hemp for horses

Q.Recently, on social media, I’ve seen advertising for hemp-based equine products—mainly weight-gain, muscle-development-type supplements. Is hemp safe to feed horses? If so, when might a horse benefit from it?

—Via e-mail

A.This is a great question and a hot topic right now. Here’s a look at what we know.

Hemp 101

The number of acres dedicated to growing hemp in the U.S. is increasing rapidly. In many places, farmers are growing hemp in place of cotton because it requires less water and still yields a crop that can be used for fiber production for the clothing industry, as well as seeds that have nutritional value. In 2018 U.S. farmers planted approximately 75,000 acres; this is expected to increase to 100,000 to 200,000 acres in 2019, only limited by seed supply.

While it is federally legal to grow hemp, it’s not legal in all states. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 significantly hampered hemp production. Later, President Richard Nixon included hemp as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Most recently, the 2018 Hemp Farming Bill removed the Schedule 1 classification and legalized hemp production because the THC (tetrohydrocannabinol, marijuana’s psychoactive component) content is less than 0.3%. Hemp crops with a THC content over 0.3% must be destroyed.

Hemp and Horses

Hemp grown for seed and fiber is similar to other traditional grain crops in that the plant grows quite tall, the tops are harvested for the seed, and the remaining plant material is harvested for other uses (in this case, fiber).

Hemp seeds are a source of good-quality protein that rival the soybean’s amino acid profile and omega-3 fatty acid content. Hemp for horses comes in two forms: oil and meal.

Hemp oil is not to be confused with CBD (cannabidiol) oil. While CBD oil can be extracted from hemp plants, it is typically extracted from other types of cannabis plants. Hemp oil is extracted from hemp seeds and contains little to no CBD or THC. That said, it’s important to read product labels carefully because hemp oil extracted from other parts of the hemp plant other than the seed could contain small amounts of THC and high levels of CBD.

The seeds themselves have slightly less than three times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acid. While this fatty acid profile of hemp seeds doesn’t match the higher omega-3 content of flaxseeds, the hemp provides an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is somewhat unique among omega-6 fatty acids in that, unlike most omega-6 fats, research shows it supports anti-inflammatory processes in other animals. It’s not found in flaxseed or other oils commonly fed to horses, whereas in hemp oil GLA makes up about 3% of the fat composition. Fat from hemp oil is about 76% polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) as compared to flax oil, which is about 66% PUFA. Reports suggest horses find hemp oil very palatable.

Meanwhile, hemp meal contains protein, fiber, and varying amounts of fat, depending on whether the fat has been extracted for oil. The protein content can be as high as 30%, with fat anywhere from 5 to 45%. As mentioned, hemp meal’s amino acid profile is good; hemp provides slightly less lysine than soybean meal but slightly more methionine. Hemp also provides leucine (a branch chain amino acid) at levels higher than whey protein. These meals can be fed as a top-dress to provide more protein or fat to the ration, depending on the nutrient profile, making them a good option for horses needing to gain weight or develop more topline.

Take-Home Message

As hemp production ramps up in the coming years, we can expect to see an ever-increasing number of hemp-based horse products on the market. It’s important to remember that hemp production currently is an unregulated industry, so there is some cause for “buyer beware.”

Read labels carefully to ensure that you’re not purchasing products that include THC or CBD if you don’t want them—hemp products containing these compounds must disclose this. I’d also recommend buying products from well-established companies that conduct good quality control on their products.

If you compete at recognized horse shows or competitions (and in some states, at any level) make sure the products you’re using won’t lead to a positive result on a banned substance test.

Hemp products for horses are set to grow rapidly outside the supplement market, as well. Look for hemp bedding and even hemp-based baling twine on your hay, because bioplastics is a major market for hemp.