I remember eating handfuls of whole flax seeds out of the bag as a young groom, in hopes my hair might shine like some of the horses I was rubbing on. Now I wonder which is the best way to prepare flax so that the horse can benefit from the alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3's).
The problem with whole flax is the horse does not efficiently chew the seed. Up to 50% is wasted due to the chewing habits of the equine. In order for the oils to be extracted from the seed, the horse would have to chew that seed for quite a long while. Thus the majority of the seed is passed through the intestinal track unprocessed and not delivering the goods. Whole seeds can be stored for up to a year in a cool dry area.
More benefit from the seed comes from grinding them in a coffee or herb mill then using it as a top dressing over the feed. But this means whoever is feeding the horses would have to grind daily because its shelf life in this ground form is so short. You can refrigerate or store the ground seed in a dark, cool area but for only a couple of days. The problem is crack oils, which flax is considered, rancidify quickly and the product becomes unpalatable. Buying ground flax in bulk is risky because unless printed on the label, you have no idea when it was ground! Most manufactures recommend using it within 6 months of milling.
Also, raw, whole, or ground flax contains an element known as cyanogenic glucosides, which is said to be harmless in moderate amounts. Only two to four tablespoons of raw flax is recommended consumption for a 140 pound human per day due to this cyanogen, which relates to a little more than 1 cup for the average-sized horse. Researchers claim that in higher doses the cyanogens can prevent the thyroid from taking up enough iodine (1).
But, this research is controversial. A Flax Council study shows no evidence that flax seed consumption contributes to either acute or chronic cyanide toxicity. Flax seeds are one of 2500 plants, such as cassava and lima beans, that contain moderate amounts of cyanogenic glucosides. These are natural compounds that can lead to the buildup of poison in the body. Generally, this toxicity is more common in poor, undernourished, or malnourished populations - populations, for example, who rely heavily on a plant like cassava as the main staple of their diets (2).
Horsemen in England have been serving cooked flax for centuries. Many show barns in West Palm Beach, this winter, had a flax mash slow cooking all day to be fed at the evening meal. But, omega-3 fatty acids are easily destroyed by heat, thus the slow cook. A recent article in Practical Horseman highlighted show groom Lori Green preparing a warm, nutritious mash for her grand-prix jumpers that consists of a blend of 1 cup whole seed, 2 cups oats and 1 cup barley (3). The Flax seed must get hot enough for the shell to crack so that your horse receives all the benefits. You can cook the ground or milled seed if you're afraid the temperature isn't going to get hot enough.
Cyanogens are rendered inactive by cooking (1). Again this process needs to be monitored. What isn't fed to the horses should be disposed of afterward and the pot thoroughly cleaned. It is highly recommended not to fry with Flaxseed Oil but many baking procedures are considered safe.
Products are available in human and animal grade and can be purchased in bulk without requiring refrigeration. Omega Horseshine from Omega Fields uses a 100% natural method of stabilization, which, in basic terms, slows down the oxidation process and gives the product a 12-month shelf life with full nutritional benefit.
The U.S. pet food industry uses between 4.5 and 9 million kg (10-20 million pounds) of ground flaxseed a year. According to this source, "Virtually every pet-food company in the United States is either using, or considering using, ground flaxseed" (4). But Omega Fields president, Sean Moriarty warns, "The terms flax and linseed can be used interchangeably with regard to whole seed products. However, if the feed tag says linseed 'meal' or flax 'meal' that means it is a by-product of the oil extraction process. Generally the flax seed is either expeller pressed (crushed) or solvent extracted to remove 90-95% of the omega-3 rich oil. The product left over is then ground and sold as flax or linseed 'meal.' If your feed tag says flax or linseed 'meal' you are getting very little omega-3 content compared to a ground whole seed product. This type of ingredient is added mainly for a label claim rather than to add real omega-3 nutritional value. Since most of the flax oil processing companies use solvent extraction to remove the oil from flax seed, a process which involves the use of Hexane gas as the solvent, there is further concern about the nutritional characteristics of products using solvent extracted meals," says Moriarty.
The organic industry must use the cold press method of extracting flax oils. Cold Press processed seed is squeezed in a press using no solvents but this method produces less oil and is not as efficient, yet clean.
Buyers beware when shopping for flax. American Association of American Feed Control Officials Inc. (AFCO) does regulate feed tags, but, when the tag says flax meal or linseed meal it can be a by-product of the petrochemical industry and will not contain the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio you are looking for and it could be toxic to your horse! Look for the words "ground" or "milled." This means the product came directly from a whole flax seed.
Flax delivered correctly will make a huge difference in your animal's well being. When considering your feeding program, make sure flax is included not only for your horses but also for the dogs, cats and for yourself and family. The best part is flax tastes pretty good too!
1. Dr.Mirkin.com, Flax Seeds, Dr. Diana Mirkin http://www.drmirkin.com/nutrition/N192.html
2. Flax Seed Council of Canada, Eating Flax Seed Safely
3. Practical Horseman, Yum A Hot Treat, Lori Green, January 2002
4. INFORM vol. 9 no. 12 Dec 19
Thanks to Omega Fields http://www.omegafields.com/ for their assistance on this article.