Adding oil to a horse’s diet has been a common practice for centuries. It is known that oil helps horses gain weight and develop a shiny coat. Research has since determined there are many benefits of adding oil to a horse’s diet. Feed manufacturer’s have also noted the importance of oil in a horse’s diet and have included it in the form of either soya oil or flax oil in concentrates.
There are substantial differences in the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid profiles of different oils. Corn oil for instance is higher in Omega 6 fatty acids whereas soy oil is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids. Linseed oil is also high in Omega 3 fatty acids. It is important that horses get both Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. Any oil if used properly with be oxidized for energy and incorporated into cell membranes as required. Equine nutritionists place more emphasis on maintaining the proper balance or ratio between the two as they work hand in hand in the horse’s body. Grasses also contain varying quantities of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Most diets provide more Omega 6 fatty acids and minimize the supply of Omega 3s.
When optimal levels of omega 3 fatty acids have been fed it has shown: reduction of inflammatory responses in joints from arthritis and degenerative joint disease, enhancement of fertility, reduction in cholesterol and blood clotting abnormalities, support immune function and disease resistance, gene expression, bone metabolism.
For working horse’s energy is a big requirement. Energy is normally obtained from grains, but large quantities of grains can cause issues such as colic. Oils have a high energy content relative to grains. They contain nearly three times more energy than oats with only 400mls of vegetable oil providing as much energy as 1kg of oats. The benefit in this lies in the reduction of the size and bulk of feed, this means that horses with poor appetites will get sufficient energy without having to eat huge quantities of food.
Oil requires less heat during the digestive and metabolic processes. This means that high oil diets reduce the loss of electrolytes and the amount they need to sweat to stay cool, which is a massive bonus for hard working horses.
During slow to medium paced work the muscles prefer fuel source is fatty acids from oils. While glycogen is the only source of energy a muscle can use during sprints and strenuous exercise. Once a horse runs out of glycogen its muscles fatigue and the horse will slow down and lose its ability to perform at the level it is capable of. Feeding oil provides a source of fatty acids for muscles to burn during the warmup and slower phases of a competition, meaning muscles are able to conserve valuable glycogen and avoid fatigue.
Horses need time to adapt to digesting and metabolizing oils. Oils should be introduced into the diet slowly. Introducing oil into a diet too quickly can result in soft manure and reduced fiber fermentation in the hindgut. It takes a minimum of 3 weeks for a horse to really starting benefit from oil in its diet and it could take up to 3 months before the full benefits of oil are realized.
Horses can be fed up to 20% of their total energy intake as oil. Which is roughly 3 cups of oil per day for a 500kg horse in full work. In reality very few horses are fed this much oil, with the norm being between 1 and 2 cups of oil per day. This is enough to give horses the benefits discussed above without making diets messy, unpalatable, or unnecessarily expensive.