Treats, alfalfa pellets for training treats

Dorothy Marsh

New here!

I have a mini/Shetland cross who went through a brief lamanitic episode recently that resolved within 2 days—well, at least her soreness went away in that timeframe. 

She gained a lot of weight this spring despite being on limited  grass—sharing 1/4 acre paddock with another mini and being turned out on a grassier paddock muzzled daily for a couple of hours—or until I saw that she had removed the muzzle. Apparently what she ate was too much grass considering how fast our grass is growing this spring in New York State. 

This is her first laminatic episode, thought to have been brought on by a combination of insulin resistance, obesity,  vaccinations, and our incredibly fast growing spring grass.  She has always leaned towards being overweight, but this late winter early spring seemed to pack on a lot of extra pounds and fat deposits on her crest, especially.  
The laminitic episode also happened right after she got her spring vaccinations—rabies, 3-way (EEE/WEE, tetanus)—as limited as we dared go because she’s always had vaccination reactions of pain in her body, a low-grade fever, and depression for a few days afterwards. This year’s reaction was worse than usual, and even after the worst of it was over, she was never quite right. She continued to  be ouchy about every other day, which I finally figured out was laminitis. I did the emergency protocol and she recovered quickly, thank goodness. She is off grass now, in a smaller paddock than she or I would like, but it’s the only non-grass way I can keep her. 

She has not been tested for metabolic conditions mostly because she is absolutely terrified of needles and it’s very traumatic and difficult to get blood from her—airborne pony no matter what we do.  She has broken syringe hubs, bent needles—we finally decided to sedate her sublingual before the vet arrives. She still rears and jumps big and quickly, but at least it’s done with less trauma.  

My vet and I have decided to just consider her to be metabolic and treat her as such from here on out. She has all the physical characteristics and easy weight gain/hard to lose weight characteristics of EMS/IR. She doesn’t have any Cushings symptoms and she’s (almost) 8 yrs old. 

I do a lot of groundwork play/training exercises and she will also be resuming her driving/cart training soon as soon as I’m sure she is up to it. Exercise!!

I like to use treats for training. I used to give her alfalfa pellets, which are relatively low in starch/sugar.  They are small and quick for her to chew.  But I see  alfalfa is discouraged. Not sure why??  I see timothy pellets are higher in starch/sugar, but is that preferable to alfalfa pellets for this type of use??  Keep in mind that she doesn’t get large amounts during a training session—maybe a 1/4 cup total. She gets one or two small pellets at a time. 

Or is there another treat I can use or make? 

 I recently saw a recipe geared toward IR/EMS horses that contained  1 lb ground flax seed base and 1/2 cup of unsweetened applesauce. I know apples are off limits, but perhaps the overall starch/sugar content in this recipe  is low enough?  I have a small horse, and a 50 pound bag of unsweetened beet pulp (used for her med levothyroxine—weight loss—and Remission supplement, and soon to be Vermont Blend balancer and vit E capsules as soon as it arrives), which she likes, so I’m thinking about making these treats using beet pulp instead. What do you think about this recipe?

Any other advice?  I’m really wishing I could get her out of the small paddock. I don’t want to completely close off a grazing muzzle because she is very sensitive and emotional and I think it would make her so frustrated and stressed out that it will do more harm than good. I could tape part of it off so she could still hunt down a little bit of grass, but not much. And of course watch her like a hawk and she would like to make sure she doesn’t get it off. Is this even a possibility with her? She’s really becoming unhappy and very grumpy with her current living situation. 


Dorothy Marsh, NY, USA. 2022


Good morning Dorothy,

Welcome to the ECIR group!  I’m sending you this welcome from the group as a response to your first post here.  There is a lot to read about our group and how it can help you and your little mare.  And there are more worthwhile links to follow.

I live in Vermont so I know what it feels like to have all that spring grass around me but not being able to allow most of my equines to ‘enjoy’ it.  Everything will be better all around if they aren’t allowed any unmuzzled  access to it.  I have a mini and a Shetland who share a ‘dry lot’ but are allowed muzzled access to more space for an hour or two every morning.  Ponies are very thrifty and being small they are very likely to be genetically IR, meaning that they will be fine with the proper diet and not so fine if their access to sugars and starches exceeds 10% ESC plus starch.  Grassy turnout is not worth the risk of laminitis - for either pony.  They will be happy together and more comfortable without hoof pain inducing grass.  

The welcome that follows will speak to the emergency diet, which requires that your hay be soaked until it is tested and found to be appropriately low ESC+starch.  You can feed timothy balance cubes  safely at a ratio of 4# for every 5# of hay they might need.  I need to feed my two ponies separately because the mini will crowd the Shetland away from the feed and he definitely doesn’t need that.

A good treat would be a piece of timothy balance cube or small amount of Nuzu Stabul 1. Some ponies are happy with a piece of celery.  You’ll find lots of suggestions if you search our messages archives.  There’s also a treat recipe in the files.

