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.

Feeding Fat to Horses

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.

How to Weigh Your Feed

Feed your horse by weight, not by volume.

This is a common sentence uttered by many-a-feed professional and the more I talk with horse owners, the more I find myself saying it.   If someone is having an issue with their horse’s weight, whether over or under, I will first ask what kind and how much hay they are feeding.  My next question is what kind and how much feed does your horse get?

Responses to the hay questions are varied as are the kind of feed, but more often than not, I hear ‘a scoop’ or ‘a coffee can’ when describing how much feed the horse in question is receiving.  One customer even mentioned using a Bob the Builder Helmet as her scoop….now that is creative!

How much does your scoop or coffee can of feed weigh? is my next question.   Hmm…Good question is the response all too often. 

A hanging scale, such as this (dirty) one is helpful to hang a bucket from and weigh feed. Note that the scale has been tared for a bucket.

There is a simple, inexpensive way to find out: most mass retailers or farm/feed supply stores sell scales, such as a fish scale, a kitchen scale, or hanging scale that range from $10-20.  When you put your feed bucket on the scale, make sure to ‘tare’ the scale, or zero out the weight of the bucket so you get the true weight of the feed itself.  Then, fill your scoop, coffee can, or Bob the Builder helmet, and see what weight one regular serving is. 

Next step is, check the feeding directions for the feed you use and calculate how much your horse should be fed based on his body weight.  Does your scoop or coffee can serving fall within the appropriate feeding range?  If not, make sure to adjust the fill level of your dispensing item to fall within the recommended quantity for your horse.

It is unlikely that you will need to re-weigh the same feed for each meal, as the density of the feed will likely not vary much.  Most commercial feed companies formulate their feed to meet a specific energy density from which the feeding directions are based .  All other nutrients are balanced based on the energy value, which is why it is so important to select the right feed for your horse and feed the proper amounts.

Feeding your horse the appropriate amount, by weight, will ensure she is getting the balanced, necessary nutrients she needs for everyday activity and development.  Once you have found the feed to match her needs, its only a matter of feeding the right amount and enjoying the end result.

Fiber in Horse Feeds

In our previous post, we learned what fiber is and how a horse digests it,and we also learned that a horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s bodyweight in quality roughage will satisfy its daily fiber requirements.

When it comes to any grain sources that may be added to your horses diet, fiber plays a much smaller role since the amount of fiber that is added by grains is relatively little, but the effect and digestive process is similar. 

When feeding the grain portion of the diet, ensure that your horse is not receiving high quantities of grain meals all at once – typically no more than 5-6 pounds of grain per meal at most. Because grains tend to be higher in starch than roughage, feeding too much at once can overwhelm the small size and quick rate of passage of food through the stomach and small intestine, and allow starches to pass undigested to the hindgut. Digestion of starches in the hindgut releases lactic acids that are toxic to the fiber-digesting microorganisms, which can result in a gas colic episode or laminitis.

Generally speaking, when you look at a the tag from a basic equine ration, the higher the crude fiber level listed, the lower the energy content of the feed.  Of course, there are other factors that must be looked at, such as the fat level, and also possibly the sources of fiber. 

Beet pulp, for example, is often referred to as a “super-fiber” due to the high level of fiber it provides while also providing roughly the same energy level as oats.  While soy hulls and dehydrated alfalfa are common ingredients used to increase fiber levels, a performance horse ration with a higher fiber level may make use of beet pulp to achieve both increased energy and increased fiber levels.

Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin. 
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs. 

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.

Warm Mashes for Senior Horses

Gayle's 32 Year Old Arabian, "Radar's Count"

I received an email from one of my clients asking for a recipe for a “Safe Warm Mash” for her senior horse.   She thought a bran mash would be a good choice, but was unsure as to ingredients or cooking instructions.  The particular horse is 23 years old and a body score of a solid 6. He is showing some early signs of Cushing’s disease. His current diet is grass hay and Nutrena’s SafeChoice Senior horse feed, as well as daily pasture turnout.

