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Feeding oils to horses
kindly provided by Hermione Ball MSc Equine Nutritionist, Brinicombe Equine

Oil has become a popular ingredient of horse feed. Fat is an important part of the diet as it not only provides energy, but is necessary for the health of cell membranes. As oil provides more energy than the same weight as cereals, it is a useful addition to the diet of the competition horse. It is also traditionally fed to create a glossy coat, ease joint stiffness and support the digestive system. However, science has come a long way since cod liver oil was originally recommended. Now there are many different sources of oil available, and depending on the type of fatty acid within the oil, there will be different health benefits.

Human nutritionists recommend that we eat oily fish at least once a week. This is because fish are naturally rich in unsaturated fatty acids, which are 'good fats'. Of these unsaturated fats, the polyunsaturated fats are Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). 'Essential' means the body cannot make them and they must be provided in the diet. The two most important types of EFA are Omega-3 and Omega-6.

Cereal based diets (which is mainly applicable to us but also some horses) tend to be high in Omega 6, but very low in Omega 3. This is why Omega-3 fatty acids have gained the most publicity in recent years. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids each have their own health benefits, but it is also important to balance the diet, so that it provides similar levels of each.

Omega 3 fatty acids are sourced from oily fish such as salmon or mackerel, and linseed oil. The Omega 3 fatty acids from fish include Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). These fatty acids are recognized for their anti-inflammatory effects. Linseed oil contains Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), which can be converted to EPA in the body. In human nutrition, ALA is used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) support the immune system, healthy skin and hormone balance. These oils are also traditionally recommended for stiff joints, but it is only recently that research has proven that Omega-3 fatty acids do have anti-inflammatory effects. Omega-3 oils are able to significantly reduce levels of the enzymes which cause cartilage degradation and reduce factors which cause inflammation and pain. For these health benefits, it is possible to give relatively small quantities of fish oil - approximately 30 - 60ml per day for a horse.

As already discussed, oil is an important source of energy. Horses can digest oil easily, and it results in less heat production than cereals (which helps to reduce sweating and fatigue). When introduced to the diet gradually, oil can make up a large portion of the equine diet (up to 30%). However, to ensure the diet is balanced it cannot replace all the starch content. High fat diets are particularly suitable for horses with small appetites (3 cups of oil provides as much energy as 1kg of oats), those prone to azoturia and horses that become very highly strung on high energy diets.

A high fat diet will not create the post-meal plasma glucose peak which is associated with cereal diets, and blamed for the 'hot temperament'. Oils can also delay the decline in blood glucose during endurance rides, therefore conserving energy and improving the rate of recovery. Oil may even be recommended to laminitics (under veterinary supervision) as it will not interfere with the glucose-insulin balance. When feeding a high fat diet for performance (more than 100ml per day) a Vitamin E supplement must also be provided. Due to the way the fat is digested, it is important to provide anti-oxidants. If considering moving your horse onto a high oil diet, advice from a Vet or Nutritionist should be sought.

For more information on Brinicombe Equine products including the blended oil, Think Smart, please call the EquiClinic on tel: 08700 606206 or go to