Why Feed Fat to Horses? Supplementing the Equine Diet with Essential Fatty Acids

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Although feeding fat to horses has often been a topic of heavy debate, current research indicates that supplementing essential fatty acids to horses is not only useful, but may very well be a requirement. In fact, research indicates that feeding essential fatty acids (EFA's) for health promoting benefits can be justified for not only skin and hooves, but mental, digestive, reproductive, pulmonary and joint health, as well.
Jack Grogan, Certified Nutritionist and Chief Science Officer for Uckele Health & Nutrition, has formulated ground-breaking nutritional supplements to support healthy metabolic balance in horses. Grogan explains that an added benefit of supplementing fat is that it generates less internal heat while digesting than protein or carbohydrates, keeping your horse cooler, “Other benefits of higher fat diets can include enabling your horse to perform longer without fatigue, lowering the risk of injury, improving the ability to maintain body weight with less grain and reducing the risk of colic and founder."

Grogan goes on to explain that horses with higher energy requirements can benefit from EFA's, such as pregnant or lactating mares, growing horses, performance horses and horses recovering from accidents, injury or surgery, "In addition, EFA's can allow lactating mares to breed again more quickly, enable horses to more efficiently and safely meet their energy requirements, improve coat condition, and reduce dehydration risk because a by-product of fat metabolism is water."

Important for many biological processes in the body, EFA's are required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients, including Vitamins A, D, E, K and the carotenes, and are critical for the production of hormones and healthy cell membranes. Essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured or synthesized by the horse's body from any other nutrients. Grogan points out that horses on pasture eat living plants that contain fatty acids as part of their cell wall structure, as well as seed heads of grasses and other grains that also contain a large amount of essential fatty acids, "Unfortunately, typical equine diets today lack essential fatty acids because grains are processed and hay is dried, thereby damaging the natural fatty acid content that was once abundant."

EFA's supply energy in the form of fat and have 2.25 times more calories than protein or carbohydrates with an average of 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram provided by  protein or carbohydrates.  The body metabolizes EFA's in the small intestine, which can then be stored for energy or used as an immediate source of fuel.  They can consequently act as an energy reserve in the form of stored fat under the skin, around organs and/or in the membranes surrounding the intestines.

Feeding fat to your horse can help in several aspects of its diet:

Although feeding fat conditions the skin and coat to provide a healthy, shiny hair coat, Grogan mentions that many individuals overlook other benefits of feeding fat, such as its importance in the development of the brain and nervous system and its contribution to normal immune function, because they simply like the way it makes their horses look with a beautiful, lustrous coat.  

More important, Grogan emphasizes, is that EFA's provide a dense source of calories, "Feeding fat as a source of calories provides for a sustained source of caloric energy. Horses are very efficient in utilizing and digesting fat as a source of fuel. What is fed early in the morning is slowly metabolized and utilized throughout the day." In addition, Grogan adds that because EFA's are so efficient in providing calories to the equine diet, many horses that are considered "hard keepers" benefit greatly as it slows gastric emptying and stabilizes blood sugar by evening out the digestion rate. Another benefit is its properties as a dense "calming" energy source, which results in stable weight gain while preventing blood sugar related mood swings.

In fact, one of the most significant benefits to good quality fat supplementation is fat's ability to keep the blood sugar pattern steady, stable and predictable. Inadequate fat intake contributes to very unstable blood sugar patterns that stress the horse's metabolism by causing an increase in the release of cortisol, adrenalin and insulin. When these hormones are over-relied on, the increases can affect mood, performance, immune function and injury prevention.  Because fats digest so much more slowly, the blood sugar does not become disrupted as easily, thus reducing the amount and frequency of stress hormone and insulin release, which then reduces inflammatory stress.

Easy keepers also need good quality fat sources in smaller amounts to stabilize normal endocrine function and blood sugar patterns. This aids greatly in balancing the levels of the stress hormones and insulin, which can substantially reduce excessive inflammatory stress.

Grogan concludes, "Essential fatty acids provide significant functions in the inflammatory responses by producing anti-inflammatory substances in the body, contributing to the growth and repair of tissues. In addition, it may enhance feed palatability. Unprocessed, unrefined oils provide a pleasant aroma and taste to the horse's feed. This allows you to blend supplements, reduce dust and reduce the amount of molasses you have added to your horse's feed." He also points out that another popular aspect of feeding fat is the anecdotal evidence that it may reduce the incidence of colic, since oil works as an intestinal lubricant.

The Texas A&M University study, Alteration in the Inflammatory Response in Athletic Horses Fed Diets Containing Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, revealed that crude unrefined soybean oil reduced inflammatory reponses in horses. Comparatively, refined corn oil was shown to cause an increase in inflammation.