Omega Fatty Acids: What do they do for horses?

Adding supplementary fat in your horses’ diet is a great way to provide concentrated calories as well as some other functional benefits to your horse; but what sources of fat are best? 

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are a hot topic in human, pet, and equine nutrition alike, and for good reasons.  With such a wide array of information and products out there, it can be confusing and difficult to make decisions, so let’s break down what the omega fatty acids are, and how they can play a role in a healthy balanced diet for our equine counterparts. 

What are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)?

All fats are made up of chemically linked chains of fatty acids.  Polyunsaturated fatty acids are a category of unsaturated fats which include:

  • ALA – alpha linolenic acid (Omega-3)
    • Alpha linolenic acid (Omega-3) can be further converted by the body into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), although some species are more efficient at this than others
    • EPA/DHA can be found themselves in fish/marine co-products like fish oil and fish meal. 
  • LA – linoleic acid (Omega-6)

Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are considered essential, meaning that the body can’t make them itself, so they must be obtained in sufficient amounts from the diet. 

What do omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids do?

Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids play important roles in:

  • Immune system regulation
  • Cell membrane stability
  • Development and maintenance of the central nervous system
  • Oxygen transfer

Specifically, omega-6 fatty acids are used by the body to make pro-inflammatory mediators for the immune system, while omega-3 fatty acids are converted to less inflammatory products. 

Because omega-3 fatty acids compete against omega-6 fatty acids to produce these mediators, higher levels of omega-3 can offset pro-inflammatory responses, and are generally considered to have anti-inflammatory properties. 

It is important to remember that inflammation is an important process the body uses to fight infection and mediate tissue repair, therefore a balance between pro-and anti-inflammatory mediators is the goal.  Omega-6 fatty acids do not cause inflammation, rather they provide the substrate needed to mount an inflammatory response if and when it is needed making them a very important part of the diet, along with the omega-3 fatty acids.

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

When to Feed Ration Balancers

While recently reviewing farms feed program, the manager explained that some of her horses only received 1 pound of grain per day.  She felt their weight was good, but yet they appeared to be lacking something in their diet.  She was wondering what type of supplements she could add.

When we looked at the tag on her feed, the problem was obvious.  Her feed was designed for to be fed at a rate of 0.5 – 0.75 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.  This means that to provide proper fortification for a 1000 pound horse, she would need to feed 5 – 7.5 pounds per day.  By that standard, her horses that were only getting 1 lb per day were not receiving the nutrient fortification they needed for optimum health, and thus her feeling that  “they appeared to be lacking something”.  Her farm was feeding good quality hay at a rate of about 2% of each horse’s body weight, and the overall body condition of the horses was good, but we needed to balance the amino acid and vitamin/mineral fortification.

We reviewed the farms hay test results to establish our baseline.   I explained that she could easily improve her horse’s diet with the use of a ration balancer. Balancers have a low feeding rate, generally from 0.25 to 1 pound per head per day, but they contain a concentrated mix of the extra vitamins, minerals and protein required to help horses achieve their full potential.

She was a little unsure about feeding something with a 30% protein level, but I explained that if you do the math, feeding 1 lb of a 30% protein feed is actually providing the same to a little less than feeding a standard 12% feed at a higher rate.

Key features to look for in a ration balancer include:

  1. Probiotics and prebiotics to enhance fiber and protein digestion, as well as mineral absorption. 
  2. Organic complexed trace minerals to increase the bioavailability – an example of this on the tag would be “zinc methionine complex” in the ingredient list.
  3. Added biotin and methionine, which are important for hoof and hair coat.
  4. Guaranteed amino acids (lysine, methionine, etc), mineral, and vitamin levels.

A good quality ration balancer will provide your horse with dietary essentials, and often no additional supplementation is needed!

Feeding Salt to Horses

We normally think of salt more as a warm weather requirement.  Horses do require about 1-2 ounces of salt per day to provide help meet their requirement for sodium and chloride.  This requirement can increase to 4-6 ounces of salt per day in hot climates or under exercise where losses in sweat increase greatly.  Inadequate salt in the diet can result in abnormal eating behavior such as licking or chewing objects which have salt on them (fork handles etc.) or licking/eating dirt.  Water intake may also decrease, increasing the risk of impaction colic. In more extreme cases, horses will stop eating and may experience muscle incoordination.

Cold weather salt intake is sometimes overlooked.  Horses do not lick salt blocks as readily as some other specie even when the salt block is a comfortable temperature.  During cold weather, outdoor salt blocks become even less inviting!  Would you lick something that is freezing cold?

A good option to maintain year around salt intake is to offer loose salt available free choice, either in stalls or in a covered mineral feeder.  Salt intake from loose salt has been observed to be higher than from salt blocks due to the ease of consumption.  When purchasing loose salt, ensure that you are selecting salt that is intended for animal consumption (NaCl, iodized table salt, plain white salt), and not a mineral salt blend (red salt), or salt that is intended for de-icing. 

If horses are salt starved, it may be a good idea to limit the amount of salt put out for them until they have adjusted their intake.  It is essential that fresh clean water at an appropriate temperature be available at all times as well. 

Commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt, so horses on this type of feed will typically consume less free choice salt than horses not receiving salt in their feed.  They may still benefit from having loose salt available free choice.  A salt block is better than not having any salt available free choice, but may not be as effective in maintaining salt intake in cold weather or when high intakes are required in hot weather.

Providing salt free choice is a good management tool that can help your horse eat and drink well all year long!

