Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are nutrients that horses are unable to create on their own and thus they must be supplemented. As this is a nutrient that requires supplementation, it is no surprise that it is this nutrient in which most horses are deficient. But what are omegas, how are they different, how do they work and why are they so important? Let’s take a closer look....
Let’s start with omega-3’s. When most think of omega-3 fatty acids they may think of common sources of this nutrient such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Two of the most well-known types of marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and the popular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The lesser known ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) is an omega fatty acid found in plants like flaxseed and chia rather than fish. In contrast, omega-6’s are found in high processed crop sources such as corn, wheat, and soy. These mono-crops have become a staple in animal and human diet leading to a multitude of gastrointestinal complications i.e. omega-6’s are no good for the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory whereas omega-6 fatty acids are known to increase inflammation.
Why the good fats matter!
Omega-3 fatty acids are widely touted as the magical supplement for healthy skin and a radiantly shiny coat. Because of their amazing properties omega-3’s are also known to clear up common skin irritations such as “rain rot” (culicoides) and other dermatitis associated aliments.
Joint trauma, inflammation and osteoarthritis (OA) are typically complimented by the remedies of glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, avocado-soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and hyaluronic acid. But, recent studies have shown that omega-3s should be incorporated within this realm of commonly used joint supplements.
Wayne Mcllwraith co-authored a study which involves offering sedentary horses a dietary supplement containing 40 grams of fatty acids (including 1.93 g of EPA and 5.43 g of DHA) per 100 kg of body weight. The key finding was that supplementation was not harmful and EPA and DHA concentrations increased in the synovial fluid (the fluid that lubricates the joints) of supplemented horses. The studied product was potentially indicated as a joint therapy and/or a chondro-protective agent.
In a closely related study, the research team took joint health one step further. Their purpose was to determine if omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could protect the joints of young, exercising horses when offered prophylactically, before the onset of injury.
Young horses were offered a pelleted concentrate and coastal Bermuda-grass hay; half of the included horses were supplemented with 287 grams of a marine-derived omega-3 supplement (including 15 grams of EPA and 20 grams of DHA).
Blood samples were collected on days 0, 35, and 63 of the 63-day study. Prostaglandin E2 (you know, the stuff that creates hormones), (PGE2) concentrations in those samples were measured as an indicator of joint inflammation.
The theory was that systemic inflammation mirrors joint inflammation. Key findings of the study were that (1) PGE2 levels increased over time in both supplemented and un-supplemented horses as the exercise intensity increased, indicating a rise in inflammation; and horses supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids had lower PGE2 concentrations on days 35 and 63 compared to the control horses.
So what does this all mean? Well, quite simply it is proof that omega-3 fatty are a beneficial and important nutrient for every horse, especially youngsters and performance horses, due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Let’s all breathe clearly…
“Heaves”, also known as “chronic cough”, has many pesky irritants such as inhalation of fine, airborne particles from hay, dust, and mold spores, etc.
Improvements in airway inflammation are facilitated by replacing hay with a complete pelleted feed, turning horses out on pasture when possible and using low-dust bedding material (newspaper or straw) and dampening/soaking hay before feeding. Despite a horse owner's best efforts to mitigate the environmental irritants that trigger heaves, it still may simply not be enough. This is where diet is so critical and where nutrients such as omega-3’s play an important role.
Evidence has shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplements can offer additional improvement in airway function in asthmatic horses. The study, conducted by a team from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, included 43 horses with airway inflammation. All horses were offered a complete pellet diet (read: no hay) and either supplemented with 30 grams or 60 grams per day of an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, or 30 grams of a placebo.
Two months later, lung function, clinical signs of airway inflammation, and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) analyses were performed. Here’s what they found:
An improvement in all horses occurred during the study period;
A greater improvement was noted in horses supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. Specifically, supplemented horses had a 60% improvement in cough scores, a 48% decrease in respiratory effort, and a marked decrease in the number of BALF neutrophils (from 23% to 9%);
Horses in the control group only showed a 33% improvement in cough score, a 27% decrease in respiratory effort as well as an increase in BALF neutrophils (from 11% at baseline to 17%);
Not convinced the “Great O”( yes, that’s O as in omega) has beneficial properties? The study authors assure us, it certainly appears to be beneficial as levels of DHA in the blood increased significantly following dietary supplementation: they were 10 times higher at the conclusion of the study than baseline!
