An Equine Nutritionist’s First Hand Experience Feeding a PSSM Horse

As an equine nutritionist, I have done my fair share of research on Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) to help customers combat these issues with their horses. However, my first-hand experience started a year ago when my sister bought a really nice head horse that she named “B”. While B looked good when she purchased him, he didn’t have the best topline and muscle that we like in our horses. So, we started feeding him up to look like the rest of our horses: half alfalfa and half grass hay, a couple of pounds of rolled oats and Trifecta. After about a month of having B on this diet, his topline and muscling was looking much better; however, he was staying too collected and not opening up and moving out. Along with being balled up in his movement came lameness that traveled around his body. The lameness was examined by veterinarians and they were never able to pinpoint specific ailments because it was never in the same area. As a nutritionist, I started suspecting that he may indeed be PSSM.

Ty, Marketing Director,  aboard B at a team roping event.

What is PSSM?

Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) is a genetic disorder that affects about 10% of Quarter Horses (of the Quarter Horse breed the subset of halter horses has an occurrence of 28%), and 36% of Belgian Draft. About 20 breeds have been found to carry the mutations in their bloodlines. PSSM is an incomplete dominant gene, meaning if your horse is heterozygous (carrying one gene for the trait), they will have symptoms, however less severe symptoms than homozygous (carries two genes for the trait).  This genetic disorder makes the body unable to regulate the synthesis of glycogen (sugar being stored in the body). Therefore, too much glycogen is stored in the muscles and can lead to stiff, painful muscles, and episodes of “tying up.”

We decided to get a definitive answer and ordered a 5-panel genetic test on him, and when the results came back, they showed that indeed B is PSSM TYPE 1=N/PSSM1. So, while he was heterozygous PSSM1, he doesn’t have as severe symptoms that a homozygous PSSM1 horse, this helped explain the traveling lameness and unwillingness to move out.

The Next Step Configuring the PSSM Diet

As suspicions arose and then results confirmed, of this diagnosis, we started changing his diet. The first change was to remove the oats from his diet, to help reduce the amount of carbohydrates he was being fed. We removed the oats and replaced them with about a pound of Glow (full-fat extruded soybeans and ground flax cake) to replace the high level of carbohydrates with high-fat levels and protein. We also added a half cup of Flow (100% flaxseed oil) because some research has shown that oil can help diminish clinical symptoms of PSSM. He remained on Trifecta, which is important to provide him with antioxidants to aid muscle function and reduce the free radicals created from oxidative stress. Two important antioxidants are selenium, and vitamin E. Trifecta delivers 3 mg of organic selenium and 1,500 IU of vitamin E in an 8-ounce dose.

Although this helped him, he still had some traveling lameness. As a next step, we removed all alfalfa from his diet. While alfalfa is a great roughage for some horses with metabolic issues because it is low in sugar and starch, others have a hard time because of the high protein levels. While the building blocks of proteins, amino acids, are crucial for your horse, the problem for some horses is that they can’t handle the excess amino acids, because their body converts some of the protein into sugars. We believe this to be the case with B.

The Right Nutrition Makes All the Difference

Marketing Director, Ty on B, and Warehouse Manager Dave Team Roping

Eight months after being on grass hay only, Glow, Flow, and Trifecta, B is doing great. We keep him in a big pen so that he can move freely. When he isn’t being roped off of, he gets exercised on the paneled hot walker to make sure that he gets adequate exercise.  Now, he has no lameness issues and moves out much freer. I share this story with you to let you know that I have dealt with this issue first hand, and have been through the trials and tribulations with trying to figure out what works best. It is important to remember that each horse is their own individual. While this diet may work great for B, others may do better with a few different adjustments. Your PSSM horse might do good on alfalfa, while B did not, it is all a matter of trial and error to find what works best for your PSSM horse. Know that we, at Horse Guard, are here to help make sure you have a happy, healthy horse. If you have any questions, please write us at horsenutrition@horseguard.com.

About Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S.

Kelsey J. Nonella, Ph.D. is an equine nutritionist who was riding horses before she could walk. Her love for horses drives her to help educate people on what their horses’ needs in order to have happy, healthy horses. Kelsey went to Cal Poly receiving a Bachelor’s of Science in Animal Science and then onto West Texas A&M, where she got her Masters and eventually her Doctorates in Equine Science. At A&M, Dr. Nonella did extensive research on Selenium within horses. Click here to view her research. Kelsey’s colleagues have mentioned her as one of the United States equine Selenium experts.
View all posts by Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S.

4 Responses to “An Equine Nutritionist’s First Hand Experience Feeding a PSSM Horse”

  1. Melodie Gutzwiler says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been following the PSSM forum and baffled as to what was going on in these horses. You made it much clearer and I will be sharing your information to my friends. My choice in supplements has always been Horse Guard. I’ve always had positive results with it. I have two horses that I’ll be testing for this condition. I may be in touch to pick your brain Kelsey 😊

  2. This is a great article that shows Dr. Nonella’s direct experience in dealing with nutrition problems in horses.

  3. Duane Hopp says:

    Very good information, thank y’all

  4. Denise Walkusch says:

    Thank you for this article. My horse “Charger” is test positive PSSM1. It took a lot of diet adjusting along with consistent exercise to get him comfortable. But, still, I feel I don’t have it right. With my guy, he couldn’t handle the fat in oil, that was recommended by my vet, without gaining weight. So I found and started him on Acetyl-L-carnitine (which I read you feed this instead of oil) and it made a huge difference as far as less episodes of tying up… He also gets 5000mg magnesium, 3000IU Vitamin E, 1.50ppm Selenium, grass/alfalfa hay and Horse Guard Flax treats. My biggest concern is all the other ingredients that make his supplements palatable. I’ve talked with the (other) company and they feel the corn, wheat ext… is such a low amount that it shouldn’t affect the PSSM1. But I don’t believe they have done the research you have. I want to do the best for Charger but get so overwhelmed with the information. Your article simplified it enough for me that I’m considering changing over to Horse Guard products but again am still a bit nervous, because Chargers ty-up episodes can be so severe…
    Thank you again for the article I am happy to see more information about PSSM1 is getting out there.

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