Researchers from the University of Florida revealed that foals’ exposure to the omega 3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), in utero and early lactation can positively impact cognitive function and learning success.
Pregnant mares received an algae source of DHA from 250 days of gestation to 74 days of lactation. A longitudinal study of foals from two months of age, through two years of age, was performed to evaluate the cognitive abilities of the growing horses. The goal of this study was to determine if DHA supplementation during pregnancy and early lactation would have a similar beneficial impact on learning ability in horses as seen in infants and children.
At two months of age, foals were able to repeatedly touch their nose to a target object. At 6 months of age, memory recall improved on previously learned tasks. When re-evaluated as yearlings and 2-year-olds, the treated horses were better able to recall tasks learned since 2 months of age than those in the control group. Furthermore, new tasks were learned more quickly and horses exhibited perfect memory recall. These results indicate that exposure to DHA during the perinatal period and early lactation may improve long-term memory recall and enhance learning ability in young horses.
Though the amount of DHA is not indicated in this study, it is fair to assume that the mares received more DHA that the typical equine diet provides. To offer a high level of DHA, the diet would have to be supplemented with DHA-rich algae. DHA is not concentrated in commonly-fed plants. Instead, the omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is plentiful in fresh grasses; ALA is converted to DHA within the horse’s body, though at a relatively small rate. Furthermore, this conversion rate is reduced when high levels of omega 6s are in the diet, so it is important that omega 3s exceed omega 6s. Watch feed labels carefully, since most fat added to horse diets is from oils high in omega 6s -- including soybean, corn, rice bran, wheat germ, sunflower, and hempseed oils.
Grasses typically have an ideal ALA to linoleic acid ratio; however, these fatty acids are lost during hay production and storage. Suitable dietary sources of ALA are flax and chia seeds. Camelina oil is also high ALA and is offered commercially with added DHA-containing algae, or supplement DHA-rich algae separately.[i] Fish oils offer the highest concentration of DHA, though many horses dislike the taste.
Omega 3s have many benefits and should be fed to all horses. Typically, I recommend feeding 2 ounces by weight of ground flax or chia seeds per 400 lbs. of body weight (which provides approximately 10 grams of ALA). The goal during pregnancy, particularly the last trimester, as well as during early lactation, is to feed even more omega 3s. This study looked only at DHA; research with other omega 3s will be worthwhile.
Adkin, A.M., Muniz, A.V., Mortensen, C.J., & Warren, L.K. 2015. Maternal fatty acid supplementation influences memory and learning ability in yearling and 2-year-old horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 35(5), 419.
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