She can be acclimated to needles if you take your time but it won’t be an overnight change.  I used to blindfold my needle shy mare but often I had good results having someone else hold her as I knew what was about to happen and easily transmitted my anxiety.  I also found that if her teeth were floated first, she was perfectly willing to tolerate a needle.  A small amount of Rescue Remedy might help.  Others have used it successfully for this.  It’s important not to sedate her before drawing blood for a test because that can alter the results.

If you haven’t already, I’m sure you will receive lots more advice from others.  What follows is our welcoming letter.

The ECIR Group provides the best, most up to date information on Cushing's (PPID) and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)/Insulin Resistance (IR). Please explore our website where you'll find tons of great information that will help you to quickly understand the main things you need to know to start helping your horse. Also open any of the links below (in blue font) for more information/instructions that will save you time.

Have you started your Case History? If you haven't done so yet, please join our case history sub-group. We appreciate you following the uploading instructions so your folder is properly set up with the documents inside. Go to this CH message with info on how to use various devices and forms. If you have any trouble, just post a message to let us know where you are stuck. 

Orienting information, such as how the different ECIR sections relate to each other, message etiquettewhat goes where and many how-to pages are in the Wiki. There is also an FAQs on our website that will help answer the most common and important questions new members have. 

Below is a general summary of our DDT/E philosophy which is short for Diagnosis, Diet, Trim and Exercise.


DIAGNOSIS: There are two conditions dealt with here: Cushings (PPID) and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)/Insulin Resistance (IR). These are two separate issues that share some overlapping symptoms. An equine may be either PPID or EMS/IR, neither or both. While increasing age is the greatest risk factor for developing PPID, IR can appear at any age and may have a genetic component. Blood work is used for diagnosis as well as monitoring the level of control of each.

PPID is diagnosed using the Endogenous ACTH test, while EMS/IR is diagnosed by testing non-fasting insulin and glucose.

The fat-derived hormone leptin is also usually abnormally elevated in insulin resistance but because there are many other things which can lower or increase leptin ECIR is not recommending routine testing for this hormone. Leptin is the hormone that says "stop eating".

In Europe, adiponectin is tested instead of leptin. Adiponectin helps regulate glucose and fat burning, and maintain insulin sensitivity. Low levels are associated with EMS. It has come to be preferred over leptin because it is not influenced by things like weight or exercise, and also because it was the only factor other than insulin levels that predicted laminitis risk

*Before calling your vet to draw blood for tests, we suggest saving time and wasted money by reading these details and then sharing them with your vet so that everyone is on the same page regarding correct testing and protocols.

*Please remember to request copies of the results of all the tests done rather than just relying on verbal information. Your vet should be able to email these to you. If you have previous test results, please include those as well. All should go in your CH, but if you are having any trouble with the CH, just post in the messages for now. 

Treatment: EMS is a metabolic type - not a disease - that is managed with a low sugar+starch diet and exercise (as able). The super-efficient easy keeper type breeds such as minis, ponies, Morgans, Arabs, Rockies are some of the classic examples. PPID is a progressive disease that is treated with the medication pergolide. Some, but not all, individuals may experience a temporary loss of appetite, lethargy and/or depression when first starting the medication. To avoid this "pergolide veil" (scroll down for side effects), we recommend weaning onto the drug slowly and the use of the product APF. The best long term results are seen when the ACTH is maintained in the middle of the normal range at all times, including during the annual seasonal rise. To accomplish this, the amount of medication may need to increase over time. Neither condition is ever "cured", only properly controlled for the remainder of the equine's life. If your partner is both PPID and IR then both medication and diet management will be needed. 

DIET: Almost all commercial feeds are not suitable - no matter what it says on the bag. Please see the International Safe Feeds List for the safest suggestions.

No hay is "safe" until proven so by chemical analysis. The diet that works for IR is:

  • low carb (less than 10% sugar+starch)
  • low fat (4% or less) 
  • mineral balanced  

We use grass hay, tested to be under 10% ESC + starch, with minerals added to balance the excesses and deficiencies in the hay, plus salt, and to replace the fragile ingredients that are lost when grass is cured into hay, we add ground flax seed and Vitamin E. This diet is crucial for an EMS/IR horse, but also supports the delicate immune system of a PPID horse. 

*Until you can get your hay tested and balanced we recommend that you soak your hay and use the emergency diet (scroll down for it).  The emergency diet is not intended for long term use, but addresses some of the most common major deficiencies. Testing your hay and getting the minerals balanced to its excesses and deficiencies is the best way to feed any equine (look under the Hay Balancing file if you want professional help balancing). If you absolutely cannot test your hay and balance the minerals to it, or would like to use a "stop gap" product until you get your hay balanced, here's a list of "acceptable" ration balancers

There is a lot of helpful information in the start here folder so it is important you read all the documents found there. The emergency diet involves soaking your untested hay for an hour in cold water or 30 minutes in hot water. This removes up to 30% of the sugar content, but no starch. Starch is worse than sugar since it converts 100% to glucose while sugar only converts 50%, so starch causes a bigger insulin spike. Make sure you dump the soaking water where the equine(s) can't get to it. 

