Vet and Equine Nutritionist.


chestnut horse wearing a greenguard grazing muzzle

Grazing muzzles are a must for some horses. These vastly reduce the amount of pasture, and therefore the NSC’s, eaten. This grazing muzzle is from Greenguard Equine.


If your horse is metabolically compromised, as he has Cushing’s disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), the NSC values of your horse’s diet are crucial.



  • You can lower the NSC value of your horse’s hay by soaking it.


  • You can also switch to lower NSC value hays, like cool-season grasses. Many new horse feeds are also lower in NSC values, look for something with an NSC value less than 10%.


  • Grazing muzzles are a must if your horse can be on limited pasture, otherwise, use dry lots for turnout.


  • Keep up with your horse’s regular bloodwork, too, to make sure his ACTH and Insulin levels are safe.



How much do you know about the NSC value of your horse’s pasture?


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