Omegas for Horses
Most of us probably don’t concern ourselves with omegas all that much, but they are something to be aware of both in our own as well our horses’ diets.
What’s so great about omegas you might ask? Well. . .
Omegas are important because they:
- balance immune function;
- protect joints and ligaments;
- reduce airway inflammation;
- support gastrointestinal function;
- reduce skin allergies; and
- decrease nervousness.
The good news is that your horse is almost assuredly getting omegas from his diet already. But what we should be more concerned with is the type and the ratio of the omegas he’s getting.
To explain a bit more, there are three types of omegas: 3, 6, and 9. Omega 3 and omega 6 are two types of polyunsaturated fat which are considered essential fatty acids (EFAs) because the body cannot manufacture them on its own. Researchers have not yet determined an exact ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for horses. However, a ratio of 2 – 5:1 omega-3 to omega-6 is thought to be best. The main thing to keep in mind is that your horse should be getting MORE omega 3’s than omega 6’s in his overall diet.
The lesser talked-about omega-9 fatty acids are from a family of monounsaturated fats and are described as non-essential because our (and our horses’) bodies can synthesize them from other things we eat. Therefore, we don’t have to depend on direct dietary sources to get them.
As I stated above, omega 3’s are essential fatty acids and must be obtained from the diet. Omega 3’s are typically seen as the good guys because they are known to be anti-inflammatory. They are critical for brain function, and they also aid in healing the body.
And guess what? For horses, the best source for omega 3’s is fresh, green grass! (their natural food source)
When grass is cut and dried for hay, however, it loses some of its nutritive value, including quite a bit of omega content.
If your horse is on green pasture 24/7, he’s getting 6 to 20 times more omega 3’s than omega 6’s. Horses on grain/ hay diets get the exact opposite.
Here are some other good sources for omega 3’s:
Note: You’ll often see fish oil recommended for horses as a good source of omega 3’s. Personally, I don’t think this is a good idea since horses are not designed to eat fish. . . or oil which is produced from them. A lot of horse don’t like the taste either–go figure!
Omega 6’s are the other essential fatty acids, but horses require a lesser amount of this EFA. Omega 6’s often get a bad rap because they are known for causing inflammation and immune system reactions, BUT did you know that this is actually necessary in order to stabilize injuries and fight off infections? So in reality, omega-6’s aren’t bad–you just don’t want to overdo it with omega 6’s and throw the immune system out of whack.
The following commonly fed equine foods are high in omega-6 and should only be fed in limited amounts (and only in conjunction with higher amounts of omega 3’s):
- most oils including vegetable and corn oil (which you should probably just avoid altogether)
- sunflower seeds
- rice bran
Final Thoughts on Omegas
Again, chances are, if your horse is on pasture, he’s getting the right balance of omegas and you don’t need to worry too much about supplementation. But some horses can benefit from additional omegas in the diet, specifically, omega 3. These include:
- Horses that don’t have access to green pasture 24/7. (I supplement my own horses with flaxseed or flax oil in the winter when they are eating mostly hay.)
- Older horses, who have difficulty utilizing the omegas they consume in grass and feeds.
Also, don’t be afraid to feed a small amount of healthy foods which are higher in omega 6 (such as oats or sunflower seeds). Just make sure your horse’s overall diet is higher in omega 3 than 6, and you should be just fine.
Sources and Further Reading