Feeding Electrolytes to Horses

As a follow-up to our recent post on providing adequate water for horses, the following information should be helpful in understanding the use of supplemental electrolytes for horses.  There are a wide range of practices and opinions within this topic, so here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Provide loose salt free choice at all times to all horses.  If loose salt is provided, horses will usually consume the right amount to meet their electrolyte requirements without having to use an additional supplement. 
  2. Horses administered any form of electrolytes need to be consuming adequate water.
  3. Electrolytes should never be force fed to a dehydrated horse, and any horses supplemented with electrolytes should be monitored for dehydration (skin pinch test, mucous membrane color and hydration, capillary refill).
  4. Electrolytes can be used to encourage drinking (e.g. during transport or if horse doesn’t like to drink away from home).  Usually thirst/drinking is stimulated within 3-4 hours after dosing. 
  5. In cases where horses are working extremely hard and losing electrolytes through substantial sweating, a supplemental electrolyte in addition to the salt may be beneficial. 
    1. If heavy sweating due to competition is anticipated, administer electrolytes 1-2 days prior to competition, during the competition and 1-2 days after a competition. 
    2. Doses are usually within the 1 – 4 oz range, depending on sweat loss and the heat and humidity levels. 
    3. A general rule of thumb is usually 30 – 90 g per hour of strenuous work, or follow manufacturer’s instructions if using a commercial product. 
  6. An oral dose (paste/syringe) is recommended over top dress or adding to water, as these methods can create palatability issues and can result in feed/water refusal.
  7. Many commercial products have more sugar that electrolytes in them, so buying a commercial product where sugar is not listed as one of the main ingredients is very important.  Potassium, sodium, chloride, and calcium are the most important electrolytes.

Making Cents Out of Horse Feed Costs

I was recently called to a boarding and lesson barn to help the owner evaluate her feed program.  With the rising costs of bedding, labor, insurance, electricity and hay, she wanted to look at options at saving money. 

The farm housed about 40 Thoroughbreds.   Twelve of the horses were active in a lesson program, and the other horses activity levels ranged from pleasure maintanece to moderate work/show.   The Body Condition Scores of the horses ranged from 4 to 6, and the owner explained that some of the horses were harder keepers than others, with daily grain intake ranging from 1 to 18 pounds of grain per day per horse.

We examined the hay and found it to be a good quality timothy grass mix.  The horses were getting about 1.5% of their body weight per day in hay. For grain, she was using an economy feed that was priced at $8.99 per bag.  She felt that with the large number of horses on the farm and rising cost she could not afford the premium feeds that were almost $14 per bag.

When we examined the feed tag from the manufacturer, the suggested feed rate was 1 pound per hundred pounds of body weight (that’s 10 lbs of feed for a 1000 lb horse!), and the fortification of the product was minimal.  The owner then explained that she and the boarders did purchase supplements to provide added biotin, yeast culture, copper, zinc and selenium.  Some of the hard keepers were also given a fat supplement.

To determine how much she was spending on feed, we did the following math:

  • Current Feeding Program = 10 lbs feed + supplements
    • ~ $8.99 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.18 per pound
    • ~ $0.18 per pound X average 10 lb per day feeding = $1.80 per day per horse
    • ~ Plus the various costs of nutritional supplements to make up for the lack in feed
  •  
  • Proposed Feeding Program = 5 lbs feed + no supplements
    • ~ $14.00 per bag / 50 lbs per bag = $0.28 per pound
    • ~ $0.28 per pound X average 5 lb per day feeding = $1.40 per day per horse
    • ~ No need for nutritional supplements!

When we calculated the cost per horse per day based on feed consumption and supplements, some of the horses exceeded $3 per day!  When we compared that to the feed rates on the premium line feeds, not to mention complete fortification levels and the time savings in not having to sort out servings of supplements every day, the premium feed was a better value in the long run.

Horse Feeds & Supplements: What to feed?

Horse owners often wonder if they are providing enough nutrition to their horses.  In today’s world of hundreds of supplement selections available at the local tack shop or on-line, owners can start to feel as if they must be doing something wrong if they aren’t supplementing the normal hay and grain rations provided.  Here’s a few key tips to make sure you are doing everything right for your favorite equine friend – keeping in mind, of course, that quality hay/pasture fed at approximately 1.5% of body weight is the key base to all horse rations.

Feeding a commercially prepared grain:

  1. There are a myriad of choices available on the market today, to fit all types of horses.  Work with your local feed retailer, or contact your feed company of choice, for assistance in selecting what suits your horse best.
  2. Then, make sure you are feeding within the directions on the feed tag or bag.
    1. If you are feeding above the recommended range in order to keep condition on your horse, consider moving up to a higher fat feed that packs more calories per pound.
    2. On the flip side, and much more common, is feeding below the recommended feeding allowance because the horse is an “easy keeper”.  In that case, the concentrate is not providing enough of the nutrients for the horse, and you should look for a lower calorie or lower feeding rate product to ensure your horse is receiving the nutrition it needs.

Feeding supplements:

  1. If you are feeding a quality commercially prepared feed, and you are feeding within the recommended amount for your size horse, then vitamin and mineral supplements are not needed, and often recommended against.
    1. There are a host of nutritional inter-dependencies, such as copper and zinc or calcium and phosphorus working together, that commercial feed companies account for when designing products, and adding a vitamin and/or mineral supplement can interfere with those ratios and potentially cause problems.
  2. Gut health, as well as hoof & hair coat, supplements abound.  Before you buy one, check your feed tag to see what it might already be providing.  Many premium horse feeds today already contain yeast and/or probiotics for gut health, and several contain biotin & methionine – the two key components of a lot of hoof supplements.  Depending on your feeding program, you just might save time & money by not needing to supplement those.
  3. Joint and other supplements – while good joint health starts with proper nutrition from a young age (think “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”) many horses require additional support. However, there are limitations on what feed companies can put in to feeds, so these are often necessary as “extras” in the diet.