There’s a lot of talk about omegas in the horse world and most owners know that their horses need a good balance of omega fatty acids in their diet. But what are omegas, why are they important and what exactly is a good balance.
What are Omega Fatty Acids?
Omegas are polyunsaturated fatty acids. There are a number of omega fatty acids but the two of most concern are omega 3 and omega 6 as they are essential fatty acids and cannot be produced by the body but must be obtained from the diet. It is for this reason that we so often hear about omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 is also referred to as alpha linolenic acid, whilst omega 6 is known as linoleic acid.
Why are Omega Fatty Acids Important?
Omegas are important because they have a range of health benefits for horses including:
- Strong hooves
- Shiny, healthy coat
- Reduced skin irritations and allergies
- Joint Health
- Improved bone strength and density
- Enhanced immunity
- Increased tissue elasticity
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.
Finding the Balance:
To ensure that the body is able to maintain appropriate inflammatory responses, it is important that omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in the diet are balanced. If the balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids is disrupted, the result will be inappropriate, excessive inflammation and an upset in the normal physiological state of the horse, both of which can be harmful.
Whilst there is not a clearly defined ratio of omegas 3:6 that has been agreed upon and is backed up by research, it is generally believed that an approximate ratio of between 1.5:1 and 3:1 is ideal for horses.
If the level of omega 6s in the diet exceeds the level of omega 3s by more than the above-mentioned ratio, a negative inflammatory response can occur.
Getting a Good Balance:
Horses that have 24/7 access to grazing pasture will consume a small amount of oil through the consumption of grass, which contains a suitable ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. Those whose grazing is limited or completely restricted will likely consume less oil overall but should also receive an appropriate ratio of omegas in the diet through hay.
Cereals and grains are high in omega 6s, so for those consuming a cereal/ grain diet, an additional source of omega 3 should be provided. 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.
Below is a list of oils commonly fed to horses. The first three are high in omega 3s and are recommended for use in equine diets. The last three are high in omega 6s and should be avoided in equine diets.
- Linseed/ Flaxseed oil
- Fish Oil
- Sea Buckthorn Oil
The last three are high in omega 6s and should be avoided in equine diets.
- Corn oil
- Sunflower oil
- Soybean oil
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 linseed or fish oil to counteract any potential imbalances.
There are many more oils and fat sources available to feed to horses, each with their individual pros and cons. Before adding an oil or fat source to your horses diet, check the omega fatty acid ratio to ensure that your horse won’t be burdened by excessive and unnecessary inflammation.