Research shows that feeding horses essential fatty acids can support skin, hooves, brain, joints, as well as digestive, reproductive and pulmonary systems.
Recent research indicates that feeding horses essential fatty acids (EFAs) can support their skin and hooves, as well as the brain, joints, and digestive, reproductive and pulmonary systems. Another benefit of supplementing with fat is that it generates less internal heat during digestion than protein or carbohydrates do, thereby keeping your horse cooler.
Which horses benefit?
Horses with higher energy requirements, such as pregnant or lactating mares, growing horses, performance horses and those recovering from accidents, injury or surgery, can benefit from EFAs. In addition, EFAs can allow lactating mares to breed again more quickly; enable horses to more efficiently and safely meet their energy requirements; improve coat condition; and reduce the risk of dehydration, because one byproduct of fat metabolism is water.
Horses on pasture eat living plants that contain fatty acids as part of their cell wall structure, as well as seed heads of grasses and other grains that also contain large amounts of EFAs. Unfortunately, typical equine diets lack EFAs because grains are processed and hay is dried, thereby damaging their natural fatty acid content.
The importance of EFAs
Important for many biological processes in the body, EFAs are required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, K and the carotenes, and are critical for the production of hormones and healthy cell membranes. Essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured or synthesized by the horse’s body from any other nutrients.
EFAs supply energy in the form of fat and have 2.25 times more calories than protein or carbohydrates – they offer an average of nine calories per gram versus the four calories per gram provided by protein or carbohydrates. The body metabolizes EFAs in the small intestine, after which they can be stored for energy or used as an immediate source of fuel. They can consequently act as an energy reserve in the form of stored fat under the skin, around organs and/or in the membranes surrounding the intestines.
Feeding fat to your horse
EFAs are important as a dense source of calories, providing a sustained source of caloric energy. Horses are very efficient in utilizing and digesting fat as a source of fuel. What is fed early in the morning is slowly metabolized and utilized throughout the day. In addition, because EFAs are so good at providing calories to the equine diet, many “hard keepers” benefit greatly; the digestion rate is evened out so gastric emptying is slowed and blood sugar stabilized.
Another benefit of EFAs is that they are a dense “calming” energy source, resulting in stable weight gain while preventing blood sugar related mood swings. In fact, one of the most significant benefits of good quality fat supplementation is the fat’s ability to keep blood sugar patterns steady, stable and predictable. Inadequate fat intake can contribute to unstable blood sugar patterns that challenge the horse’s metabolism by causing an increase in the release of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) and insulin, with possible effects on mood, performance, immune function and body composition. Because fats digest so much more slowly, blood sugar does not fluctuate as easily, thus reducing the release of stress hormones and insulin.
Easy keepers also need good quality fat sources, though in smaller quantities, to support normal endocrine function and blood sugar patterns. Again, this achieves better balanced levels of stress hormones and insulin, substantially affecting metabolic function.
Know your fats
Saturated: Solid at room temperature. Mostly animal fats, but include coconut and palm kernel oils.
Mono-unsaturated: Liquid at room temperature and include vegetable fats, rice bran and olive oils. polyunsaturated fats: Liquid at room temperature and have more than one double bond. all essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated and include omega-3s and 6s.
Omega-3: Includes alpha linolenic acid from vegetable fats such as fl ax and fish oil, that contain the more biologically efficient EPA and DNA.
Omega-6: occurs naturally in virtually all vegetable oils, especially soybean oil. refined oils: Processed and stripped of “impurities”, which can often be the source of valuable nutrients.
Unrefined oils: Contain natural antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta carotene, tocotrienols and other tocopherols. They have a longer shelf life and are more easily digested.
It is interesting to note that a Texas A&M University study (titled “alteration in the Inflammatory Response in athletic Horses Fed Diets Containing omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty acids”) revealed that crude unrefined soybean oil reduced inflammatory responses in horses. Comparatively, refined corn oil was shown to cause an increase in inflammation.