Omega Basics: Easy as 1, 2, 3

Oils derived from linseed and flaxseed (seen here) are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Fats are commonly used in equine diets to increase the energy density of the diet, but they are also necessary to metabolize important fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and several cellular functions. Fats are composed of fatty acids and are named based on the number of carbon atoms, and location and number of double bonds. Fatty acids with the first double bond between the third and fourth carbon molecule are known as omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found commonly in linseed and flaxseed oils and cold water fish oil, , although the latter's taste might decrease its palatability, and thus intake, for some horses. Researchers have found that there is even a percentage of omega-3 fatty acids in hay and pasture: about 55% of the fat in fresh pasture and 18-35% of the fat in hay.
Although not specifically recognized as essential in the horse, they are highly digestible in the small intestine and provide a vast array of health benefits in humans and other species. Benefits such as improved immunity, blood pressure, heart disease, and ulcers have all been seen in human studies. There is little information regarding whether these benefits translate to the horse, but we do know that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in equine growth, reproduction, and exercise:
  • In exercised horses, researchers have found that feeding omega-3 fatty acids as fish oil decreased horse’s heart rates, insulin, plasma glucose, and serum cholesterol levels;
  • In stallions, adding dietary omega-3 fatty acids resulted in increased sperm numbers and percentage of normal sperm; and
  • In the broodmare, the addition of linseed oil, milled flax, or fish oil all increased the omega-3 fatty acid concentration of plasma and milk. 
In addition, some results have suggested that there could be an increase in mares and foals immune response when supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids.
As with all fats, it is important to make sure the diet is properly balanced for caloric needs. Oversupplementation of fat can lead to excess body condition, which in itself can lead to healthy problems including obesity.
Read more about omega-3 and -6 fatty acids on page 48 of the September issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care!

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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