chia seeds

Chia seeds bring healing and balance to your horse.

For years, chia has been famous for its ability to sprout out of ceramic containers shaped like pets or farm animals. In mere days, the chia seeds grow and simulate a furry coat or hair.

The truth is, chia seeds really are remarkable, and not just for their ability to grow quickly. Produced by the Salvia hispanica plant, these tiny seeds are low in sugar and starch, high in water-soluble fibers and quality protein, and a concentrated source of Omega-3 fatty acids. They provide multiple health benefits, and protect virtually every area of your horse’s body.

A good source of Omega-3s

The perfect whole food for horses is living, healthy grass. It offers a variety of nutrients, but its fat content is especially worth noting. It contains the two necessary fatty acids – alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an Omega-3, and linoleic acid, an Omega-6 – in their proper balance, with four times more ALA than linoleic acid.

Without access to fresh grass, your horse relies on supplemented fat. Unfortunately, the fat added to most feeds comes from “vegetable oil” (another term for soybean oil), which is very high in Omega-6s. Too many Omega-6s increase inflammation. The high level of Omega-3s found in chia seeds has the opposite effect – they decrease inflammation. In fact, chia seeds benefit your horse in a variety of ways by:

• Lowering circulating insulin and glucose

• Balancing immune function

• Protecting joints and ligaments

• Reducing pain

• Decreasing nervousness

• Improving heart and blood vessel integrity

• Reducing allergic reactions to insect bites

• Diminishing respiratory inflammation

• Supporting normal gastrointestinal function

• Maintaining hair and hoof health

• Healing damaged skin

• Hydrating intestinal contents

Protein and fiber

Chia seeds contain approximately 20% quality protein. This boosts the amino acid variety available to your horse, allowing him to produce hundreds of proteins throughout the body such as those found in muscles, bones, joints, skin, hooves, lungs, liver, kidneys and blood, as well as those which aid in digestion, immune function, water balance and nutrient transport.

Mucilages, gums and pectin are water-soluble fibers found in chia seeds, which form a gel in water. This significantly benefits your horse in two ways:

• It lowers circulating insulin by reducing glucose absorption.
• It reduces the incidence of sand colic by facilitating sand removal from the cecum.

Antioxidant action

Antioxidants known as chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin and quercetin naturally occur within chia seeds to protect their fatty acids from rancidity. Inside your horse’s body, they act to neutralize damaging free radicals, thereby reducing pain, inflammation and vulnerability toward disease. Protection against Cushing’s and insulin resistance Horses suffering from insulin resistance (metabolic syndrome) or equine Cushing’s disease (otherwise known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction – PPID) require a diet low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). Chia seeds support this diet. They are low in NSC (less than 5%). Even more dramatic is their ability to enhance insulin sensitivityi because of their high Omega-3 content, offering a critical component in the fight to prevent laminitis. PPID affects many horses as they age, and is generally due to the oxidative stress caused by exposure to mental and physical challenges, chemicals in the environment, and a diet low in antioxidants. Free radicals target dopamine-releasing neurons in the brain, leading to the onset of PPID. The Omega-3s and antioxidants offered by chia seeds reduce free radical formation, thereby counteracting the propensity toward and severity of the disease.

Calm down

Fat has the ability to calm hot temperaments. Researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Instituteiv noticed that horses fed more fat relative to grains were less reactive to startling stimuli and had lower levels of excitability and anxiety. The high fat content of chia seeds offers this benefit. But it gets better – the high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids further calm the nervous system. Even mares enduring estrus cycle inflammation can become more tranquil.

Chia vs. flax

Both chia and flax are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and can be fed interchangeably for this purpose. In fact, flax has slightly more Omega-3s than chia, with an Omega-3 to 6 ratio closer to that found in pasture grasses (see table on next page).

However, chia seeds do offer some benefits over flaxseeds. Chia does not require grinding and therefore has a longer shelf life (since grinding exposes the unsaturated fatty acids to oxygen). Chia, unlike flax, does not contain phytoestrogens, which can cause fertility problems as well as alter behavior.

There is some concern about flax containing cyanogenic compounds, potentially leading to hydrogen cyanide (HCN) gas formation. However, flaxseeds are safe to feed since the acidic stomach contents destroy the enzyme necessary to produce HCN. It should be noted, however, that soaking flaxseeds can lead to HCN production since water allows the enzyme to function normally. Therefore, flaxseeds should never be soaked before feeding.

How much chia to feed

Feed ½ cup (120 ml) per 1,100 lb (500 kg horse) as a maintenance dose. Higher amounts may be helpful for healing purposes, but should not exceed two cups per day. Chia seeds may be fed dry, top-dressed on a meal, or soaked ahead of time and mixed in with other ingredients.

A word about other equines

Ponies, minis, donkeys and mules cannot tolerate high levels of fat like horses can. They are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, which is exacerbated by obesity. Therefore, high fat feeds such as chia seeds may be too high in calories and should be fed at a reduced level. Approximately one third the amount normally fed to horses (adjusted for size) will give them the Omega-3s they need. In addition, since chia is high in protein, dosing should be monitored. This is especially true for donkeys and mules; they require less protein, since they have the ability to recycle up to 80% of the urea created during protein metabolism.

Bottom line

Including chia seeds in the diet is an excellent way to enhance your horse’s health. They are easy to feed, have a long shelf life and horses love their taste. More importantly, they bring healing to inflammatory conditions, allergies and illnesses, calming every cell within your horse’s body.

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Dr. Juliet M. Getty earned her Master of Science degree in Animal Nutrition at the University of Florida. She completed her doctoral coursework in Animal Nutrition at the University of Georgia, and continued her studies at the University of North Texas, where she earned her PhD. Winner of several teaching awards, Dr. Getty has taught comparative nutrition studies at the University of North Texas for 20 years. At the same time, she has been working in the field, consulting privately with horse owners to customize feeding plans that address a variety of health conditions. Recently retired from academia, she now resides in Denton, Texas, where she devotes herself full-time to equine nutrition. Through her consulting company, Getty Equine Nutrition, she provides consultations locally, nationally and internationally.