More to come…
There is great evidence that omega-3 fatty acids benefit broodmares and stallions participating in both natural cover and AI programs, as well as the foals they produce. For example, not only is colostrum quality impacted by omega-3 fatty acids but foals being birthed from mares on Omega 3’s also reap the rewards of improved memory and cognition (ergo- trainability).
Researchers recently tested the theory that fatty acids could help bolster a horse’s immune system following vaccination.
To do this, they fed horses one of three diets: a pelleted diet meeting the basic requirements described by the National Research Council (NRC); a proprietary diet providing a higher plane of nutrition than recommended by the NRC; or, the basic diet supplemental fatty acids (type and amount were not described).
Included horses were fed their respective diets for 111 days.
All horses were subsequently vaccinated using bovine vaccines, and response to vaccination was assessed.
Compared to horses on the basal diet, horses offered a higher plan of nutrition and those supplemented with fatty acids had an elevated response to vaccination.
We could ALL benefit from Omega’s:
In humans and other mammalian species, omega-3 fatty acids are also indicated for brain development, to facilitate trainability and support cognitive function in older animals. Human patients with heart disease, head trauma, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, stress and cancer all benefit from omega-3 fatty acids. Even patients undergoing routine surgical procedures benefit from omega-3s during their postoperative recovery!
Over-supplementation and omegas:
According to multiple reports, nutritional supplements are a hot commodity throughout the equine industry.
For example, one recent study reported that event horses and dressage horses are offered an average of two nutritional supplements daily, with some receiving no supplements and others feeding 12 different products daily.
Out of those, the most popular nutritional supplements were:
Joint health (joint problems, osteoarthritis, and tendon, ligament, soft tissue support);
Calming and other energy and behavioral issues;
Back and muscle discomfort;
Gastrointestinal issues (colic, gastric ulcers, digestive problems);
Hoof and coat conditions; and
Albeit most horses are well-supplemented (if not even over-supplemented), many are still missing the critical omega-3’s which has been proven to help alleviate all of the above issues that many people purchase supplements for. On this note, it is also important to consider that over-supplementation can be just as problematic as a nutritional deficiency (but that’s for another article on another day). Consult with your veterinarian and an equine nutritionist to be sure your horse isn’t receiving too many of one nutrient and too little of another. It is possible that money is simply being poured down the drain when trying to alleviate symptoms by purchasing multiple kinds of supplements when the solution may be to simplify your horse's feeding routine altogether and to add the mighty omega-3 to their diet.
Which omega supplement should I use?
It is important to read labels. Look into products, flip them over and inspect the ingredients. Are you paying for a lot of filler and minimal effective ingredients? What is the source of the omega fatty acids? These questions are important to consider when making the decision to purchase an omega supplement (or any supplement for that matter). Some companies, such as Twenty Four Carrots, have made it their mission to make this decision easy. Twenty Four Carrots’ Inner Glow Booster is a superior omega-3 supplement consisting of chia seeds (chia contains 2.7x more iron than raw spinach, 5.4x more calcium than milk, and 8.7 x more omega-3 than wild Atlantic salmon, along with all of the essential aminos, antioxidants (more than blueberries), vitamins B, D and E!) Additionally, this product is free from fillers, byproducts, added sugars and any other naughty ingredients and serves as a comprehensive nutritional boost to your horse’s daily diet.
In summation, omega-3 is a [beyond] essential fatty acid which the horse is unable to produce on it’s own and as such, it must be supplemented through diet. Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory, aid in joint and respiratory health and have bountiful health benefits for breeding mares and stallions as well as the foals born to mares supplemented with omega-3’s. Proper supplementation of omega-3’s can prevent symptom chasing (where one supplement is purchased to alleviate one symptom only for another symptom to arise causing the purchase of yet another supplement) and over-supplementation as many symptoms can be alleviated by simply feeding omega-3’s. Studies are continuing to be conducted researching the plentiful benefits from omega-3 supplementation and the results of the many studies already conducted display that omega-3 is incredibly beneficial and has a wide array of health benefits that help our horses feel and perform their very best.
The Important Nutrient Most Horses Are Missing