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Essential Fatty Acids and the Equine Diet


Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

A horse looking out of his stall

You’ve probably noticed lots of ads for omega-3 fat supplements for horses, usually containing flaxseed meal or oil, marine algae or fish oil. Studies in humans have found many health benefits with supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. While research benefits for horses have not been as numerous, the research with omega-3 supplementation for horses has also shown some healthy results. The following information is to provide you with an understanding of essential fatty acids and how you may improve the diet and health of your horse.

Each molecule of fat or oil consists of three fatty acid molecules and one glycerol molecule. The horse needs a certain amount of fat in its diet, and almost all fats contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Horses require these two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids, the major ones are linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). These fats are termed essential fatty acids (EFA) because the horse’s metabolism can’t synthesize some carbon hydrogen bonds at some specific sites on the carbon chain; they must be consumed in the diet to be provided for making some hormones and other essential compounds. Although the exact EFA requirements for horses have not been established, they have been demonstrated as necessary for all animals and humans for many normal body functions. Deficiency of EFA in humans and animals includes hair loss, skin problems and impaired immune function.

Pasture grasses and hay, although containing only 2% to 3% fat, have greater concentrations of omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids. Cereal grains, such as corn and oats, contain much higher levels of omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Both rice bran oil and soybean oil are higher in omega-3 and lower in omega-6 fatty acid content than corn oil. And oils from flax and canola seeds contain the largest amounts of omega-3’s, with higher levels of omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil is the most concentrated plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, the most common one is linolenic acid (LNA) or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Fish oil is the greatest source of omega-3 fatty acids, with the highest omega-3:omega-6 ratio, and contains the omega-3’s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Horses can convert ALA into DHA and EPA in their body tissues, which are used in various physiological functions, so these are not required but may be limited in the horse’s diet.

The horse needs a balance of omega-3’s and omega-6’s to function at an optimal level, but the exact amounts or ratio of omega-3:omega-6 is not known. Research has focused on adding more omega-3’s, which increases the dietary ratio of omega-3:omega-6 fatty acids in the equine diet. Studies in horses have shown that high concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammatory processes by increasing the formation of prostaglandins. And the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to horse diets has been shown to reduce inflammatory processes by decreasing prostaglandin formation. For example, a study with actively worked reining horses found that supplementation with soybean oil compared to corn oil reduced inflammatory response in horses with the soybean oil dietary addition. Soybean oil has an 8% omega-3 fatty acid content compared to only 2% omega-3 fatty acid level for corn oil.

Generations of horse owners have fed flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed and observed an improved hair coat condition in their horses. Equine nutrition research studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation including improved hair coat, lowered skin inflammation when challenged with inflammatory substances, reduced inflammatory blood metabolites, increased sperm concentration and motility in older stallions, reduced joint inflammation, reduced heart rate during exercise and increased immune response.

The benefits of boosting the immune system and reducing inflammatory responses would be beneficial for horses that are aged, involved in intense exercise, or affected with allergic reactions, emphysema or heaves, degenerative joint disease and laminitis. Also, horses on high-grain diets and horses with allergic conditions and poor hair coat would benefit from higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

All horse feeds manufactured by Southern States use soy oil as their main source of fat, which provides increased amounts of omega-3’s compared to horse feeds manufactured with corn oil. All Triple Crown and Legends horse feeds contain added flaxseed for increased omega-3 fatty acid content.

The Legends horse feed line has two fat supplements available that allow you to increase the fat content of your horse’s diet. Legends Fortified Pelleted Rice Bran is an extruded pellet with 18% fat. Legends Omega Plus is an extruded flaxseed-based fat supplement. Legends Omega Plus has a fat content of 25%, and is recommended for show, breeding and performance horses. Triple Crown Omega Max is a stabilized flaxseed with a guaranteed two-year shelf life, Triple Crown Omega Max provides the greatest amount of omega-3 fatty acids of any bagged horse feed fat supplement available from Southern States.

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