Supplementing Horse Diets with Omega Fatty Acids

As you look at your horses’ diet, it is important to remember that horses need a balance of both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids for optimal health and performance.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they simply have different roles in the body and must be in balance with each other for optimal health. 

As herbivores and nomadic grazers, horses are naturally adapted to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) compared to omega-6 fatty acids (LA).  The little bit of fat found in forages, particularly fresh pasture, is naturally high in ALA (omega-3) whereas oils from grains and seeds tend to be higher in LA (omega-6).  

Diets that include supplemental fat along with grain concentrates may have a skewed ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, and may not be as beneficial as a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  Dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to provide numerous benefits to horses, pets, and humans including:

  • Improved skin and hair coat quality
  • Decreased joint pain in arthritic individuals
  • Improved bone formation
  • Reproductive benefits
  • Prevention of gastric ulcers
  • Anti-inflammatory effects:
    • Alleviate allergic hyperactivity
    • Support horses in heavy work
    • Reduce exercise-induced bronchiole constriction

Unfortunately, scientists have not yet pinpointed the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for horses, however, fortifying a diet with these fatty acids to achieve a ratio of 2 – 5:1 omega-3 (ALA, EPA & DHA)  to omega-6 (LA) may provide some key benefits to your horse.  

As always, when adding dietary supplements to the diet, make sure the total diet stays balanced and that changes are made gradually so the horse’s digestive track has time to adjust.  Benefits from providing omega fatty acids in the diet are not realized immediately, but take 30 – 90 days of supplementation before benefits are detectable, so be patient and make sure your expectations are realistic.

DIETARY SOURCES OF POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS
Omega-6 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids
Corn oil (LA) Flaxseed (linseed) oil (ALA)
Safflower oil (LA) Fish oil (EPA, DHA)
Rice bran oil (LA) Soybean oil (ALA)
Sunflower oil (LA) Canola oil (ALA)
Borage (starflower) oil (LA) Mustard oil (ALA)
Cottonseed oil (LA)  
Grapeseed oil (LA)  
Peanut oil (LA)  
Primrose oil (LA)  
Sesame oil (LA)  
Soybean oil (LA)  
This entry was posted in Changing Horse Feed, Feeding Management, Horse Feed, Horse Nutrition, Supplements.
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25 Responses to Supplementing Horse Diets with Omega Fatty Acids

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  3. Arlene says:

    Just letting the horses graze on grass should give them all the essential fatty acids they need.

    • Emily L. says:

      Hello Arlene – Thanks for your comment on this subject. I completely agree that if the horse has enough access to fresh pasture, the essential fatty acid requirement can easily be met.

      However, the reality is there are many horses that have limited or no access to fresh forage year round, and others that cannot tolerate fresh forage due to metabolic disorders (Cushings, EMS, laminitic horses, etc.). Typical equine diets these days tend to be higher in hay and grain concentrates, and therefore tend have a skewed omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio. Supplementation of ALA and/or EPA/DHA to these horses, as well as horses under stress (performance horses, breeding stock, etc.) has been shown via controlled scientific studies to be safe and effective with numerous benefits from anti-inflammatory effects to improved skin and coat quality.

      Thank you ~ Dr. Emily Lamprecht

  4. Laura W says:

    We feed Nutrena Complete which claims to have 8% fat. Our horses are fed a blend of grass and grass + alfalfa hay. Rarely do they graze on fresh pasture. Should i still consider supplements and if so, which would you recommend?

    thanks,
    laura

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Laura, Great question. Your nutrition program sounds great. With the Life Design Compete plus your hay, the diet should be balanced. Supplementing omega-3 fatty acids to your horses in addition to their current nutrition may provide some extra benefit, especially if the horses are in moderate to heavy work or under other types of stress. I like to recommend marine sources (fish oil) of omega-fatty acids that are stabilized, of which the majority of that oil is omega-3 (EPA/DHA). Although there are no NRC requirements or recommendations published, supplementation of these products seem to provide benefit at 9 – 35 grams per day per evidence in peer reviewed scientific publications. As with adding any supplement to a horses ration, be sure to make the transition gradually (over 7 days) to prevent GI upset. Additionally, a purified (fishy scent/taste reduced) may help with palatability, as these types of products usually do not smell/taste very good to horses. They usually adapt and get used to the product over time. Please let us know if you have any more questions.
      Thank you ~ Dr. Emily Lamprecht

  5. Sandra L says:

    How much Omega 3 and 6 should a horse have daily? I have read ratios but not amounts.

