When a nutrient is called “essential” it means that it must be present in the diet in adequate amounts because the horse’s body cannot synthesize it. This category includes many amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), all minerals, a few vitamins and just two classes of fats, the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
– – – – -Flaxseed contains the essential fatty acids in the correct ratio for horses.- – – – –
Formal research on the exact requirements for essential fatty acids in all species is limited. The horse is no exception. There are many research studies looking at the effects of varying amounts of these essential fats in the diet, but none that really define what the correct ideal amounts are for any species.
To be fair, the ideal levels for health may depend heavily on the toxic and inflammatory stressors the individual may be facing but this is true for any nutrient where specific conditions may call for higher or lower levels of some nutrient. The starting point here is what levels are optimal for the horse in general.
When research data is lacking, as it is here, the backup position is to look at the animal’s ancestral diet. This may not be optimal either in terms of best health and performance but it will at least look at what allowed the species to survive. For horses, this means looking at grass.
Grasses, as well as things horses may often browse on like buds on trees or bushes, have a high ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. The average is around 4:1. When grasses are cut, dried and made into hay, the total fat content typically drops by 50%. Most of this loss is the more fragile omega-3 fatty acids.
The situation is made worse by feeding grains and vegetable fats like corn or soy because these are very high in omega-6 inflammatory fatty acids and low in the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
To replace the loss in dried hays, you need to feed something with both a high fat content (fresh grass is about 4%, versus 25 to 30% for seeds) and the appropriate ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats of around 4:1. Of the readily available sources, only flax seed, chia seed and fish oils fit that bill.
Flax seed is the most readily available, natural and economical. The seed meal also contains lignans that have anti-inflammatory properties. Feed a minimum of 2 oz up to 16 oz/day of flax to help restores essential fatty acids lost when hay is dried.
Eleanor M Kellon,VMD