The Athletic Rider: Irresistable Insulin

Are you a horse owner with an Insulin Resistant horse OR a rider facing Type 2 diabetes? Personal trainer/nutritionist Leah Hinnefeld explains just how much you have in common with each other!


An Athletic Rider would have to be stall bound without internet or cellular service to have not heard about two very serious and life threatening health issues that face both the horse and the rider. In each case, the cause and the management are the same. In each case the issue is considered by many medical and nutrition professionals to be a “lifestyle-related disease.”

What I am talking is the same metabolic issue that simply goes by a different name, depending on the audience. Insulin Resistance is the name of the metabolic disease in horses and Type 2 Diabetes is the name in humans.
What is Insulin Resistance/Type 2 Diabetes? 

Insulin Resistance/Type 2 Diabetes refers to a condition when the body has become resistant to insulin.  The body produces enough insulin but can’t properly use the insulin it produces because the cells are resistant to the effects of the insulin.

What happens when a body’s cells become resistant to insulin?

Insulin is responsible for transporting glucose into cells in the body. When the cells become resistant to insulin, glucose won’t be properly transported into the cells and remains in circulation. In other words, the glucose stays in the blood, resulting in high blood sugar.

What makes this condition even worse is the liver can also become resistant to insulin so it will continue to produce glucose. The liver then releases that glucose into the blood. The body produces more insulin to respond to the high glucose. The results? High blood glucose and high insulin levels.

Why should the Athletic Rider care?

Blood sugar levels that can’t be controlled can lead to kidney damage, nerve damage, organ failure, obesity, stroke, eye disease (including blindness), high blood pressure, non-functioning intestines, and cardiovascular disease. At least 65% of people with diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2) die from some kind of cardiovascular disease.

The most familiar complication we see in horses with Insulin Resistance is laminitis. Laminitis, unmanaged, can ultimately lead to founder and even death. What many owners do not realize is that laminitis is not just a hoof condition but a body-wide condition. Early signs of laminitis can present as SI pain, stifle issues, saddle-fit complaints, TMJ pain (presenting as bitting issues), High-Low Syndrome, and skin conditions sometimes misdiagnosed as sweet itch. The list goes on from there.

Can you make Insulin “Irresistible?”

I mentioned above that both Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes are classified as lifestyle-related diseases. A lifestyle-related disease is one that is, “caused and/or affected by the way we live (e.g. amount of exercise, quality of nutrition, smoking, stress, etc.).” † Simply put, this means that our choices for both ourselves and our horses when it comes to nutrition and exercise will have a big influence are whether the cells in our bodies find insulin “irresistible” or become resistant to it. 

According to the Diabetes Prevention Program, a change in lifestyle can be even more effective than medication when it comes to treating Type 2 Diabetes.

For humans this mean moving toward a diet rich in whole foods, healthy fats, limited refined carbohydrates and away from a diet that is predominantly processed foods, sugar and animal fat. For horses, the nutrition can be a little trickier, particularly for horses having unlimited access to lush pasture. I have personally managed my horses by offering a variety of hays and access to grass determined by work load.

That brings us to the second lifestyle change for a rider wanting to reduce the risk factor for herself and her horse-exercise. Exercise actually increases a cell’s response to insulin.In other worse, exercise makes cells less resistant to insulin. For most riders, a combination of resistance/strength training and aerobic exercises 3-5 times a week should do the trick. My horses respond best to about 4-6 hours a week of purposeful exercise (meaning not just wandering around a paddock or all you can eat pasture).

So what’s the bottom line?

Without question most people and horses are less active today than they were even 10-20 years ago. Daily labor has been replaced with daily desk jobs. A fast-paced life means little if any intentional exercise. Thoughtful meal preparation has been replaced with grab and go foods.  Horses have become pets without purpose. This does not mean petting a horse is not a wonderful way to enjoy one, but these animals are powerful and need daily work to remain healthy and sound.

Each and every horse and rider need a planned, purposeful and consistent fitness/ nutrition program to remain healthy, active and enjoy a happy and fulfilling life.

If you already have a plan and a program that you enjoy, stick with it! If you need a 60-Day jumpstart or some direction, check out The Athletic Rider Fitness Boot Camp. You and your horse will thank you for your investment in rider fitness.

† Berardi, John and Andrews, Ryan. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Certification Manual, Second Edition. Precision Nutrition, Inc., 2014. page 238.

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the Rider Fitness Boot Camps offered by The Athletic Rider.


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