Why Feed Fat to Horses?

 Supplementing the Equine Diet with Essential Fatty Acids

Although feeding fat to horses is often a topic of debate, recent research indicates that feeding fats that contain the essential fatty acids (EFAs) to horses can provide support not only for skin and hooves, but mental, digestive, reproductive, pulmonary and joint function, as well. Another benefit of supplementing fat is that it generates less internal heat during digestion than protein or carbohydrates, keeping your horse cooler.

Horses with higher energy requirements can benefit from EFAs, such as pregnant or lactating mares, growing horses, performance horses and horses recovering from accidents, injury or surgery. In addition, EFAs can allow lactating mares to breed again more quickly, enable horses to more efficiently and safely meet their energy requirements, improve coat condition, and reduce dehydration risk because a by-product of fat metabolism is water.

Important for many biological processes in the body, EFAs are required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients, including Vitamins A, D, E, K and the carotenes, and are critical for the production of hormones and healthy cell membranes.  Essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured or synthesized by the horse's body from any other nutrients.

Horses on pasture eat living plants that contain fatty acids as part of their cell wall structure, as well as seed heads of grasses and other grains that also contain a large amount of essential fatty acids.  Unfortunately, typical equine diets today lack essential fatty acids because grains are processed and hay is dried, thereby damaging the natural fatty acid content that was once abundant.

EFAs supply energy in the form of fat and have 2.25 times more calories than protein or carbohydrates with an average of 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram provided by protein or carbohydrates.  The body metabolizes EFAs in the small intestine, which can then be stored for energy or used as an immediate source of fuel.  They can consequently act as an energy reserve in the form of stored fat under the skin, around organs and/or in the membranes surrounding the intestines.

Feeding fat to your horse can help in several aspects of its diet:

EFAs are important as a dense source of calories.  Feeding fat as a source of calories provides a sustained source of caloric energy. Horses are very efficient in utilizing and digesting fat as a source of fuel. What is fed early in the morning is slowly metabolized and utilized throughout the day.  In addition, because EFAs are so efficient in providing calories to the equine diet, many horses that are considered "hard keepers" benefit greatly as it slows gastric emptying and stabilizes blood sugar by evening out the digestion rate.

Another benefit is its properties as a dense "calming" energy source, which results in stable weight gain while preventing blood sugar related mood swings.  In fact, one of the most significant benefits to good quality fat supplementation is fat's ability to keep blood sugar patterns steady, stable and predictable.  Inadequate fat intake can contribute to unstable blood sugar patterns that challenge the horse's metabolism by causing an increase in the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin and the sugar metabolizing hormone insulin with possible effects on mood, performance, immune function and body composition.  Because fats digest so much more slowly, the blood sugar does not fluctuate as easily, thus reducing the amount and frequency of the release of the stress hormones and insulin.

Easy keepers also need quality fat  in smaller amounts to support normal endocrine function and blood sugar patterns.  This also supports more balanced levels of the stress hormones and insulin, which can substantially affect metabolic function.

EFAs also provide significant benefits in enhancing feed palatability.  Unprocessed, unrefined oils provide a pleasant aroma and taste to the horse's feed.  This allows supplements to be blended more easily, reduces dust and the amount of molasses needed to improve supplement or feed flavor.

 Know the Types of Fats:

Saturated: solid at room temperature.  Mostly animal fats but include coconut and palm kernel oil.

Mono-Unsaturated:  liquid at room temperature and include vegetable fats, rice bran and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated fats: liquid at room temperature and have more than one-double bond.  All of the essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and include the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats.  

Omega 3: includes alpha linolenic acid and from vegetable fats such as flax and fish oil that contains the more biologically efficient EPA and DHA.  Includes the essential fatty acids, especially linoleic acid. 

Omega 6: occurs naturally in virtually all vegetable oils, especially soybean oil.

Refined oils: processed and stripped of "impurities," which can often be the source of valuable nutrients.

Unrefined oils: contain natural antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta carotene, tocotrienols and other tocopherols.  They have a longer shelf life and are more easily digested.

It is interesting to note that a Texas A&M University study, Alteration in the Inflammatory Response in Athletic Horses Fed Diets Containing Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, revealed that crude unrefined soybean oil reduced inflammatory responses in horses.  Comparatively, refined corn oil was shown to cause an increase in inflammation.