I have never understood why so many educated consumers, that take the time to transition a horse gradually from one feed to another over 5-7 day period would want to take this chance.  A one meal change in a horse’s diet may not cause colic or founder, but it can cause enough of a change in the microbial balance to cause diarrhea or gas, especially in a senior horse.   The fact that the calcium and phosphorus ratios in bran are also so out of balance for horses makes me uncomfortable, as we strive for a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, not 1:12 as is in bran.   This is important for proper metabolic function and to maintain bone integrity.

The good news is that there is a safe alternative to making a bran mash!  I contacted my client and told her that she already had the ingredients to make a mash for her horse – his senior horse feed – and the most important nutrient in a horse’s diet – water.  Senior feeds are high in fiber, as well as properly fortified with calcium and phosphorus.  By simply soaking a serving of her horse’s senior feed with warm water for 5-8 minutes until it reaches a consistency her horse will enjoy, she will have a nice warm mash for her senior horse.

Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line – provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.

Feeding Beet Pulp For Weight Gain in Horses

Many horse owners ask if beet pulp is a good way to put weight on a horse. This is a great question, as many horse owners struggle to keep weight on their horses, whether they are being used heavily or they are simply trying to maintain a “hard keeper”.  Weight gain in horses is a function of Calorie intake, just as it is in humans.  If a horse needs to gain weight, you have to increase the Calorie intake per day above the current level that the horse is being fed.

Beet pulp is what we sometimes refer to as a “super fiber”.  Because it has a high percentage of highly digestible or readily fermentable fiber, it contains more digestible energy per pound than hay and is actually about the same as oats, as beet pulp contains about 2.98 Mcal/kg.  Unless there is a lot of molasses added, it is also fairly low in starch and sugar with a non-structural carbohydrate level of about 9.8%. That is why it is considered a fairly “safe” energy source.  Soy hulls have a similar status, with a digestible energy value of about 3.0 Mcal/kg.

So, if one kilogram of feed that contains 1.4 Mcal/kg is removed and replaced with one kilogram of beet pulp that contains 2.98 Mcal/kg, then 1.58 Mcal or 1,580 Calories have been added, all while feeding the same amount of stuff.  Because beet pulp is highly digestible, the horse has less gut fill and can actually consume a bit more per day as well, so the feed intake and Calorie intake can be further increased, which supports the weight gain theory that many horse owners follow.

That said, beet pulp is not a well-balanced feed.  It has low mineral content, is a very poor amino acid source, and only contains about 9.3% protein.    Beet pulp fits into a feeding program very well as an energy ingredient, but it needs to be balanced for the other nutrients.

In conclusion, it is important to bear in mind that rarely is a single ingredient the answer to an equine nutrition situation.  Ingredients on their own are simply not balanced solutions.  While beet pulp is a very viable ingredient for use in a horse’s overall diet, and it can definitely be used to increase the caloric intake, it needs to be evaluated in the scope of the entire diet to determine if the horse is receiving a balanced ration.  For most horse owners, the simplest route if beet pulp is a desired ingredient is to purchase a commercially available feed that incorporates it as a major ingredient and adds the needed protein, vitamins and minerals to balance the diet for overall health and well being of the animal.

Amino Acids in Horse Feeds

Limiting Amino Acids

Most horse owners can quickly tell you the crude protein level in the feed they are giving their horses.  But, what horse owners really need to know about, is the amino acid content.  Protein is made up of amino acids – similar to how a chain is made up of links.  There are two basic categories of amino acids: essential and non-essential.  Essential amino acids must be provided in the diet, as the horse cannot manufacture them on their own in the digestive tract, where the non-essential amino acids can be manufactured.

There is another key thing to know when it comes to amino acids – there are “limiting” amino acids.  This means that if a horse runs out of a “limiting” amino acid, it can’t utilize any of the remaining amino acids present in the feed.  If the horse has enough of the first most limiting amino acid, but then runs out of the second most limiting amino acid, it can’t use the remaining amount of the third most limiting, and so on.

In horses, the first three most limiting amino acids, in order, are lysine, methionine, and threonine.  Generally speaking, if these three amino acids are present in sufficient quantities, the ingredients used to provide them also provide the remaining amino acids in sufficient quantities.  It is becoming increasingly common to see these three listed on the guaranteed analysis of horse feed tags, as it is an indication of the quality of the protein sources and the balanced nature of the feed.