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Sandra,
      Great question. I recommend supplementation of marine-derived (fish oil) omega-3 fatty acids of which a majority of that oil should be EPA/DHA. Although there are no NRC requirements or clear recommendations published, evidence in scientific literature suggests that 9.5 – 35 grams per day of total omega-3 and/or approximately 7 grams per day of EPA/DHA (70 mg/kg body weight) for an average horse can be beneficial.
      Supplementation of omega-6 fatty acids is usually not necessary as this fatty acid requirement is easily met with a typical diet. As with adding any supplement to a horses ration, be sure to make the transition gradually (minimum of 7 days) to prevent GI upset.
      Also, please note that these products usually do not smell or taste very good to horses at first, but they seem to adapt and get used to the product over time. Please let us know if you have any more questions.

      Kind Regards,
      Emily Lamprecht, Ph.D.

  6. Melissa C says:

    Hello

    I have a pony with some Thyroid issues (cresty fatty neck). We have cut out all sugar from her diet. Her current feeding routine is Purina Well Solve L/S and grass hay. In her grain we mix 1/2 teaspoon WellPride Fish oil (once daily) and 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed (2 daily). What should we add if anything for the omega 6? What ratio should we add?

    Thank you
    Melissa C

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Melissa,
      Thanks for your question. It looks like you are doing all of the right things for your horse. Continuing to provide good quality grass forage at 1 – 1.5% of your horses body weight, the grain concentrate, and supplements per manufacturer’s directions is providing your horse with the balanced nutrients it needs. Omega 6 fatty acids are naturally more prevalent in typical horse rations, whereas achieving beneficial levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet tend to be more of a challenge, particularly with horses that do not tolerate fresh pasture. Therefore supplementing sources of omega-6 fatty acids is not necessary or recommended in this case.

      I did check the recommended supplementation rate for the Well Pride fish oil, and 1/2 teaspoon per day is well below the recommended rate, and most likely isn’t providing the extra benefit to your horse that you are intending. To achieve the recommended feeding rate, you would need to provide 6 teaspoons (1 oz.) per day to get to the 7 grams of omega 3 (EPA/DHA) per day that has been demonstrated to provide benefit. With the correct level of fish oil supplementation, the flax seed is most likely not providing extra benefit, therefore would not be needed in the diet.

      In addition to proper nutrition, regular exercise is key to managing body condition and has been shown to benefit horses with special metabolic needs. Any dietary changes should be made gradually. Good luck with your pony. Please let us know if you have any more questions.

      Thank you! ~Emily L.

  7. Jenifer says:

    I have a barrel horse that’s a bleeder. He’s currently running on lasix.
    What supplement should I use to increase his omega fatty acids?
    Or what does should he receive daily.
    Thanks

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Jenifer, thanks for the question. I recommend supplementation of marine-derived (fish oil) omega-3 fatty acids of which a majority of that oil should be EPA/DHA. Although there are no NRC requirements or clear recommendations published, evidence in scientific literature suggests that 9.5 – 35 grams per day of total omega-3 and/or approximately 7 grams per day of EPA/DHA (70 mg/kg body weight) for an average horse can be beneficial.

      Supplementation of omega-6 fatty acids is usually not necessary as this fatty acid requirement is easily met with a typical diet. As with adding any supplement to a horses ration, be sure to make the transition gradually (minimum of 7 days) to prevent GI upset.
      Also, please note that these products usually do not smell or taste very good to horses at first, but they seem to adapt and get used to the product over time. Please let us know if you have any more questions.

      Thanks! Emily L.

  8. Dorothy B says:

    Hello Emily
    I found Organic Flaxseed Oil softgels for humans. My horse likes and eats them in his beet pulp. One capsule has 700 mg Omega-3, 154 mg Omega-6 and 168 mg Omega-9 — total 1400 mg of Omegas. Is Omega-9 ok for horses and how many softgel should I give my horse. He is about 1450 pounds and 5 years old.
    Thank you very much for your answer
    Dorothy

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Dorothy,
      Thanks for your question. Omega-3 (alpha linolenic) and omega-6 (linoleic) fatty acids are polyunsaturated and essential to a horse’s diet, and Omega-9 (oleic) fatty acid is monounsaturated; it all has to do with their chemical structure. Unlike omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, omega-9 is not considered essential in a horse’s diet because their bodies actually manufacture this fatty acid from other unsaturated fatty acids on their own. Omega-9 can be found in olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, among other sources. If omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are balanced in the diet, extra omega-9 is not needed, but won’t hurt anything either if it is added to your horse’s ration.

      Although there is no NRC recommendation for dietary omega-fatty acids, supplementation of 9.5 – 35 grams per day of total omega-3 and/or approximately 7 grams per day of EPA/DHA (70 mg per kg body weight) for an average horse has been shown to be beneficial. With the flaxseed softgels you describe, you would need to feed approximately 15 soft gels per day to achieve ~10 grams of supplemental omega-3 or 21 grams of total omegas. Without knowing the EPA/DHA levels in the soft gels, I am unable to make a recommendation based on his body weight(~660 kg or 1450 lbs).

