Last Updated: | By Sarah Braithwaite, Author & Horse Health Expert
Do you know about omega 3 for horses and its importance in equine diets? Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid which cannot be made by the horse’s body and must be present in the equine daily diet for them to be truly healthy.
There are numerous sources of omega 3 but which one is best for your horse? Flax seed (otherwise known as linseed), fish oil, chia seeds, krill and algae are all sources of omega 3. However which is the best omega 3 for horses source for you and when and how should you supplement omega 3?
Your first question is probably what are omega fatty acids, why are they important and what exactly is good balance?
Omegas are the name for polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega 3 is also referred to as alpha linolenic acid, whilst omega 6 is known as linoleic acid. The two omega fatty acids of most concern are omega 3 and omega 6 because they are essential meaning they cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from what the horse is eating.
The plant omega 6, alpha-linoleic (AL), is metabolised to arachidonic acid (AA), and is generally considered to be pro-inflammatory. Omega 3, alpha-linolenic (ALA) is metabolised to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and is generally considered to be anti-inflammatory.
Omega fatty acids are important because they have a range of health benefits for horses including:
In addition, omega fatty acids play an important role in the regulation of inflammatory responses in the body. Omega 3s have an anti-inflammatory effect whilst omega 6s have a pro-inflammatory effect. At times of infection, injury or illness, inflammation plays an important role in the immune response and is useful to the horse during recovery. Omega 6s are involved in the body’s role of producing inflammation mediators so that when illness or infection are present, the body can respond appropriately. Omega 3s help to ensure that inflammation responses do not occur when the horse is in good health and there is no need for such a response.
Research has shown that omega 3 fats are very important for immune system resilience and response. They are also known to be important for anti-inflammatory balance, assisting in joint and respiratory function, brain and eye health and influencing behaviour in young horses. These is also evidence that fertility in the mare and stallion is dependent upon good levels of these omega 3 fats.Understand the importance of omega 3 in horse dietClick To Tweet
Horse diets are plentiful in omega 3 when they are eating green and growing grass in spring and summer. In this situation omega 3 intakes will be excellent but as soon as the grass stops growing in autumn and winter and the horse switches to conserved forages such as hay or haylage their omega 3 levels plummet.
Increasingly it is recognised that because omega 3 fats can only be obtained from the diet it is really important to pay attention to levels in all situations where horses are not eating green and growing grass in sufficient quantity to provide the minimum levels for horse health.
In a grazing situation when the grass is growing in the spring and early summer a 500 kg horse will consume around 200-264 grams of omega 3 per day in the form of alpha-linolenic acid. This is the form of omega 3 contained within grass. Levels will drop if there is a drought, very hot or very cold weather.
Green and growing spring and summer grass has good levels of omega 3 and a ratio with 0mega 6 of about 4:1. It is thought then that it is this ratio which we need to strive for but many modern feed stuffs such as soya, rice bran, vegetable oils, sunflower seeds and all cereals, have high levels of omega 6 and low levels of omega 3. In addition once grass is cut for hay it loses much of its omega 3 content as this substance is a very fragile compound. This means that horses on hay, hay and cereals, soya, or a vegetable oil enriched diet have very high omega 6 intakes but minimal omega 3.
AL and ALA are predominant in plant sources like grass, flax and chia. DHA and EPA are not naturally present in the equine diet. They are high in fish oil and krill oil and as horses are plant eaters it is not desirable to feed these forms of omega 3 to horses. Some algae are high in DHA.Learn about the importance of the right balance of omega 3 and 6 in the horse dietClick To Tweet
We feel that the best source of Omega-3 fatty acid for horses which have reduced or no access to green and growing grass is micronised linseed. Chia seed is becoming popular but is expensive. As horses are plant eaters it is preferable to feed them a plant based source of Omega-3.
Flaxseed has a long history of use in equine diets to provide omega 3 for horses, being recognised for producing gleaming coats and bloom long before anyone was thinking about omega-3s. It is also low sugar/starch and high in soluble fiber. Chia is another plant source with an omega-3:omega-6 ratio similar to flax but is more expensive.
Horses are herbivores, evolved on a diet of grasses. They do not eat fish, tiny crustaceons or algae. When the goal is to provide omega-3s missing in a diet of hay or hay and grain it only makes sense to provide levels and types normally found on pasture. Linseed provides the perfect solution for replacing the missing omega 3 in horse diets.
Everything in the horse’s diet and indeed life needs balance. To ensure that a horse is able to maintain normal inflammatory responses, it is important that omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in the diet are balanced. Many supplements will add to the load of omega 6 fatty acids which are abundant in the normal forage based diet. Disruption to the balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids is likely to a negative inflammatory response and a disruption of normal physiological processes.
There is limited research on the the best ratio of omega 3 to omega 6, however, it is believed that an approximate ratio of between 1.5:1 and 3:1 is ideal for horses. This is largely informed by the levels which will be found in the forage that horses evolved to eat, so horses consuming over 6 hours per day of green and growing grass will be provided with a suitable ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids.
Those horses whose grazing is limited or completely restricted will need supplementation of omega 3 in the form of linseed. The micronised type provides the best option.
Cereals such as oats, barley and maize are high in omega 6s and have an imbalanced ratio of omega 3 to 6. If a horse is on a high cereal diet then it is essential to provide an additional source of omega 3 unless they also have access to green and growing grass.
For horses being fed a diet high in fat for increased energy, weight gain or improved condition, it is important that the fat source has an appropriate balance of omegas. Many oils commonly fed to horses are too high in omega 6 so it is important to be aware that an imbalance may be created.
Micronised linseed, flaxseed oil, sea buckthorn oil and fish oil are high in omega 3 fats. As horses are vegetarian it is generally recommended not to feed fish oil but to stick to the plant based sources.
Corn oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil are high in omega 6s and so should be avoided in equine diets. Before adding an oil or fat source to your horse’s diet, check the omega fatty acid ratio to ensure that your horse won’t be burdened by excessive and unnecessary inflammation.
Omegas can also be provided through certain meal and seeds rather than as oil added to the feed. For this, the most suitable options are chia seeds and linseed meal. Rice bran is commonly fed to horses, but has a high level of omega 6s, so should be avoided unless feeding alongside an omega 3 source to counteract any potential imbalances.
A balanced diet providing the right amounts and ratios of all the nutrients will ensure your horse is healthy and active. Using forage, grass and hay, as the starting point for assessment of what is needed is the best and most effective place to start and is a basic which should not be overlooked.