Feeding Fat – Oils and the Omega Balance

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The Benefits of Fat in a Horse’s Diet

dressage horse and rider competingLike all good horsemasters know, when feeding horses all aspects of their work, the type of horse, the basic pasture/forage availability, all need to be taken into account. There is no doubt that the addition of fat to the diet of a horse in work is accepted as beneficial to health and also provides good digestible energy without the negative effects of high volumes of grain, such as digestive disorders like over-heating, hindgut fermentation and negative behaviour. Indeed many scientific studies have been made that show fat as an excellent energy source and many trainers have been able to reduce grain intake and replace with fat. Coats are improved with the addition of fat to a diet – it’s not oil itself but the fat contained in the oil that has the effect.

Before adding a new addition to the diet, some thought should be given to the effects of that component and some knowledge should be sought. It is not inherent in every horse owner that they are knowledgeable on animal nutrition, but there is a trend to pick up hearsay and anecdotal comments and without much more input literally stick the product in the feed. For example the inclusion of the word “performance” in a title can convert a bottle of plain standard oil into a wonder product. It is interesting to see that most oil products do not clearly state that it is fish oil, rice bran oil or soya bean oil, for that is all they are and if they plainly just said so then consumers would go to the supermarket.

What Fats Should be Added to a Horses Diet

Sources of fat in non-liquid form are soya bean meal, coprameal and stabilised rice bran (ingredient of Vetpro Muscle-Max). Liquid oil being a good source of fat is convenient and can be accepted by the horse, provided it is added very gradually and it is now being added to feeds of many equines, sadly though, without a lot of thought to the correct type of oil for the individual horse. Also little consideration is given to the ratio of fat in the diet and whether this has been achieved already by the inclusion of fat meal type products. Many of the premixes given to horses contain large portions of fat in meal form and this should be taken into account. There is a limit to the amount of oil that the horse can tolerate, even if he accepts a high amount in his feed, overfeeding causes complications in the digestive tract often indicated by diarrhoea.

The Importance of the Omega Ratios of  3 : 6 : 9

In the human diet the omega 6 tends to be too high and the omega 3 lower, hence a lot of direction and marketing towards omega 3 only supplements. In the horse, their standard diet tends to be high in omega 3 and so any supplementation needs to take that into account. Oils contain omega 3 and omega 6 (essential unsaturated fatty acids) and the ratio of omega 3 to 6 is important. The description “essential” means they are necessary for the body to function but cannot be manufactured in the body. Marketing is often aimed at the benefits of omega 3 and some even show omega 6 to be the bad fat, but as with everything moderation and balance is important. Omega 3 reduces inflammatory responses controlling them, omega 6 increases inflammatory response. This is not a “bad” thing, the response is a vital and natural response to injury as it is part of the healing process. The balance of these fatty acids is vital to the physiological functions and so the overall health of the animal. So neither type should be given in excess and overfeeding one above the other would be unhealthy to the horse. In fact the correct ratio is that omega 6 needs to be higher than omega 3. Piling in more omega 3 on top of a diet that may already be high from natural sources such as pasture and hay will only produce a poor ratio of omega 6: omega 3 and that is not ideal for the horse. For example horses primarily on pasture and access to hay in winter will be receiving a good supply of omega 3, but low in omega 6, so could have a corn or vegetable oil – one of the best being canola oil – cheap and available from the supermarket.

Horses on pasture with a balanced feed of some grain and some fat meal will not overly benefit from any oil addition as they will be getting a correct 3:6 balance – adding the wrong oil will throw the balance out on this ideal type of nutrition. Rice bran oil would maintain this balance if extra fat was needed. Horses on a relatively high grain intake with little or reduced access to pasture are likely to be low in omega 3. The ideal oil would be fish oil, expensive and maybe not so palatable, or flax seed oil which is a little more palatable but expensive too. All oils have to be stored in cool conditions and once opened, will in a relativity short time become rancid and that would be very detrimental to the horse. Storing in large containers needs care as the oil at the bottom may not be used up before it turns rancid, active stirring is a good idea, as is cleaning out the container.

How Much Fat to Feed Your Horse

eventing horse and rider, jumping a cross country jump during competition.Having given thought and consideration to oil – which oil etc, one very important factor in deciding how much to add, is the amount of fat already in a diet. The balance of the input of protein, roughage, carbohydrates and fat is vital and before adding oil it would be wise to look at whether your horse’s diet contains 10% fat. Read the label of your premix feed, check the weight of your feeds and consider that pasture contains 4% fat, grains around 5%. Horses can only tolerate fat levels up to 10%. Also the maximum intake of any oil should be 200mls a day, so oil cannot be the total energy source. With mature horses requiring 2.0% to 2.5% of their body weight in feed daily, an average 500kg horse will consume around 12kg and at least half of that or more should be pasture and/or hay or supplemented chaff, especially if pasture is restricted or poor. So total intake of 12kg means fat balance should be a maximum 1.2kg. Most will already be provided in a diet of pasture plus chaff plus some grain and some fat in meal form.

Coming back to fat sources, some thought should be given to the condition of the horses – higher fat content for poor condition, minimal for overweight horses (fat will make horses fatter) with a limit of 10% of fat in the total feed for the average horse in work under normal conditions. Give consideration of the cost of the fat source – oils can be expensive compared to rice bran meal or coprameal e.g. 100mls most oils are approx $1.20- $1.50 per dose, storage needs to be cool and no longer than two months (30 – 40 days in warm conditions) when opened to avoid rancidity. More importantly give consideration to the type of oil needed to complement the diet of the horse.

The Safe Easy Way to Add Fat

Vetpro Muscle-Max contains stabilised rice bran in a meal form so it cannot go rancid. It is very palatable and also contains chromium to assist with stamina and reduce fatigue. It is a similar daily cost to oils, has a completely correct balanced ratio of omega 3: 6 and provides natural vitamin E and gamma oryzanol, plus very high levels of antioxidants. These are necessary to repair cellular structure from free radicals – the negative effects of exercise.

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