Feeding flaxseed, or its largely defatted meal linseed, is a time-honored practice in many sales-prep barns. It quickly puts the “bloom” on a horse. This occurs because flaxseed contains the right types of fat for healthy coats and hooves with other benefits.
Just as your horse requires specific amino acids, vitamins and minerals in his diet, he also needs a minimum level of key fats to maintain good health. These are the essential fatty acids (EFAs) — so named because the horse can’t manufacturer them in his body, making them “essential” in his diet — linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3).
Normally, the horse’s body contains more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, so it would seem the horse’s diet should match that distribution. But “normal” is somewhat misleading, and therefore our emphasis turns to increasing the level of omega-3s in your horse’s diet while maintaining a good supply of the omega-6s.
EFAs In The Diet
EFAs are found in intact seeds of all types and in the cell walls of fresh green plants and grass. A wild horse’s diet is naturally low in fat (less than 2%) but high in quality EFAs. On the contrary, most domesticated horse feeds have decreased levels of available EFAs, despite many overall “high-fat” diets.
While whole grains are a good source of EFAs, processes such as crimping or cracking — and even just simple damage from handling and packing — allows oxygen in, which begins the breakdown of the fatty acids. Extruded and pelleted feeds have almost no natural EFAs remaining. Of the ones that do survive, the percentage of omega-6 fatty acid compared to omega-3 is higher than in fresh plant material. This means way more omega-6s than omega-3s in what your horse is eating. A similar thing happens with hay, with cutting, crushing, crimping and baling allowing EFAs to be oxidized. Of course, aging also takes its toll on hay’s EFA content.
Adding dried fat products (lard/animal fat) or store-bought vegetable oil won’t help either, again because of processing, which also changes the shape of the oils and affects their usefulness. Of course, the oil still contains mega calories and the horse’s body can use the changed form for some body functions like cell-wall building, but in general these abnormal-shaped EFAs don’t function properly and may lose the ability to bind important chemical messengers, like hormones.
The consequences of a reduced intake of EFAs may show up in any number of organs and bodily functions, but the most common are a dull coat with dry, itchy skin and cracking hooves. Hormonal problems and frequent infections also may have their roots in EFA deficiency.
For these reasons, omega-3 EFAs are sometimes recommended as one of the “treatments” for allergies, arthritis, blood-clotting problems, insulin resistance, excessive inflammatory reactions, and even cancer. Usually the best outcome is that the increased dietary level only provides enough to meet the added demands the condition created.
Flaxseed is unique among feeds because of its extremely high content of omega-3 fatty acids, including the essential alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Of the 35% fat in whole flaxseed, 20.7% is ALA and 4.9% linoleic acid (omega-6). This makes it ideal, not only as a generous source of EFAs, but because it is heavily tipped in favor of the omega-3s the horse’s diet is usually missing.
Flaxseed also has a variety of other beneficial nutrients and is a rich source of fiber, especially of soluble fiber, the type that forms a thick gel when exposed to water (like psyllium). It is particularly helpful in preventing impaction and removing sand (see sidebar).
Flaxseed is also 26% protein and rich in essential amino acids like methionine and lysine (more lysine than even soybean), as well as the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) important to equine athletes. It has good levels of natural antioxidants, including natural forms of vitamin E, and is a good source of magnesium and phosphorus. The fiber portion of flaxseeds is also rich in lignans, substances that are believed to be responsible for the cancer-fighting effects of a high-fiber diet and that may also have antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.
The problem with flax is that, like with other feeds, the benefits apply only to the intact, whole flaxseed. As soon as the integrity of the seed is compromised, deterioration begins. The EFAs are delicate and easily oxidized, turning the flax rancid. However, because the seeds are small and extremely hard, if fed whole, more seeds will pass through the horse than he will be able to digest. So, the ideal way to feed flaxseed is in as fresh a state as possible, but this would require grinding the seeds at stall side on a daily basis and immediately feeding them — not a realistic option.
