Everywhere you turn these days, people are talking about fats. More specifically, essential fatty acids or EFAs. Flax-based cereals jump out at us from the television screen, and cod liver oil – a monthly staple when my mother was a child – is making a comeback, albeit in a flavored form, thank goodness.

So what about our equine friends? Do they need to worry about these all important fats? The simple answer is “yes”.

But before I explain why, let me backtrack a bit.

For animals and people there are basically three forms of foods – proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Proteins are made up of amino acids, carbohydrates are derived from sugars and starches and fats come from either vegetables or “seeds”, or animal sources such as tuna, mackerel, butter or lard. Although some fats are good for our horses, others are not. Animal fats fall into the second category (not surprising since horses are herbivores) and other fats, depending on processing, may actually cause an inflammatory response in some horses.

A horse’s body, like a human’s, can make a number of EFAs. But they can’t synthesize Omega 3 and 6 and must acquire them in their diet. Many people think that horses don’t eat “fats” in nature so it’s unnatural to supplement their diets. Remember, though, that horses in the wild or on healthy pasture do eat “seeds”, which contain natural EFAs. Whole unprocessed oats or other grains provide another natural source of these important fatty acids.

Unfortunately, most horses are kept in “un-natural” environments. They can’t forage in natural pastures filled with variety, and instead eat diets of stored hays and overly processed feed stuffs. This processing, coupled with extended storage, destroys the essential enzymes along with any naturally occurring EFAs.

Please note: Horses who are metabolically challenged such as “easy keepers” or insulin resistant horses who are or have been laminitic, shouldn’t have the grain in their diet, be turned out in lush pastures, or have high sugar hay without risking another bout of their particular disorder. They do need to be supplemented with the EFAs to support the various biological processes in their bodies with either high quality oil, ground flax seed, sunflower seeds, etc.

The benefits of EFAs
Many biological processes in the horse’s body need EFAs. In fact, they are essential for the production of hormones, as well as absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. How do they work? They are components of very important regulatory substances called prostaglandins, which are responsible for transporting oxygen to the tissues, controlling inflammation, synthesizing hormones and maintaining cellular tissues.

Fatty acids provide a dense source of calories, supplying a sustained source of energy for horses in heavy training, showing or competing. This is of particular importance as EFA supplementation is also a “calming” energy source since it helps to stabilize blood sugar and prevent sugar related mood swings.

Diets high in fats and oils have also been advocated for horses who may have Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM), Insulin Resistance (IR), equine eczema and ulcerative colitis. For laminitic horses, a study performed at the University of Georgia shows that supplementing with Omega 3 may help to inhibit the occurrence of laminitis. It has also been shown to support hoof growth.

For the metabolically challenged horse, supplementing with EFAs helps reduce glycemic responses and insulin release when fats or oils are top dressed as part of a high fiber, low carb diet. The fat slows gastric emptying and starch digestibility so that it stabilizes the sugar and carbs, resulting in no sugar spikes. However, the fat or oil given to these horses needs to be very high quality and naturally processed.

EFAs also assist in producing anti-inflammatory substances in the body, which are necessary for proper immune function, collagen formation, and the prevention of some arthritic conditions. In fact, some studies show that supplementation of EFAs will enhance the integrity of joint and connective tissues, as well as bone density.

Quality EFA sources
Omega 3 is a fragile compound, extremely sensitive to light, heat, and oxygen, and you won’t find it readily available in commercial feeds or supplements. You will more often see “Omega 6” listed on commercial horse feed bags. Unfortunately, manufacturers usually derive Omega 6 from highly processed corn, soy or other inexpensive oils, which can set up a “catabolic” or internal muscle wasting, injury prone state for the horse. It may in fact exacerbate muscle wasting conditions in EPSM horses.

Since some oils are not as stable as, let’s say butter, many manufacturers will hydrogenate (or process) them which can result in toxic residue being left behind. The heat process can also damage some of the biological usefulness and reduce the amount of naturally occurring vitamin E. To ensure you’re feeding a quality oil, look for un-processed, cold pressed and natural oils. Many feed stores now carry un-processed EFA-rich oils for your horse, as do several of the online equine nutritional companies.

As well, you can find feedstuffs which contain both Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. These would include flax, sunflower, safflower, sesame and hemp. Flax contains the highest concentrations of Omega 3 (Alpha Linolenic acid), which is lacking in horses fed only hay, while sunflower, hemp and soy contain the highest amounts of Omega 6 (Linoleic Acid). Coconut oil contains Omega 7 (Palmitoleic Acid).

Take home message
Feeding EFA-rich unprocessed (unrefined) oils or quality seeds can add a pleasant aroma and taste to your horse’s feed, while providing the amino acids he needs to sustain energy and utilize certain vitamins (including B, E, and K). You’ll notice a wonderful new luster in your horse’s coat, and by slowing the metabolism of his feed stuffs, you may even help prevent some types of colic and laminitis.

So pass the fat – the good fat, that is – and help your equine friend live a healthier life.

Hint: Do not confuse “Essential Fatty Acid” oils with supermarket products such as corn or vegetable oils, which are over processed and very toxic, as well as inflammatory to a horse’s system. For an oil to contain EFAs, it must be fresh and un-refined (non-hydrogenated).

Common benefits of essential fatty acids
• Healthy skin, coat and hooves
• Helps to stabilize sugar and carbohydrates, reducing glucose spikes
• Supports immune system function
• Builds healthy joints and suppresses inflammation
• Avocated for insulin resistant and EPSM horses
• May help prevent laminitis