Q. I know a lot of people feeding flax to their horses. My friend said it is good for their coats, so I decided to try it. I bought some flaxseed meal, but my friend says this isn’t the same thing as ground flax. What’s the difference, and will this help my horse’s coat?
A. A lot of horse owners do feed flax or an equivalent like chia to their horses. Some feed the seed or, less commonly, flax oil. Typically, flax is fed as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds are about 40% fat, and over half of that fat is alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat. The horse’s natural diet isn’t particularly high in fat at around 6%; however, the fat that is present is predominantly alpha-linolenic acid.
Omega fats are not heat stable, so while relatively abundant in grass, hay doesn’t provide much in the way of omega fatty acids. Because many supplemental ingredients, such as grains and vegetable oils, are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, the diet can end up skewed toward higher levels of omega-6 fat than omega-3. Adding flaxseeds to the diet can address this balance back in the favor of omega-3 fat.
This has become increasingly popular in recent years due to several research studies showing benefits of feeding flax or increasing the amount of omega-3 fat in the equine diet. These include improvements in insulin regulation and decreased allergic response to culicoides insects (which cause insect bite hypersensitivity, or IBH). Research in several species has confirmed that omega-3 fats play important roles in supporting a healthy inflammatory response.
Fat found in flaxseeds mostly likely contributes to healthy coats, which are not flax-specific—increasing the intake of most fats tends to improve coat quality. Dietary fat provides the lipid necessary to coat the hair shaft and prevent it from becoming brittle and splintering. A hair shaft that has adequate fat is smoother and reflects light better, resulting in more shine.
Flaxseeds are great for improving coat quality. They add the necessary beneficial fat to the diet–a type of fat that modern horse diets typically lack. Whole flaxseeds are inexpensive. However, they are hard little seeds, and if not cracked open during chewing might pass through the horse intact with no benefit gained. For this reason, it is better to feed ground flax.
As soon as the hull is cracked, the sensitive fatty acids inside the seed are exposed to air and at risk of oxidation. Therefore, if grinding flaxseeds yourself, you should feed them immediately or store them in a fridge for no more than a couple of days. Buying preground stabilized flaxseeds might be easier. Stabilized ground flaxseeds aren’t subject to the same oxidative damage and have a shelf life of around six months or longer, depending on the stabilization process.
Flaxseed meal looks like ground flaxseed. However, it’s what’s left after extracting the oil (fat). Like most seed meals, it is relatively low in fat and high in protein, with a crude protein content around 30%. Therefore, if your purpose for feeding flax is an improved coat from increasing the fat content of the diet, your friend is right, flaxseed meal is unlikely to do the trick.