At the other extreme is stabilizing the ground flax either by removing almost all the fat (and with it the EFAs), cooking it at high temperatures (which damages the EFAs) or using high levels of chemical preservatives, obviously not a good thing. Instead, manufacturers have devised some novel processing techniques to preserve the benefits of flaxseed.
The Missing Link uses a patented one-step low-temperature process to grind the flax and blend with other ingredients in an atmosphere where nitrogen is exchanged for oxygen. It’s then packed into opaque, oxygen-free foil bags in approximately less than two minutes. We believe this is as close as you can get to the freshly ground flaxseed. Because it is so gently processed, this product must be stored under controlled temperatures and used within about 30 days of breaking the seal.
Another product that doesn’t use some degree of heat stabilization is Gen-A-Coat, but this product is preserved with ethoxyquin (see sidebar). Our sample lacked the characteristic pleasant smell of other products, light color and mild taste of other products stabilized with brief exposures to moderate temperatures.
There are also several excellent whole-ground flaxseed products that use controlled temperature processing to avoid high heat and result in products that are stable for several months but still retain very high EFA levels and much of the natural enzyme and antioxidant activity of the fresh product. These include those sold by ABC, Buckeye, Enreco and Horse Tech. There are also several products that list flaxseed on their labels, even advertise benefits of essential fatty acids in their products, but actually contain very low amounts of the essential fatty acids.
For palatability and aroma as close as you can get to freshly ground flaxseed, as well as the full health benefits of lignans, natural antioxidants and peak EFA levels, the products from Designing Health, Enreco and Horse Tech were tops.
The ABC products and Buckeye’s Shine-N-Win are also of excellent quality but not quite as aromatic.
As our product chart on pages 8 and 9 shows, the EFA breakdowns are different, however, and some use other ingredients. The best way to determine which is most suitable is to break it down into needs categories, by diet and any special health concerns:
Horses on good-quality pasture with that typical high gleam to their coats and no health problems don’t need supplemental EFAs. However, when hay replaces grass and grains are processed or aged, supplemental linoleic and linolenic acid are likely to be beneficial. As above, linolenic (omega-3s) will be in shortest supply. Any of the all-flax products or flax in combination with stabilized rice bran products will get the job done, such as Nutra-Flax, Horseshine or Missing Link.
However, for an unbeatable combination of price and quality we like Enreco’s Horseshine. At only about 1/10th the price of competing products for a human food-grade whole-ground flaxseed you can’t go wron g. It is shipped from the company that mills it, and freshness is excellent.
With skin, coat and hoof problems, both linoleic and linolenic acid are important. EFA profiles similar to the products above are appropriate, as is the addition of biotin. Go for a product with the highest EFA levels since you won’t be feeding as much as with a general flax or flax/rice-bran supplement. HorseTech’s Bioflax 20 (or their BioFlax Ultra for the horse that also needs a trace mineral supplement) gets the nod here.
EFAs are also proven to be of benefit in chronic degenerative arthritis and are likely to be more important in aged horses. Chondroitin sulfate fans will appreciate HorseTech’s Isoflex CS, which combines human food-grade full-fat ground flaxseed with pharmaceutical-grade chondroitin sulfate. For a glucosamine-added full flaxseed supplement, it was a close race between HorseTech’s IsoFlex GL and Designing Health’s The Missing Link Plus, but The Missing Link Plus gets our nod for its lower price and a higher EFA content per dose of glucosamine.
With older horses especially, or horses on highly processed diets, there may be some benefit to supplementing with additional flaxseed meal or flax/rice bran mix on top of the levels provided by the flax and glucosamine product. HorseTech has a tempting combo price of $77.20 for 3.75 pounds of IsoFlex GL and 20 pounds NutraFlax.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Health Benefits Of Flaxseed.”
Click here to view “Flaxseed vs. Linseed.”
Click here to view “Products Containing Essential Fatty Acids.”
Click here to view “More Omega-3.”
Click here to view “Dangers Of Flax.”
Click here to view “Other Uses And How To Feed.”
Click here to view “Safety Of Ethoxyquin.”