Fat in the Equine Diet

Fat is an energy powerhouse that is a horse’s most abundant energy source.
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Fat is an energy powerhouse in the equine diet that packs twice the caloric punch of carbohydrates or protein and is the body’s most abundant energy source. Horses can consume and use fat from the diet, or they can store fat in their bodies for later use.

What is fat?

Fat belongs to a broad group of compounds called lipids, which are either glycerol-based (phospholipids and triglycerides) or non-glycerol based (cholesterol or sterols). Dietary fats are usually triglycerides, meaning they contain three long-chain fatty acids and one glycerol group.

Volatile fatty acids are short-chain fatty acids derived from triglycerides that the horse’s body can use for energy. They’re either liberated from dietary fat or are a byproduct of microbial fermentation in the hindgut.

Why is fat important in the horse’s diet?

Fat is required for the horse’s body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and dietary fat supplies the horse with essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and -6, which the horse’s body can’t produce. Fat also helps horses gain weight and is slow to digest, making the release of energy steadier over time.

How much dietary fat is needed?

The National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007) doesn’t list a specific dietary requirement of fat for horses. However, research suggests that horses can handle up to 20% fat in the total diet. Owners should gradually introduce supplemental fat into horses’ diets gradually to avoid digestive upset. Because horses have no gall bladder, bile is secreted directly into the small intestines to help digest fat.

Take-Home Message

The amount of dietary fat required in the horse’s diet is driven by his individual needs. Fat is an excellent source of calories, especially for hard keepers and horses in low- to moderate-intensity work. Some fat stores are necessary for general health, but too much can lead to health problems.

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Written by:

Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS, is an equine nutritionist based on Long Island, New York. She is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she studied equine exercise physiology and nutrition. Liburt is a member of the Equine Science Society.

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