The facts on flax – the value of flaxseed in your horse’s diet

Flaxseed is healthy for humans, but did you know it offers the same benefits to your horse? 

Flax is a versatile plant that humans have been using since ancient times. It grows in flowered stalks up to four feet tall. The inner cellulose fibers found in flax stalks are woven into textile products, such as linen. Oil (known as linseed) is derived from the plant’s seeds. The nutritious seeds themselves are produced in small brown pods. Humans consume flaxseed for its health benefits – and it’s also commonly fed to horses because of its nutritional content.

Flaxseed provides essential elements for optimal equine feed

1. Fat and fiber

Flaxseed is known for its high fat and digestible fiber content, and increases the caloric value in equine feed. According to Dr. Wendy Pearson, Assistant Professor of Equine Physiology at the University of Guelph, “Flax is over 40% total fat and almost 30% fiber.”

2. Omega fatty acids (in proper ratio)

In addition to its rich caloric content, flax has one of the best natural ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega fatty acids offer countless benefits to the equine body, such as aiding the immune system, protecting joints, supporting gastric health, reducing airway inflammation, reducing excitability, and aiding skin and coat health and shine.

It is important that Omega fatty acids are fed in the proper ratio. Omega-6s cause swelling, which is an integral part of injury recovery and immune function, but which can become harmful if Omega-6s are fed in too high a ratio as compared to Omega-3s. “Flax is more than 70% polyunsaturated fat, with a 1 to 0.3 Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio,” says Dr. Pearson. “There are other oilseeds with high fat content, but flax is unique in its excellent fatty acid profile. High Omega-3 promotes a less inflammatory environment in the body, and maintains fluidity of cell membranes.” Unlike flax, soybean oil registers a 1 to 7.5 imbalance of Omega 3 to 6, and corn oil has a startling 1 to 46.1 ratio!

3. Alpha linolenic acid

While fresh grass is a good source of Omega fatty acids, hay is a very poor source and often requires supplementation. There is one Omega-3 fatty acid horses cannot make by themselves – alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which Dr. Pearson considers the “parent” Omega-3 fatty acid. Higher quantities of ALA are found in flaxseed than in two other popular Omega-3 sources — chia seed and fish oil.

Feeding your horse flaxseed

Horses, as hindgut fermenters, process fats in their foreguts and fiber in their hindguts. As grazing animals, horses derive most of their energy (30% to 70%) from fiber. Interestingly, horses cannot digest fiber alone; their healthy gut bacteria does it for them. The results are nutrients and volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which become slow-release energy for the horse. Flax, naturally high in fiber, is an excellent supplement for working horses, who are likely not getting adequate nutrition from dry forage alone.

Flaxseed is best fed ground; when the seeds are fed whole, the hard coating restricts accessibility to the nutritional content, namely the fatty acids. A word of caution – ground flaxseed oxidizes quickly, leading to rancidity and greatly diminishing the nutritional content. It’s best to grind flax immediately before it is consumed, or to buy a stabilized flax product. Flax can also be fed in the form of oil, which increases the fat percentage, though many find this a costly option when used in quantities necessary for a horse.

The healthiest diet for any horse, and his gut bacteria, is constant access to high quality forage. “Flax can be an excellent addition to the diet of a horse that needs an increase in body condition,” says Dr. Pearson. Consider flax as a nutritional and natural supplement for horses that are aging, in hard work, or in need of joint support or an immune system boost.