The use of fat in the equine diet has a long history. A very old book, Horse Secrets by A.S. Alexander, published in 1913, points out that horse traders knew back then that adding fat to the diet was beneficial for gaining weight and improving hair coat. They may not have known why it worked, but they knew that it worked!
Corn oil was an early oil source as it was available and palatable. Flax seed, boiled to both soften the husk and to eliminate anti-nutritional factors, was also used to provide both fat and protein.
The use of vegetable oil as an energy source has become standard in horse feeds. Animal fat sources, while used in early research, have pretty much been eliminated from use in horse feeds, primarily due to palatability and perception issues.
SafeChoice Horse Feeds are where good equine health starts. Each product has controlled starch levels that may help support horses who have metabolic concerns, while added-fat options improve energy and enhance performance.
From an energy standpoint, all of the common vegetable oils are very similar. More recently, considering the essential fatty acid content, particularly the Omega-6 and Omega-3 levels, has become important in selecting the oil source. As with many things, balance along with quantity is important.
As grazing herbivores, horses are accustomed to the limited amount of fat (3-5%) found in forages, particularly fresh pasture, which is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, whereas oils from grains and seeds tend to be higher in Omega-6 fatty acids.
Scientists have not yet pinpointed the ideal total dietary intake or ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids for horses. Multi-species work has indicated that a ratio someplace between 2:1 and 10:1 is an acceptable Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio in a total diet. This considers the higher Omega-3 content of forages and the higher Omega-6 content of grains and some vegetable oils
Dietary supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acid sources has been shown to provide numerous benefits to horses and other animals including:
- Improved skin and hair coat quality
- Decreased joint pain in arthritic individuals
- Reproductive benefits
- Reduction in risk of gastric ulcers
- Anti-inflammatory effects
Flax seed, flax oil, soy oil and fish oil (limited use due to palatability) are some of the better sources of Omega-3. Chia seed and oil may also be a useful source and other sources are becoming available.
Feeds and supplements containing added oil are generally balanced to complement the fat present in forages to deliver balanced Omega-6 and Omega-3 levels in the total diet.
Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, National Research Council, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., pages 44-53, is an excellent source of detailed information.