Are All Oils the Same for Feeding to Horses?

Adding oil or fat to horse diets was a common practice long before research determined the many benefits of added oil diets.  Horse traders hundreds of years ago knew that if they wanted a horse to gain weight and develop a slick hair coat, adding oil to the diet was one way to do it.

Are all oils the same? 

Like many questions in the equine world, the answer is yes and no. The common vegetable oils used in horse feeds are corn oil, soy oil and flax oil (linseed oil).  Canola oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and palm oil are also used, but less frequently.  Animal fats, excluding fish oil, are not currently used very commonly in horse feeds in the United States due to customer concern, and potential palatability concerns.

What is the difference between fat and oil?   

There are multiple chapters in nutrition books written about fats and oils.  Animal Feeding & Nutrition, Tenth Addition, by Jurgens and Bregendahl is a standard text.  For simple practical purposes, a fat is solid at room temperature and oil is liquid due to the differences in composition.  For those of you who like the full science, fats and oils are:

  • Also referred to as lipids or ether extracts
  • Insoluble in water and soluble in organic solvents
  • Contain about 77% carbon, 12% hydrogen and 11% oxygen. 
  • They all contain about the same energy, 9.45 Mcal/kg or 4,290 Kcal/lb. 
    • This is about 2.25 times the energy content of carbohydrates.

What’s all the talk about Omega Fatty Acids?

There may be substantial differences in the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid profiles of different oils, particularly in the content of the essential fatty acids (EFAs) linoleic acid (C18:2 n-6),  linolenic acid (C18:3 n-3) and arachidonic acid(C20:4 n-6)  Arachidonic acid can be synthesized from linoleic acid and is essential if linoleic acid is not present.

  • Corn oil will be higher in linoleic acid, an n-6 or Omega 6 fatty acid. 
  • Soy oil, particularly mechanically extracted, will contain more linolenic acid, an n-3 or Omega 3 fatty acid, than corn oil. 
  • Linseed oil, from flax, contains the highest % of linolenic fatty acid. 
  • Fish oil from certain cold water sources is the highest in Omega 3 fatty acids, although it may present some palatability issues.

How are they made?

Vegetable oils come from the seed of the plant with most being in the germ.  They are produced by either solvent extraction or mechanical (squeezing or crushing the seeds) extraction.  They can either be refined or in crude form, depending on the processing. All of the vegetable oils contain essentially the same amount of energy and are generally palatable if processed and stored properly.

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.