What you don't feed on the EMS/IR diet is every bit as, if not more important than, what you do feed! No grass. No grain. No sugary treats, including apples and carrots. No brown/red salt blocks which contain iron (and sometimes molasses) which interferes with mineral balancing, so white salt blocks only. 

No products containing molasses. No bagged feeds with a combined sugar and starch of over 10% or starch over about 4%, or fat over about 4%. Unfortunately, even bagged feeds that say they are designed for IR and/or PPID equines are usually too high in sugar, starch and/or fat. It’s really important to know the actual analysis and not be fooled by a name that says it is suitable for EMS/IR individuals.

We do not recommend feeding alfalfa hay to EMS/IR equines as it makes many of them laminitic. Although it tends to be low in sugar, many times the starch is higher and does not soak out. Additionally, protein and calcium are quite high, which can contribute to sore footedness and make mineral balancing very difficult.

TRIM: A proper trim is toes backed and heels lowered so that the hoof capsule closely hugs and supports the internal structures of the foot. Though important for all equines, it's essential for IR and/or PPID equines to have a proper trim in place since they are at increased risk for laminitis. After any potential triggers are removed from the diet, and in PPID individuals, the ACTH is under control, the realigning trim is often the missing link in getting a laminitic equine comfortable. In general, laminitic hooves require more frequent trim adjustments to maintain the proper alignment so we recommend the use of padded boots rather than fixed appliances (i.e. shoes, clogs), at least during the initial phases of treatment.

Sometimes subclinical laminitis can be misdiagnosed as arthritis, navicular, or a host of other problems as the animal attempts to compensate for sore feet. 

You are encouraged to make an album and post hoof pictures and any radiographs you might have so we can to look to see if you have an optimal trim in place. Read this section of the wiki for how to get a hoof evaluation, what photos are needed, and how to get the best hoof shots and radiographs.

EXERCISEThe best IR buster there is, but only if the equine is comfortable and non-laminitic. An individual that has had laminitis needs 6-9 months of correct realigning trims before any serious exercise can begin. Once the equine is moving around comfortably at liberty, hand walking can begin in long straight lines with no tight turns. Do not force a laminitic individual to move, or allow its other companions to do so. It will begin to move once the pain begins to subside. Resting its fragile feet is needed for healing to take place so if the animal wants to lay down, do not encourage it to get up. Place feed and water where it can be reached easily without having to move any more than necessary. Be extremely careful about movement while using NSAIDs (bute, banamine, previcox, etc.) as it masks pain and encourages more movement than these fragile feet are actually able to withstand. Additionally, NSAIDs (and icing) do not work on metabolic laminitis and long term NSAID use interferes with healing. Therefore, we recommend tapering off NSAIDs after the first week or so of use. If after a week's time your equine's comfort level has not increased, then the cause of the laminitis has not been removed and keeping up the NSAIDs isn't the answer - you need to address the underlying cause.


There is lots more information in our files and archived messages and also on our website. It is a lot of information, so take some time to go over it and feel free to ask any questions. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don't worry, you will catch on, and we are always here to help you! Once you have your case history uploaded, we can help you help your equine partner even better.

For members outside North America, there are country specific folders in the files and many international lists in the wiki to help you find local resources.

If you have any technical difficulties, please let us know so we can help you. 

Martha in Vermont
ECIR Group Primary Response
July 2012 
Logo (dec. 7/20/19), Tobit(EC) and Pumpkin, Handy and Silver (EC/IR)

Martha and Logo


Kirsten Rasmussen

Hi Dorothy, 

If you're looking for a safe easy treat, non-molassed beet pulp pellets are fine.  Just keep in mind that they add calories so you should reduce her hay accordingly as she is overweight.  A 1/4 cup for a mini is quite a bit.  I use 1/4 cup for my full size horse.  The flax treats are meant for only giving 1 or 2 at a time, I'm not sure I'd use them for reward based training because of the apple sauce and the size of the treat.  For your training I'd stick with beet pulp or Martha's suggestions.

Vaccinations will often put a horse, that is already struggling with IR, over the edge into laminitis.  Once the IR is better controlled through diet and exercise, vaccinations should be less of an issue.  You can also have them administered individually a couple weeks apart if you can overcome the needle phobia.  Reward based training should help with that.  My boarder also has a needle phobic but very food motivated horse, so when the vet was drawing blood this spring, at the moment of distraction she let her horse bury her head into a dish of alfalfa pellets.  It's the first time she's had a needle without sedation.

At 8 she is fully mature and without strict dietary control you will likely see more problems with her IR worsening with age.  Since you could have another 30 years with her, it's worth the time now to set up a large enough grass-free area for her as Martha suggested.  It doesn't have to be very big for a mini, especially if you exercise her regularly.  She will adapt to her new normal.

Kirsten and Shaku (IR + PPID) - 2019
Kitimat, BC, Canada
ECIR Group Moderator
Shaku's Case History
Shaku's Photo Album