Lipid Nutrition: Part 1, Feeding Fat to Horses

Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

This month we begin a series looking at the value of incorporating fat into the diets of our horses. We will discuss how fat is digested and handled in the equine, the types of fats fed to horses, and the many beneficial effects that can be realized through the addition of fat to the diet of our horses.
Fat digestion
Feeding fat to horses became more popular in the 1980’s and has continued to see an increase in the share of the feed market. Most feed stores now offer a selection of fat added feeds, or specific fat supplements. While one may not think of horses as a species that routinely consumes fats, horses can handle fats quite well in their digestive system. Lipid digestion occurs primarily in the small intestine, via the production and release of digestive enzymes and bile salts. As the horse does not possess a gall bladder, bile salts are continually released into the intestine. Fats that are added to the diet in the form of oils or fat are very well digested, typically up to 90%. Comparatively, naturally occurring fats in the diet (muchsmaller percentages of fat are actually present in forages and cereal grains) are less well digested, between 40-50% for forages and 50-75% for grains. Addition of fat to the diet does not alter digestibility of other components of the diet, unless the amount of lipid exceeds 22% of the total diet. However, typically this is not a concern, as acceptability and practicality of such diets make them improbable. There are some published studies which do report a lowered fiber digestibility in horses fed soy oil, however, these horses were also rapidly introduced to the fat in the diet. Ideally horses should be gradually transitioned onto a higher fat diet in order to adapt and increase the necessary fat digesting enzymes in their system. This should take place over one to two weeks, depending on how much fat is being added to the diet.
Acceptability
Palatability of fat added feeds is quite good, especially if supplied by vegetable oils. Typical vegetable oils include corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil and linseed oil. Horses will consume animal fats and fish oil, but typically not as readily as vegetable sources. The acceptability of fats in the diet is good up to about 15% of the diet. After that consumption rates do drop off.   There are commercially available feeds which have a higher percentage of fat, but these are typically extruded feeds which are more acceptable. Again, these are fed at a smaller percentage of the diet, such that 15% of the total diet is never exceeded. When feeding fat added feeds, it is important to realize that they do have a shorter shelf life than non-fat added feeds. This is due to the peroxidation that takes place, especially in polyunsaturated fats. These feeds then develop an off taste and flavor. If your feed smells rancid, it is best to avoid feeding it. Storing feeds in a cool, dry area will help to preserve their shelf life as well. These feeds often have anti-oxidants added to them to aid in protection against oxidation. Some products, such as Omega Horseshine, specialize in stabilized fats with a prolonged shelf life, up to 12 months.
Benefits to feeding fat
The most readily realized benefit to adding fat to the diet is in order to help meet the animals’ caloric needs. Fat is very readily digestible as already stated, and is much more energy dense than other components of the horse’s diet. Compared to proteins and non-structural carbohydrates which contain 4 Mcal/kg, fat is 2.25 times more energy dense at 9 Mcal/kg. Thus inclusion of fat allows a horse to gain weight much more readily or conversely, need to consume less feed to obtain the same amount of calories. Lowering the total amount of feed may be advantageous to horses working in hotter climates as it lowers the total heat production associated with digestion. Furthermore, fat itself is a relatively cool feed, as there is no fermentation and thus heat production associated with its digestion. Replacing high energy cereal grains with fats is an additional benefit, as less digestive risk is associated with feeding fats. Horses fed large amounts of cereal grains over time are at greater risk for ulcer formation, potential development of  stereotypies such as cribbing, laminitis and insulin resistance. This does not mean that starch needs to be eliminated from normal equine diet (the exception are horses with metabolic disorders which render them more sensitive to starch in the diet), but fat can make a very useful substitution. Another benefit to replacing starch in the diet with fats appears to be a calming effect on the horse. Horses fed fat added diets compared to typical sweet feeds have been found to be  less reactive to novel stimuli. Therefore, there is a second reason that fat is a cool feed, not only does it produce less heat during digestion, but it appears to “cool” the hot minded horses. Now obviously it is not a substitute for proper training and exercise!
Essential fat and fatty acids
 Horses must also consume some amount of fat for normal body functio. Lipids are used in the synthesis of steroid hormones, and  all of the fat soluble vitamins (ADEK) are contained within the fat portion of the feed.  However, the exact amount of fat necessary in the diet of the equine has not been determined. Additionally, the horse, like all other animals, must consume its essential fatty acids, linoleic (18:2 omega 6) and linolenic acid, (18:3, omega 3) from the diet. They lack the enzymes necessary to produce these particular fatty acids within the body. Important sources of these fatty acids include pasture grasses, canola oil and linseed oil or flax seed.
Practical guidelines for feeding fat to horses.
As stated previously, most fats in horse feed actually come from vegetable oils. The oils can either be extracted and purified, or the actual oil seed can be fed. Examples of common oilseeds include cottonseeds, soybeans, canola and flaxseeds. If these seeds are referred to as meal, such as cottonseed meal, the fat has already been extracted and then they are being fed typically for their high protein content, not for additional fat. Thus, feeding linseed meal provides a much diferent percentage of fat compared to feeding flax, despite it being the product of the same plant! Pure vegetable oils can also be fed to horses as a top dressing to their feed. One cup of vegetable oil provides as many calories as 1.5 lbs of oats or 1 lb of corn, allowing you to decrease the amount of cereal grains fed.   If feeding a fat added feed, typically these feeds will allow you to feed less concentrate for a similar work class of horse, due to the increased caloric density of the feed. The benefit of feeding a fat added feed, rather than top dressing, may be in its simplicity, as well as the fact that these rations are rebalanced with the knowledge that the horse may consume total less feed. However, if you are just top dressing fat to existing feeds, and thereby decreasing the total amount of feed, be sure that the total diet still meets the horse’s other nutritional requirements.
In the next part, we will discuss the potential for performance enhancing effects of feeding fat beyond merely an easy way to supply calories.

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