      As with any dietary changes, this should be added gradually to avoid any digestive upset. Additionally, marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids tend to be more concentrated, and may provide a more economical way to provide beneficial levels of dietary omega-fatty acids.

      Please let us know if you have any additional questions.
      Thanks ~ Emily L.

  9. Lee-Anne says:

    Hi, I am thinking of feeding my horse sunflower and linseed oil together. Is this ok to do? I want him to gain weight with out the fizz and also use it for all the health benefits. It seems as if sunflower oil is good for putting on weight and linseed oil is a good anti-inflamitory. If you advise that this is ok to be fed together then what amounts do you suggest? He is a THB 9years 16.1hh wieghs 565Kgs is out 24/7 on ok grass, gets fed once a day (alfa A oil, purabeet and conditioning cubes) and has just recovered from a slight muscle injury he tends to get a bit stressed at times too. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • Emily L. says:

      Hi Lee-Ann, Thank you for your question.

      It is great that your horse has 24/7 turnout out and access to pasture. Horses with enough access to good pasture can easily meet essential fatty acid requirements. For your horse to gain weight, you will need to ensure he gets more calories in the diet and to avoid highs and lows you will want to control the amount of starch and sugar per meal. It is important to identify if he is reaching his daily digestible energy (calorie) requirements for his activity level and life stage. If you are having trouble keeping weight on, you might consider checking to see if you are feeding the products you mentioned (alfa a oil and purabeet and conditioning cubes) at the recommended feeding rate for your horses life stage and activity level. You are feeding many products that are higher in fiber and they are forage type products which are good for horses but they tend to be lower in calories. Hay, beet pulp, grass pasture, and alfalfa are all forage type products higher in fiber but lower in calories and have 1/3 less calories compared to grains. Sometimes these can fill the horse up without reaching daily calorie requirements. The Alfa oil with the added fat has higher calories compared to the other products you are feeding and is closer to calorie content of grains. I recommend double checking the recommended feeding rate of Alfa oil and see if you are feeding within the recommended level and increase the amount if needed.

      To get the anti-inflammatory support I recommend supplementation of marine-derived (fish oil) omega-3 fatty acids of which a majority of that oil should be EPA/DHA. Although there are no NRC requirements or clear recommendations published, evidence in scientific literature suggests that 9.5 – 35 grams per day of total omega-3 and/or approximately 7 grams per day of EPA/DHA (70 mg/kg body weight) for an average horse can be beneficial. Additionally, marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids tend to be more concentrated, and may provide a more economical way to provide beneficial levels of dietary omega-fatty acids. Supplementation of omega-6 fatty acids is usually not necessary as this fatty acid requirement is easily met with a typical diet. As with adding any supplement to a horses ration, be sure to make the transition gradually (minimum of 7 days) to prevent GI upset. Also, please note that these products usually do not smell or taste very good to horses at first, but they seem to adapt and get used to the product over time. Please let us know if you have any more questions.

      Emily L.

  10. Karen J. says:

    I appreciate the discussion on Omega oils. I have a 13 yr old haflinger gelding in average work. He gets timothy hay, timothy pellets soaked for adding supplements. and limited grass turnout to control weight – only half hr. per day. He does best on an oil supplement – in the past I used a coco/soy liquid supplement – 1/4 cup per day. There seems to be controversy about soy lately – what do you think would be best for this gelding? thank you!

    • Gina T. says:

      Hello Karen,
      Thanks for the question. Raw whole soybeans do contain a naturally occurring trypsin inhibitor, which is the basis for the concern about soy or soy products having an anti-nutritional factor. This has been well understood for many years among animal scientists and human nutritionists. All soy products used in horse feeds are heat treated to inactivate this naturally occurring anti-nutritional factor. This is why raw whole soybeans should not be used for people or animals and why heat treated products are very safe ingredients.
      So, it comes down to personal preference, product availability, and what you want to pay for!
      Good luck ~ Gina T.

