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.

12 Replies to “Omega Fatty Acids: What do they do for horses?”

  1. Thank you for thids information! I had someone recommend them to me for a gelding I am trying to rehab from a ligament injury.

  2. Warning: I added a ground flax seed supplement to my mare’s diet. The first 2 weeks she readily ate it with her grain. However, she began to become extremely gassy and would continue to pass gas even after 1 hour of work. She became very girthy and agitated when saddling, to the point of biting at the stall wall when girthing. She also quit eating the flax supplement and by week 4 was even beginning to leave grain in the bin. Unheard of for my mare!! Then about that same time I noticed she had bite marks on the side of her belly. I tapered her back to half of the amount of flax supp. for 1 full week and then off entirely. Her gassiness completely disappeared immediately. The irritability and girthiness went away and she began finishing her grain again. I feel she was very lucky that she did not gas colic. After this experience, I was told by a woman who works with horses that it is not uncommon for flax to cause gas in horses. This is a warning that people should know about, especially if you have a horse that is prone to gas colic to begin with!

    1. Hi Lori, Thanks for sharing your experience with everyone.

      In addition to all of the beneficial components of flax (e.g. alpha linolenic acid), it also contains several anti-nutritional factors that can disrupt the digestive tract environment, particularly in the hind-gut resulting in excess gas production and gastrointestinal upset, especially if fed in large quantities or added suddenly to the diet.

      Additionally, ground flax has a high unsaturated fat content, and if it is not stabilized, gets oxidized and goes rancid very quickly which can also lead to horses going off feed, and/or digestive upset. This is why it is very important when adding anything to your horse’s diet that an equine nutritionist and/or veterinarian be consulted.

      Ground flax can safely be fed to horses and is known to have many positive benefits, however care must be taken when choosing which product to use and how that supplement is managed in the diet. Good alternatives to whole or ground flax when supplementing omega-3 fatty acids are oils (e.g. flax oil, fish oil, canola oil, algae oil).

      Thanks for sharing your insight. Please let us know if you have any questions!
      Kind Regards,
      Emily Lamprecht, Ph.D.

    2. I put my horse on Omega Fields “Horse Shine” w/ 3/1 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and her Chronic Inflamation in her legs went away completely and I experienced no problems w/ gas or anything else w/my horse.

  3. I have a 6 yr. old mare Gypsy Vanner. She farts 24/7. Really, no-stop. Is she ok? I have had her for 6 mo. now. If she is eating, standing, sleeping, drinking,playing ect. She just keeps farting and within a minute she is at it again. She has been this way since we got her. I am starting to get concerned. Our Quarter Horse isn’t gassy like this. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Lynn,
      Thanks for the question! Without more information on what the horse is eating, it is difficult to speculate as to the cause of the gas problem. Diet, particularly what makes it back to the hind gut, has a big impact on the microbes. The substrates that they are metabolizing/fermenting determine the byproducts that are produced as a result of that fermentation, one of them being gas. Depending on the type of microbes, and what they are fermenting, determines the level of gas production. In the case of your horse, it appears that the fermentation rates and levels may be excessive. With some more information on what the horse is getting to eat (pasture/hay/grain/supplements/treats/medications, etc.), as well as the horses routine and management, we might be able to pinpoint what is going on and suggest some changes that would help reduce gas production.

      Excessive gas production can also result from inability to properly chew, digest or absorb components of the diet, inflammation in the gut, imbalances in the microbial population, dietary imbalances, parasite problems, etc. Although passing gas is desirable, excessive gas production is undesirable, and may put a horse at increased risk of gas colic. In addition to reviewing the total diet and management of this horse, a discussion with a trusted vet is recommended. It might also be helpful to add a probiotic to the horse’s ration to help stabilize the gut and aid in digestive processes.

      We’d be happy to review the horse’s diet and make additional recommendations once we have more information.
      Thanks ~ Emily L.

  4. I’ve had my mare on omega shine for a year. She took a break from it for two weeks while I ordered my new supply from power pak. She gas colicked today. Is that a side effect of being taken off of it??

    1. Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for your question. There are many reasons that horses experience gas colic, but probably the biggest culprit is dietary management. Excessive gas production is a result of a disturbance in the microbial population in the hind gut resulting from rapid fermentation of something that typically isn’t part of the usual diet or simply isn’t supposed to be in the fermentative portion of the gastrointestinal tract.

      Abrupt changes in the diet, a decrease in hay intake and/or high grain intakes are scenarios that typically involve intake of higher than normal levels of starch and/or fructans which is compounded by an increase in rate of passage through the gut, allowing for the starch to reach the hind-gut where it is rapidly fermented. Another trigger for gas colic that is often overlooked is abrupt changes in hay or pasture (e.g. new delivery of hay). Nutrient content (including the digestibility of fiber, and starch and sugar content) can change dramatically year to year and even between consecutive cuttings of hay from the same field, and between different species of forage. Free access to lush pasture or pasture that has been subject to frost or drought stress may contain higher levels of fructan sugars. Therefore, any abrupt change in the bulk of the horse’s diet can result in digestive upset and gas colic.

      Other causes of colic can be colitis, resulting from administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Phenylbutazone, consumption of tainted feed (e.g. moldy hay or feed), or high intake levels of something new (e.g. treats or supplements) that may be high in rapidly fermentable carbohydrates.

      Long story short, although it is possible that the change associated with removing the fatty acid supplement from your horse’s diet contributed to a gas colic episode, it would be unusual that it was the only contributing factor. I would recommend talking with your barn manager or vet to investigate if there were any other changes with the diet (hay, grain, pasture, supplements, treats) or management routine that happened to coincide with the break from Omega Shine and the colic episode.

      The more consistent and balanced you can keep your horse’s diet, with good quality forage making up the bulk of the diet and added grain concentrates or ration balancers with controlled starch and sugar to provide missing vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and energy per your horses activity level and body condition, is the best way to reduce your incidence of colic. As always, free choice access to clean fresh water and loose white salt are recommended.

      Thank you ~ Emily L

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