Omega-3 & 6 Fatty Acids in Horse Feeds

The energy (calorie) portion for horse diets has traditionally been based in sugars and starches. It is only in the last decade or two, with focused research, that nutritionists realized fats are a viable and excellent source of calories for many horses. Typically, horse diets founded in forage and grains were lower in fat and little attention was paid to its benefits. However, since fats are now fed as a higher percentage of the horse’s diet, research has begun to recognize the many positives of this nutrient.

What Are Omega Fatty Acids?

Fatty acids are the basic building blocks of fat. During digestion, fat is broken down into fatty acids, which are then absorbed and utilized in the body in many ways. Due to their difference in chemistry, fats come in two forms:

  • Saturated Fats, which are solid at room temperature, are usually found in animal meat (i.e., beef, pork), dairy products, and certain plant-based oils (palm and coconut oil). They are not common in horse feeds.
  • Unsaturated Fats, which are liquid at room temperature, are usually found in many of our plant-based oils (soy, canola, olive, corn) and in fish. These are the preferred and common types of fats included in horse feeds.

Omega Fatty Acids (FA) are a type of poly-unsaturated fat. Because their chemistry differs, the various Omega FA elicit different physiological responses in horses. The two types of Omega FA that receive the most attention in equine nutrition are:

  • Omega-3 FA. It is referred to as ‘3’ because the final double bond is 3 carbon atoms away from the end of the chain of fatty acids, or the ‘omega.’ There are many types of Omega-3 FA, which include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA).
  • Omega-6 FA. Similarly, it is referred to as ‘6’ because the final double bond is 6 carbon atoms away from the end of the chain of fatty acids, or the ‘omega.’ The two types of Omega-6 FA most studied include linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (ACA).

Omega FA cannot be produced by the horse, rather horses must receive them from their diets. Forage is generally low in fat, with less than 3% of dry matter being fat. Of this, over 55% of fat found in forage are the Omega-3 FA. When hay is cut and due to weathering/degradation, the percent of fat drops and Omega-3 FA drops to about 20% of dry matter. Yet, while the percentages may seem low, forage or hay remains an important source of Omega FA to our horses due to the quantity they eat.

The Importance of Omega Fatty Acids in Equine Diets

Though fats have become recognized as an important nutrient for horses, the investigation into the importance of fats to equine health has increased dramatically. Focused research has demonstrated that each of the Omega FA play a key role in regulating health and performance of horses.

Specifically, Omega-3 FA have been recognized for their anti-inflammatory role in the horse. Because of the many health benefits, Omega-3 FA are now recognized as an important nutrient in many equine diets. Omega-3 FA have been attributed to the following health benefits to horses:

  • Healthier skin, coats, and hooves
  • Improved immune system function.
  • Quicker exercise recovery
  • Reduced severity of allergies and asthma (Heaves)
  • Reduction to insulin sensitivity
  • Improved joint health
  • Improved reproductive health
  • Potential improved cognition and brain function

On the flipside, Omega-6 FA have received less praise in equine nutrition because of their inflammatory role. Because inflammation is often viewed as being harmful to our horses, Omega-6 FA are often viewed less favorably. Yet, it is very important to remember that inflammation is part of the natural process of healing. Thus, Omega-6 FA play a key role in wound healing. In addition, they have shown to be important in bone growth, reproduction, and many other physiological functions.

The Right Balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 FA

Much of the equine nutrition research continues to focus on finding the right balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 FA in the diet. Because Omega-3 FA exerts an anti-inflammatory response and Omega-6 FA have an inflammatory role, it is recognized there needs to be a balance between the two. However, the ideal ratio is currently not known.

In the past, diets higher in grain or supplemented with corn or sunflower oil resulted in a higher Omega-6 to Omega-3 FA ratios. Yet, as mentioned earlier, research in horses is showing diets supplemented with Omega-3 FA exert greater health benefits. Thus, the current thought is horse diets should maintain a near 1:1 balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 FA. Good sources of Omega-3 FA include:

  • Forage, which is the foundation of any equine diet and has a higher ratio of Omega-3 FA compared to Omega-6 FA.
  • Flaxseed oil is a go-to supplement for horse owners seeking more Omega-3 FA in the diet, with a ratio as high as 4:1 of Omega-3 to Omega-6 FA.
  • Fish oil has long been recognized as being rich in Omega-3 FA. However, its use in horses is often limited due to palatability issues.
  • Canola oil derived from rapeseed has a lower ratio, with 2:1 of Omega-6 to Omega-3 FA. Yet, it can be a good choice to help keep the FA in balance.

Take Home Message

Omega FA are now seen as an important nutrient to our horses. While Omega-3 FA have received much praise for their positive affects observed in focused studies, it is important to remember Omega-6 FA are also important to our horses’ health. Thus, with the current research available, feeding FA in balance with each other appears to be the best strategy. If you have any questions about your feeding plan, please feel free to contact us for any help or advice.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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