  11. Bevan C says:

    I have a 5yo female racehorse. I take Krill capsules and find them great with no aching joints, etc and friends I have recommended them to say likewise. Would my horse benefit from these as she gets almost no pasture grass as it is extremely hot and dry here and there is no grass?
    Thank you
    Bevan

    • Gina T. says:

      Hello Bevan, Thank you for the question. While you find benefit from the Krill capsules, the amount in a capsule designed for humans would be unlikely be of any benefit to horses, so you’d need to find a supply source designed for horses specifically. You would likely be better off to spend the extra money to find additional hay sources, whether through extra hay, or use of a hay replacement product, than to try to fill the gap with a supplement.
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  12. Danielle Hedglin says:

    I have been feeding my show horse rice bran for about 4 months now. I have been doing some research on it because I started noticing inflammation in my horses hocks and I also noticed that his windpuffs seemed more noticeable than before. This has let me to the importance of the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. I have also started feeding ground flax seed to help this ratio but I really do not know how much of each feed would be a good balance. How could I figure that out? Is feeding rice bran even worth the adverse affects I have been hearing that it can cause? I use regular measuring cups when I feed if that helps because I do not have a scale to weight out stuff. Any information would be appreciated thanks

    • Emily L. says:

      Hello Danielle, Thanks for the question. To know what the exact omega fatty acid ratios are in your horse’s total diet are, you would have to send representative samples of your hay, grain, supplements, treats, and pasture to a lab for fatty acid profile, and then know exactly how much (weight) of each dietary component your horse eats.

      A more practical approach would be to supplement with a source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as ground flax, or oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. fish oil). First it is recommended to obtain an inexpensive scale to weigh feed on, and a weight tape to estimate your horse’s body weight (link to blog article on how to estimate body weight and determine feeding rates). Although there is no NRC recommendation for dietary omega-fatty acids, supplementation of 9.5 – 35 grams per day of total omega-3 and/or approximately 7 grams per day of EPA/DHA (70 mg per kg body weight) for an average horse has been shown to be beneficial. Commercial fatty acid products (e.g. fish oil) should guarantee the total omega-3 content or EPA and DHA concentration on the product label, so you can figure out how much to feed your horse per day.

      Ground flax typically has about 20% omega 3 fatty acids in the form of linolenic acid. For example, if you were to feed 0.125 lbs (56 grams) of ground flax, there would be approximately 11 grams of linolenic acid. If you want to think about it from a volume perspective, 1 tablespoon of flax has approximately 1.5 g of linolenic acid (omega-3), so you would need 7 – 24 Tablespoons (0.5 – 1.5 cups) ground flax to achieve a supplement rate of 9.5 – 35 grams of linolenic acid (omega-3) in the diet per day.

      Fish oil is also great source of EPA/DHA, and is the most efficient and direct way to increase the omega-3 fatty acid content of your horse’s diet. If you go this route, you’ll want to get a product that is flavored for horses, as the fishy smell and taste isn’t palatable to them. Whatever you decide to use, it is important to store these sources of polyunsaturated acids appropriately, and be mindful of expirations dates, as these fats tend to oxidize or go rancid faster than other types of fat. Many commercial products are stabilized with antioxidants to help with this.

      Rice bran can be a great source of energy and other nutrients in the horse’s diet. A couple things to consider are that it has added calcium to ensure a proper calcium to phosphorus ratio, and that it is stabilized to help prevent the fat from going bad.

      Lastly, I would work with a trusted veterinarian to assess what might be causing the joint inflammation and wind puffs you’ve noticed. Please let us know if you have any additional questions.
      Sincerely, Emily L.

  13. Kirstie says:

    Ive beed told a ration of 3 and 6 is good but u have to watch your 6 intake. Too much i sm finding out now makes for a jumpy spooky horse. Make sure the omega 6 is not more then the 3.

  14. Peta says:

    Hi, I have been reading on various Facebook pages that grinding or cooking Linseed is toxic to horses. Could you be so kind to put my mind at ease. Many thanks

    • Emily L. says:

      Thank you for your question on the safety of linseed/flax seed. Overall, feeding flax or linseed to horses does not pose a toxicity risk. Flax does contain cyanogenic glycosides, and when activated by enzymes in the seed, forms a small amount of cyanide. The enzymes are only activated when exposed to air or moisture, and are deactivated by heat and acid. Therefore feeding whole flax doesn’t result in any cyanide formation as the enzymes are deactivated by the horse’s stomach acid. If you are planning to soften the whole seed, I would recommend dropping them into water that is already boiling to prevent cyanide production vs. into cold water that is then brought to a boil. If you are cold soaking or grinding the flax, feed it as soon as possible once it is ground. The longer the moistened or ground seed is exposed to air and moisture, the more time it has for the reaction and subsequent cyanide production.

      All this being said, the amounts of cyanide produced with cold soaking and grinding is very small. Furthermore, most commercial flax/linseed products are “stabilized”, having gone through a heat treatment that denatures the enzymes, preventing cyanide production. Be sure to read recommended storage guidelines to help maximize the shelf life of the product, as the high omega fatty acid content of this product easily spoils (oxidizes) and can result in a rancid and very unpalatable product.

      Flax is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and has been successfully and safely fed to horses for a long time.Please let us know if you have any further questions or concerns.

      Thank you ~ Emily

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