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The benefits of supplemental essential fatty acids for the health of the horse

We hear so much about essential fats in our diets, but those of our companion animals are just as important as I discussed for cats and dogs in our April issue. This is very true regarding equine nutrition and receiving much interest scientifically in many countries. It is becoming very clear that essential fatty acids serve a major role in overall equine health, and when horses consume fresh pasture, it is likely they are meeting their requirements to a great extent.


It is, however, possible that supplementation above (minimum) requirements may confer further
benefits. Horses cannot synthesise long chain polyunsaturated of the omega-3 family such as EPA (eicosopentaenoic) and DHA (docosohexaenoic) efficiently from linolenic acid usually found in flaxseed (linseed) oil.

Dried forage loses much of its essential fatty acid levels, and often oils are added to balancing feeds and concentrate pellets mainly as oil seeds that are also typically high in omega-6 fatty acids. These however can negate the assimilation of omega-3 fatty acids.

It is believed that consumption of a diet rich in the omega-3 oils will result in a greater ratio of omega-3s in the body (and in particular the lipid membranes of cells), which will offer benefits to horses such as anti-inflammatory properties. It is very important to obtain a correct balance between the omega-3: omega-6 dietary ratio for the horse to obtain the optimum pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory pathways and immune function.

Indeed, sperm quality can be indicative of a good omega-3 fatty acid enriched diet in the horse. Research has reported an increase in daily sperm output when stallions were fed marine-sourced (fish) omega-3 oils. Other studies have shown that when supplemented with fish oil, equine red blood cells have higher ratios of omega-3s, which may be beneficial to oxygen transport and platelet function.

Fish oil supplementation was also shown to increase stride length, which researchers concluded was a result of decreased inflammation and stiffness within the joints. Another study offered supplemental omega-3s to older horses with arthritis and found decreased inflammatory derived compounds within their joint fluids.

Laminitis (The disease process involving a breakdown of the bond between the hoof wall and the distal phalanx, commonly called the coffin bone, pedal bone, or third phalanx) can be markedly improved with essential fatty acid supplementation. Likewise, joint and leg swelling (oedema) can be reduced in horses.

Hair coat quality, dryness, and skin condition (dry scabbing) & sheen is greatly improved. Another attribute is the potential to elevate retinal condition in the eye as essential omega-3 fatty acids can sustain retinal ultra-morphology and address capillary defects.

Important improvements
The horse is a naturally stressed animal, its survival initially depending on its ability to flee. Its innate anxiety multiplies the potential sources of stress, even though each horse feels and reacts differently to stress. In relation to reduced stress: heart rate, respiration (breathing rate) body temperature, oral, rectal measurements show important and positive responses with additional omega-3 in diets.

Improvements in cognition, memory, alertness, and general behaviour would also be important to record in association with enriching equine diets with omega-3 oils.

For specific omega-3 supplementation, several marine-derived products such as fish oils and marine algal oils are being promoted with the latter increasingly used in balancer supplements and premixes. Fish oil has direct sources of DHA and EPA, so the benefits are more readily conferred to the body.

As a point of comparison, fish oil has a ratio of 6:1, omega-3 to omega-6. Because DHA and EPA are found predominantly in fish and other aquatic life, they are sometimes referred to as ‘marine omega-3s’. Algal oil is an effective alternative or complementary addition and research is being advanced to evaluate novel products from a variety of sources that are more sustainable.

The metabolism of horses will vary with age, nutritional and disease status as well as their role in society. Working horses on farms, breeding animals, racing horses, equestrian event horses and our companion ponies and horses will all have varying needs.

Fats in the diet will provide energy but also vital functional roles. Essential fatty acids in oils are therefore important to maintain health, stamina, and welfare of our equine friends.

Article contributed by Professor Simon Davies, Nutrition Editor, International Petfood magazine.

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