Omega Fatty Acid Supplements for Horses

Published in Horses and People Magazine

Feeding omega-3 fatty acids; the health benefits

By Mariette van den Berg BAppSc. (Hons), Msc. (Equine Nutrition)

Dietary oils are added to the diet of horses to safely increase the energy-density of the feed and to improve the skin and coat condition of the horse for a healthy shine. In addition, oils are also used for their potential health benefits. In both animal and human nutrition, clinical studies show that dietary oils, in particular oils that contain omega-3 fatty acids, may be helpful in treating a variety of health conditions.

Common omega-oils for horses

Common omega-oils for horses

What are fats and oils?

Dietary fats and oils share a common molecular structure. Fats differ from oils only in that they are solid at room temperature, while oils are nominally liquid. The major component of fats and oils are triglycerides (more correctly known as triacylglycerol). These triglycerides consist of three fatty acids joined to one molecule of glycerol. Each fatty acid is made of a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. There are three types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These names describe the structure of the fatty acid.

Fatty acids also differ in the length of the carbon chain and can be divided into short-chain, medium-chain or long-chain fatty acids. Dietary fats and oils supply energy, carry fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and are source of antioxidants and bioactive compounds.

Essential fatty acids

Most fatty acids can be produced by the body itself but there are two fatty acids that cannot be made by the body and needs to be supplied to the horse in the feed. These essential (polyunsaturated) fatty acids (EFAs) are from two families; ω-3 (or omega-3 or n−3) and ω-6 (omega-6, n−6).

Both linoleic acid (LA; omega-6) and α-linolenic acid (ALA; omega-3) have to be provided in the diet of the horse. Mammals lack the desaturase enzyme to produce these fatty acids. Although, ALA can be converted into other essential fatty acids, i.e. eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA), the conversion percentage is only small. Therefore, EPA and DHA are also classified as important nutritionally essential polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-6 and Omega-3 balance

Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have both important functions in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in the suppression of inflammations, whereas omega-6 fatty acids can trigger an inflammatory response. The balance between these omega-6 and omega-3 is very important for normal function in the body. Therefore, the ratio of the two fatty acids (n-6 : n-3) have to be correct, with low n-6 to high n-3.

In the natural situation horses will consume only a forage diet, that consists mainly out of grass. Although, grass contain only small amounts of fat, most of the fat is made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Nowadays, horses are used for sports and are exercised daily. To meet energy requirements horses are supplemented with cereal concentrates and/or grain mixtures. Cereal and cereal by-products contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acid. The majority of horses that are fed cereal concentrates and by-products have ratio of n-6 : n-3 that is out of balance.

Excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids may affect the physiological state causing harmful inflammations in the body of the horse. Therefore, omega-3 oil supplementation may benefit many horses.

Omega oil sources

Different levels of omega-6 fatty acids can be found in soybean oil, sunflower seed oil, cottonseed oil, hemp oil, flaxseed oil, chia seed oil, corn oil, safflower oil, rice bran, and cereals. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in plant and marine derived. Flaxseed, chia seed, fish and algae oil contain high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids. Other omega-3 fatty acid sources are canola oil, soybean oil, and hemp oil. The omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are widely found in cold water fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, halibut, tuna, salmon and anchovies. Fish obtain these omega-3 fatty acids from certain type of algae and krill. DHA and EPA gets more concentrated in organisms as it moves up the food chain.

Omega-3 fatty acids and health benefits

The omega-3 fatty acid ALA is converted in the body to EPA and DHA.  Though, the conversion percentage of ALA to EPA is very small, and to DHA even less. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA plays important role in fetal development and is a major component in the retina and brain. EPA is required for the production of prostaglandin, which a hormone that is responsible for various biological functions in the body. Prostaglandins regulate pain and swelling, maintain proper blood pressure and promote fluidity in nerve transmission.

Both EPA and DHA have been shown to have many beneficial effects in both animals and humans. These effects include reducing inflammations and improving the immune system, cardiovascular system, reproductive function, and coat/skin condition.

Omega-3 fatty acid DHA may play important role in the fertility of stallions. A high ratio of DHA to omega-6 fatty acids has shown to improve the motion characteristics of cooled-stored and frozen-thawed semen.

Omega-3 oils can also be fed to broodmares to increase essential fatty acids in the milk for optimal development of the newborn foal.

For horses with Queensland itch, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the severity of inflammation and itch.

In exercising horses omega-3 oil supplementation may enhance the suppleness and flexibility of red blood cells. This flexibility is necessary so that red blood cells can easily pass through the narrow capillaries in muscles and lungs. This will improve the blood supply and oxygen delivery and may reduce the incidence of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH or bleeding).

A good Omega-3 oil source should contain three essential fatty acids which are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA, however the conversion rate is not very efficient. DHA is the end product of the Omega-3 fatty acid metabolism. It is therefore very important to use an Omega-3 oil source that contains the right balance of essential fatty acids.

Popular Omega-3 oil sources to add to your horse’s diet are fish oil, algae oil, flaxseed oil, chia seed oil, canola oil or soybean oil. Although, all these oils contain Omega-3 fatty acids, they all have a different essential fatty acids composition. EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish oil, while ALA is mostly found in flaxseed oil, chia seed oil, canola oil and soybean oil. The composition and quality will also largely depend on how its harvested and the processing.

Although fish oils are widely available, horses are naturally vegetarian and it is thought by some experts that fish oils are an unnatural food for horses. It is therefore, a personal choice which source you would like to feed to your horse. Nevertheless, feeding combination of Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, algae oil (an vegetarian option), flaxseed oil, chia seed oil, canola oil or soybean oil can balance the Omega 6 : 3 ratio in feed ration and may improve coat, skin and hoof condition, joint health, stallion fertility, red blood cell flexibility, milk composition for the foal, reduce skin allergies and inflammations in your horse. There are many commercial products on the market that provide liquid oils or powders that contain Omega-3 fatty acids. Check which oils are used in the products so that you feed your horse the best ratio of Omega-3 oils and don’t forget to buy also some Omega-3 oils for yourself.

© MB Equine Services 2014


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