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Omega 3 on chalk board with salmon
There’s been a lot of hype about incorporating Omega Fatty Acids (OFA) into your horse’s diet and the profound health benefits they can offer. Knowing when or if your horse needs additional OFAs and sifting through the saturated marketplace to find the right supplement for you can be taxing. Understanding the basic biomechanics and principles behind your selections leads to informed choices and enhanced horse ownership.
Understanding Omega-3 versus Omega-6
It is important to note that many supplements, feeds, and even informational articles lump Omega Fatty Acids into a single category, implying that the same benefits apply to all, when this is not the case. Big differences exist between Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids and even differences within the respective categories. Omega-3s and Omega-6s provide unique health benefits from each other, are metabolized differently, and their availability in feeds and supplements varies greatly.
In simple terms, Omega-6s are the firemen of the body while Omega-3s are the handymen. If there’s a problem, like infection or injury, Omega-6s signal an inflammatory response and stabilize the issue while Omega-3s repair the problem and work to prevent recurrence. The balance of these two substances within your horse’s diet should be your primary concern versus the quantity found in the supplement or feed you’re considering.
Forages such as hay are naturally high in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an Omega-3, while concentrates such as grain are high in linoleic acid (LA), an Omega-6. While no optimal ratios have been determined by researchers for horses, the general rule of thumb is a 1:5 (Omega-3 to Omega-6) ratio to maintain general health. With modern feeding practices, this ratio can skew easily because of the amount of grain fed over forages. Large imbalances can lead to things like joint and structural health concerns and fertility issues. Simple things like working with your veterinarian or nutritionist to develop feed programs and limiting the supplementation of products high in Omega-6s (see table below) can avert these potential issues.
Within the Omega-3 category, there are three types; ALA, DHA and EPA. Forages such as hay and grass, along with flaxseed, are rich sources of ALA, which provide potent anti-inflammatory benefits. However, when you hear Omega-3s referenced regarding their benefits to reproductive, respiratory, and cognitive health, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are primarily responsible.
Determining your end goal in supplementing with Omegas can be a beneficial place to start so that a proper feeding and supplementation plan can be developed. For example, if your goal is to decrease your horse’s seasonal allergy symptoms, adding flaxseed may not be enough. Additionally, adding corn oil may help your horse’s coat but won’t do much to address their allergy symptoms and, in extreme cases, could even worsen them.
Understanding Your Horse’s Metabolism
Your horse’s digestive system is unique in many ways and plays a huge part in their ability to effectively utilize OFAs. Horses don’t possess the ability to effectively create their own supply of DHA and EPA so this must be supplied externally. While some can be synthesized from ALA supplementation, in order to create enough DHA and EPA to achieve the health benefits noted, the amount of supplementation needed would be illogical.
Fish oil is an effective source of both DHA and EPA, however, as an herbivore, a horse’s ability to metabolize this protein-sourced Omega-3 is diminished. Again, this quickly leads to over-supplementation and a hefty price tag to achieve results. The most effective supplementation source of DHA and EPA for horses is oceanic-derived algae. Recent literature has proven this source is effective in managing equine reproductive and respiratory ailments along with providing impressive cognitive benefits to growing horses. Because it’s plant-based, algal-DHA is extremely bioavailable to horses and packed with beneficial Omega-3s, making it the best choice for horse owners dealing with specific issues like allergies, Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) or immune and reproductive concerns.
Determining Your Supplement Needs
The needs of your horse will likely vary greatly from those of others, therefore it is important to understand that supplementation can be tailored to fit each individual. Asking yourself these three, simple questions can help narrow your choices and find the right supplement for you and your horse:
- Do I want to provide my horse with a general boost to immune and systemic health?
- If you answered yes, work on balancing the amount of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in your horse’s diet and consider the addition of a quality Omega-3 supplement.
- Does my horse have a specific issue, like RAO or reproductive challenges, I would like to address?
- If you answered yes, focus on balancing the amount of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in your horse’s diet and consider adding an algal-DHA supplement to boost the levels of beneficial Omega-3s in your horse’s system.
- What are my budgetary limits?
- This is a big issue that plays into decision making for many horse owners. Many of the Omega-6 sources are economical, which encourage consumers to reach for those items first. Consider though, by doing this, you may be doing more harm than good due to the increase in the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. Price isn’t everything and, many times, by paying a bit more for the right feed or supplement you can decrease the need for something else, allowing the costs to even out. Omega-6 supplementation is certainly warranted in some situations but, more often than not, Omega-3s are what’s lacking.
In conclusion, Omega Fatty Acids have many applications in equine nutrition and have been well received in the current literature. Having a basic understanding of how your horse metabolizes these ingredients and the benefits that different types offer is crucial to selecting the right supplement for your horse or determining whether one is even needed. This understanding can improve your results and save you money in the long run.