How to Feed Fat to Horses

How to Feed Fat to Horses

Top-dressing your horse’s grain ration with oil is a simple process of measuring and pouring—but like any feed additive, it should be introduced gradually, over two to three weeks.

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Adding fat to your horse’s diet can be done in a number of ways. Practically any digestible source of fat, either vegetable or animal, might be used.

The only source to avoid is the rumen-protectant variety of fat designed for cattle, which horses will find at best indigestible and at worst, toxic. (You won’t run into this one unless you ask for it specifically at the feed store.)

It’s interesting to note that horses actually can digest fat from animal sources (such as tallow) very well, despite their vegetarian innards. From an economic standpoint, animal-fat products are generally much less expensive than comparable vegetable fats or oils. But animal fats are seldom used in horse rations for two reasons: First, they are usually solids at room temperature, so they must be heated to liquid to mix with a grain ration; and second, their palatability is generally low (try to get a horse to eat something that smells like bacon grease!).

Of the vegetable sources of fats (which usually come in the form of oils), corn and soy oil are traditional favorites and are readily available at most feed mills as well as at many supermarkets. Other vegetable oils are just as suitable, however, although many horse owners avoid canola oil as its palatability isn’t as good. Top-dressing your horse’s grain ration with oil is a simple process of measuring and pouring—but like any feed additive, it should be introduced gradually, over two to three weeks.

Other feed additives that are relatively high-fat, most notably rice bran, have gained considerable popularity in parts of the United States. Rice bran products, which come either as a powder or as an extruded pellet, are approximately 22% fat, which means you have to feed considerably more rice bran to get the same benefits as you would from a 100% fat product such as vegetable oil. Rice bran has the advantage of being much more stable, however, and is often preferred in warm, humid climates where oils and animal fats tend to go rancid very quickly.

Extruded soybeans, another high-fat product, are good for young growing horses because they are also a good protein source. For that same reason, they’re not as appropriate for mature animals.

Then there’s flax seed (30% fat), which because of its omega-3 content is an increasingly popular option. However, flax seed’s small, hard seed coat means it needs to be processed immediately with a coffee grinder before feeding to make the fats available for digestion.

Or you can provide some extra fat with black-oil sunflower seeds (the unstriped kind, a.k.a. BOSS), which many horses relish as a treat. Sunflower seeds contain between 25% and 40% fat.

One of the simplest ways to add fat to your horse’s diet is to choose a commercial grain ration that is fat supplemented. Many feed companies now offer these products, usually as part of their premium line. Fat-supplemented feeds are often equipped with extra anti-oxidants to prevent spoilage, a management perk, and have camouflaged the fats with other ingredients so there is no loss of palatability. Any feed that contains more than about 3.5% fat is considered to be fat-supplemented. Look for a crude fat level of 8% to 10% on the label (and if your horse is a mature animal not being used for breeding, a protein content of 10% to 12% at most), and introduce it gradually to your horse’s diet. If your horse objects to top-dressed oil or rice bran, the best way to go might be a fat-supplemented sweet feed or pellet.

However you decide to add fat to your horse’s diet, you must consider how it will affect the overall nutrient balance of his daily ration. If you add fat to your horse’s routine but don’t increase his exercise level or cut down on his grain, he’s likely to get fat. However, if you cut back on your horse’s grain, you also reduce the concentration of vitamins and minerals. In contrast to other feeds, oils contribute no incidental nutrient value—that is, they contain no protein, calcium, phosphorus, or any other nutrients to speak of beyond the fat calories, though other fat sources such as rice bran are sometimes supplemented. For this reason, it’s important to work with an equine nutritionist to help you make the necessary adjustments so that your horse doesn’t get cheated out of essential vitamins and minerals.

You might have to consider adding a supplement to compensate for these losses. If you’re feeding a commercial ration that is a “premium” product, you might not have to worry about deficiencies of vitamins and minerals as many of these are deliberately designed with an excess of most nutrients. And if you decide to go with an all-inclusive high-fat feed, the feed company has likely already done the ration balancing for you. Consult with your equine nutritionist to be sure.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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