Fat is an excellent source of calories – more than twice the calories offered by carbohydrates or protein, making it a great way to help your horse meet his energy needs while in training, working, or performing. Unlike sugary and starchy feeds like oats, sweet feeds, or grain-based products, fat doesn’t create insulin highs and lows, it doesn’t produce negative behavior, it doesn’t increase laminitis risk, and it doesn’t destroy the microbial population in the hind gut. But are all fat sources created equally? Read on…
First, what does “omega” mean anyway? It’s basically a numbering classification based on how fats are chemically configured. This has an influence on how the fat is metabolized, consequently affecting cells and tissues differently. The fat that you add to your horse’s diet (such as soybean oil, corn oil, flaxseed oil, etc.) provides a combination of these three omega types. The key is to know which types are in the highest concentration. Here’s why…
There are two fatty substances, one omega 3 and one omega 6, that are considered “essential,” meaning the horse’s body cannot produce them. Therefore, they must be in the diet. Chemically, they are considered “polyunsaturated.” Linoleic acid, the essential omega 6, while important, should not exceed alpha linolenic acid (ALA), the essential omega 3, because too much linoleic acid increase inflammation. If your horse suffered an injury, has aging joints, exercises regularly, or has an ulceration in his digestive tract, his inflammation level is already elevated. Feeding too much linoleic acid will exacerbate this situation and result in more pain.
Not all omega 6s have this impact. Gamma linolenic acid (GLA), for example, found in hempseed oil is a fatty acid that reduces inflammation.
Omega 3s, in general, do the reverse… they decrease inflammation. They do a lot of other beneficial things too, such as:
Omegas 9s are chemically “monounsaturated.” Though there is not much research on their effect in horses, human-based studies reveal that they have a protective effect on the heart, brain, and blood vessels.
Balancing omegas is easy to do once you know the proportion of each type of fat in common sources. For example, fresh, healthy pasture contains approximately 4 times more omega 3s than omega 6s, making it a perfect food. Commercially fortified feeds, however, often add “vegetable oil” which is usually soybean oil or corn oil. The omega 6 content of each of these two oils is more than 50%, making them poor choices when trying to reduce inflammation. To balance these oils, you can add sources that are very high in omega 3s, such as flaxseed meal, flaxseed oil, or Chia seeds. Fish oils are also predominantly omega 3s, but their use should be limited since horses are not fish eaters. A better source of marine oils would be high-DHA algae.[i]
To feed ground flaxseeds, it is best to limit the amount fed to no more than 1/2 cup per 400 lbs of body weight (120 ml per 180 kg of body weight). Chia seeds are also excellent and can be fed at 1/4 cup per 400 lbs of body weight (60 ml per 180 kg bw). The dosage for flaxseed oil should be 1.5 tablespoons per 400 lbs of body weight (22.5 ml per 180 kg body weight).
When feeding oils that are high in omega 6s, such as soybean, corn, and rice bran oils, they should not exceed the amount of omega 3 sources. Even though soybean oil has about 7% omega 3s, the vast majority of its content is from omega 6s. And, if your horse requires more fat than these can offer, you can safely add organic canola oil (high in omega 9s with some omega 3s). Finally, it’s best to avoid overfeeding coconut oil; some may be beneficial but there are no essential fatty acids and we don't have long term studies to promote its consumption over the long term.
Depending on the health status, exercise level, and condition of your horse, supplementation of fat may be beneficial. But other equines such as ponies, minis, donkeys, and mules cannot tolerate the high levels horses can. They require some fat, but generally 1/3 to 1/2 the amount given to horses.
Remember, fat needs to be in your horse’s diet, but not all fats are the same. Though they all provide the same number of calories, each fat source has its own individual omega profile, impacting your horse’s overall health.
[i] Vegetarian source of DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid that offers excellent anti-inflammatory properties can be found in Algae to Omega, in Dr. Getty's Free Shipping Store.
For permission to reprint this article, in part or in its entirety, please contact Dr. Juliet Getty directly at Gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.