Lately there has been tremendous interest in the horse world about fat. In regards to human nutrition, “fat” is often considered a bad word, and low-fat diets are popular. But we should remember that in people, some fats are necessary and healthy. This is equally true for horses: fats play a very important role in horse feeds and nutrition.
There are many reasons to feed horses added fat. The best reason for using added fat is for an energy (calorie) source. The primary purpose for grain feeding is to provide energy for maintenance, performance, growth and reproduction. Because fat contains more than twice the calorie content of starch, and horses digest and utilize fat well, higher fat horse feeds offer an excellent opportunity to increase calorie intake without greatly increasing the quantity of feed.
Other reasons for adding fat to a feed ration include improved endurance, heat tolerance, hair coat and attitude:
- Horses on fat supplemented diets experience increased endurance because of a glycogen sparing effect. Glycogen is the fuel for muscular activity that is stored in the muscle cells. Horses that are on high fat diets conserve glycogen, which can help them finish a performance event stronger. This is particularly important in racing, eventing, cutting and other activities that require high performance over time.
- Horses trained in hot, humid environments show improvement to heat tolerance because fat supplemented rations generate less heat as a by-product of digestion. This becomes important in parts of the country where heat is prevalent.
- A shiny hair coat, a side benefit of added fat in the diet, is important to horse owners who are showing or selling horses. Higher fat levels, especially those that contain a balance of omega three and omega six fatty acids, are good choices for those in the show ring or sale ring business.
- Horse owners often report that horses that are fed lower-starch diets with added fat have a calmer attitude than those that are fed a conventional high starch and forage diet.
It is important to keep in mind that indiscriminate fat supplementation can create deficiencies of other nutrients. This is known as empty calories; where energy levels are adequate, but protein, lysine and mineral levels are not. Developmental bone problems can result which may precipitate injuries in young horses.
There also is a period of adjustment of about three to four weeks for horses to receive benefits from added fat. Any change in diet should be done gradually over seven to10 days to avoid the possibility of digestive upsets.
A balanced diet, tailored to the use and age of the horse, is the most important consideration. A trained nutritional consultant can make recommendations that will best fit your horse and the activity involved.