Fat for Improving Your Horse’s Coat Health

Before adding fat to your horse’s diet to improve his coat, be sure he’s on a balanced diet and that you’re grooming him regularly.
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feeding fats to horses; Your Guide to an Outrageously Shiny Coat
Be sure that your horse’s diet is well balanced before adding an extra fat source. | iStock

Q. I am trying to decide the best way to add fat to my horse’s diet. Other horse owners at my barn feed either black oil sunflower seeds, ground flax, or flax oil. Are there benefits to including one of these in the diet? He is an adequate weight; however, I would like to improve his coat shine.

A. Horses have not evolved to consume a diet that is rich in fat, but feeding fats to horses is somewhat common and often works well for increasing the caloric content of your horse’s diet or even improving coat condition. Horses do not have a gallbladder, which is where most vertebrates store and concentrate bile produced by the liver, but they are still able to digest fats because they secrete bile into the small intestine.

When you are supplementing fat with a focus on improving your horse’s coat shine, remember that there are a variety of factors that play a role in coat health. Horses with nutritional deficiencies often have a poorer coat condition. If you are concerned about your horse’s coat health, first be sure you are feeding an adequate amount of quality forage in combination with either a ration balancer or a fortified feed at the manufacturer’s recommended amount.

Grooming and living conditions are also important factors for coat health. In the winter months owners’ grooming habits tend to be less rigorous than during the summer months. Adding regular curry-comb sessions to your grooming routine followed by a hard bristled brush can work wonders for improving coat shine.

If your horse is on a balanced diet, and you’re grooming him regularly, then adding a fat source can reduce skin dryness and improve coat shine. The three sources listed in your question (ground flax, flax oil, and black oil sunflower seeds) are all common fat sources for horses. Oils are more calorically dense than options such as the black oil sunflower seeds or ground flaxseed. However, these all add fat to the diet and improve coat shine. When choosing a fat source, I recommend opting for an oil that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, especially for performance horses on a concentrate-heavy diet.

Omega-3s and -6s for Equine Coat Health

Omega-3s have become a popular topic of discussion in equine nutrition. Both omega-3s and -6s are essential, meaning that they cannot be produced by the horse and, therefore, must be provided in the diet. A large proportion of the available research on omega-3s focuses on eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Providing EPA and DHA is thought to improve the bioavailability and increase the anti-inflammatory impacts of fats in the horse’s diet. Omega-6 fatty acids differ from omega-3s because they are generally considered to have pro-inflammatory properties, instead of anti-inflammatory. Despite this, there is recent research investigating the omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) for its anti-inflammatory properties. Although scientists have not yet been able to describe clear guidelines for optimal supplementation, they believe the ratio of omega-3s to -6s is what’s important.

Currently, researchers do not know the ideal ratio of omega-3s to -6s for horses. However, they believe horses on forage-based diets receive an adequate ratio because they’re consuming a balanced amount of both omega-3s and -6s. Despite hay being low in fat, it is higher in omega-3s than omega-6s. In contrast, grain-based or concentrate-heavy diets generally contain more omega-6s because cereal grains and common oils such as corn and soy are high in omega-6s.

Fat sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids include camelina oil, flax oil, ground flax, ahiflower oil, and fish oil. Black oil sunflower seeds are about 40% oil, so they do provide fat to the horse, but they are rich in omega-6s.

If you are adding 1-2 ounces of fat per day to the diet to improve coat shine, you can reduce your cost by feeding canola oil. However, if you want to feed an oil for shine and anti-inflammatory properties, opt for a marine-derived omega-3 oil. If your horse is on a grain-heavy diet, choose a fat source rich in omega-3s.

Take-Home Message

Prior to adding an energy-dense fat source to your horse’s diet, consider your horse’s weight and body condition. Equine obesity is a serious welfare issue; therefore, exercise caution when using these energy-dense feed ingredients. Fats are calorically dense, so if adding an oil is going to cause your horse to become over conditioned, it is not a good choice for increasing coat shine.

Overall, if you are concerned about a lack of shine in your horse’s coat, ensure your horse does not have any nutritional deficiencies and that you’re grooming him regularly before adding a fat supplement. If you still do not see improvement, talk to an equine nutritionist about adding 1-2 ounces of an oil that is rich in omega-3s to your horse’s diet.

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Written by:

Madeline Boast, MSc completed her master’s in Equine Nutrition at the University of Guelph and started an independent nutrition company known as Balanced Bay. She has worked with a variety of equids—from Miniature Ponies to competing Thoroughbreds. Boast designs customized balanced nutrition plans that prioritize equine well-being, both for optimal performance and solving complex nutritional issues and everything between. 

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