Equine Research

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for horses are believed to be numerous

  • Decreased inflammation in various tissues,
  • Increased immune response,
  • Maintenance of healthy membranes,

Flaxseed and flaxseed oil have been fed to horses for decades, primarily to improve coat condition of sales or show horses. Both flaxseed and flaxseed oil are rich sources of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is thought to convert to the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

For many years, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA was believed to be efficient. Now, however, a summary of omega-3 research by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) has questioned the ability of ALA to be changed in the body.

According to the summary, "conversion of ALA to EPA is very low, and to DHA is even less--essentially negligible. These very low conversion rates mean that ALA cannot meet the body's need for DHA."

Bronte at Del Mar Jingel Bell Jumpers Show 12/2015

Each type of omega-3 has distinct functional properties

Tom Brenna, MS, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and chairman of the ISSFAL committee that assembled the summary, said, "Each type of omega-3 has distinct functional properties. Seafood/algal omega-3s, also known as long-chain omega-3s, are more potent than terrestrial plant sources of omega-3s and boast certain functions that terrestrial plant-based omega-3s simply cannot perform."
The summary reported that DHA levels in the body were raised most markedly by consuming "preformed" DHA, such as that found in marine-derived oils.
Although the aforementioned summary included studies involving primarily humans, what impact does this research have on supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids to horses? Foremost, horsemen might look beyond flaxseed for an effective omega-3 supplement. One alternative is oil derived from certain cold-water fish. Fish oil is a direct source of EPA and DHA, so the question of whether or not ALA can efficiently be converted to EPA and DHA becomes obsolete.

Originally published on TheHorse.com

Fat and Food Sources

When it comes to adding energy to the equine diet, a fat is a fat is a fat, but not when it comes to conveying omega-3 and omega-6 properties.

Explains Joe D. Pagan, PhD, president of Kentucky Equine Research near Versailles, Ky., "Some oils are high in omega-6, but lower in omega-3--corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil--while others such as soybean and canola oils are moderately high in omega-6. The oils that contain more omega-3 than omega-6 are flaxseed and linseed oil, but the highest ratio of omega-3 to -6 is found in fish oil."

Ratios vary significantly as well between fresh pasture, hay, and grain. A two-year study conducted by Lori K. Warren, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition, University of Florida, found that bahiagrass (a warm-season grass common to Florida and the southeast) contained more omega-3 than omega-6 (40-55% of the fat in fresh pasture and 18-35% of the fat in hay is made up of omega-3).

"Compare this to cereal grains, where 50% of the fat is omega-6 and very little is omega-3," she notes. "Although forages only contain about 2-3% crude fat, a horse consuming a high-forage diet will actually be consuming a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids."

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Bronte Del Mar Grand Prix Arena - 5th Place

Red Blood Cells

Scientists from Southern Illinois University Carbondale confirmed that increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids lead to increased levels in blood plasma and red blood cells.

"We found that the specific omega-3 fatty acids that are the most beneficial to health did get into the red blood cells, and their concentrations were roughly equivalent to the amount the horses were eating—the more they ate, the higher the concentration," writes investigator Sheryl S. King, PhD, professor of animal food science and nutrition, in the Southern Illinois University Carbondale News. "It did take a very long time for the concentration to increase. We didn't actually see it (in blood) until after we had stopped feeding the product, but it stayed around much longer there (59 days after stopping supplementation) than it did in the plasma."

Preliminary results from Herthel's recent studies on his Platinum Performance Equine showed supplementation  increased omega-3 content by 78% and decreased omega-6 by 40% in red blood cells after six weeks of supplementation.

"The ability to change the membranes (which control transport of materials from one side of the cell to the other) is useful in decreasing inflammation in general," he notes.

Stallion Fertility

Studies at Texas A&M, the University of Arizona, and Colorado State University (CSU) examined effects of DHA on sperm output and semen quality.

"Each study showed the same trend, although each study showed a slightly different effect," notes CSU researcher Ed Squires, PhD, honorary Dipl. ACT. "Our study showed an increase in the total number of motile sperm using Magnitude, a pelleted, top-dressed product manufactured by United Bionutrition and distributed by Bioniche Animal Health. We evaluated fresh, cooled, and frozen semen, as did the other studies; we saw a major effect on fresh semen and 24-hour cooled semen. For horses that have semen that might not cool very well, there's no question that they're feeding it helps during the cooling process.

"One study even showed an increase in the percentage of morphologically normal sperm and an increase in the concentration of the semen. Omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to affect not only sperm quality, but sperm quantity," he adds.

Mares and Foals

Can the fatty acid composition of a broodmare's diet affect the fatty acid composition of her milk and the fatty acids passed along to the foal? If so, can increased levels of omega-3 convey extra immunity to the foal? The answers, respectively, are yes and maybe.

In separate trials at the University of Florida, Warren found that:

  • From foaling through 16 weeks post-foaling, mares fed a control diet (no fat supplementation), corn oil supplements (rich in omega-6), or a 50/50 mix of corn and linseed oil (rich in omega-3) passed along fatty acid levels in their milk and plasma reflective of omega-3 and -6 levels they consumed.
  • Beginning one month prior to foaling and continuing 12 weeks post-foaling, mares receiving no additional omega-3, those supplemented with milled flax (rich in the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid), or mares receiving fish oil (rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA) saw similar results as above. Mares and foals fed fish oil produced an earlier inflammatory response than the other two groups, suggesting  that omega-3 could confer an early advantage in responding to infection, although omega-3 supplements had no effect on the antibody content of mare colostrum, milk, and foal serum.
  • A study similar to the above (fish oil vs.   milled flax vs no supplementation) in yearlings found no differences in immune function or inflammation among the groups, except for an earlier inflammatory response in yearlings that had been fed fish oil. However, because all of the yearlings were on fresh pasture, total amounts of omega-3 might not have been very different.  "That suggests we can't ignore what forage provides," Warren notes.

Researchers at Kansas State conducted similar studies, likewise finding that omega-3 supplementation of broodmares change the levels of fatty acids in milk and in utero.

Studies on immunity levels in foals from omega-3-supplemented broodmares showed higher immunity levels in the milk, but no increase in blood samples from the foals, says KSU researcher Joann Kouba, PhD, horse teaching and research specialist. There were no foal height or weight differences in foals from supplemented or control mares.

"The jury is still out, because a follow-up study did not find significant differences in milk IgG levels," Kouba says.

On the Horizon

Kouba is now focusing on reproductive function, particularly estrous cycle characteristics, between mares eating omega-3 supplements versus those fed a normal horse diet that's richer in omega-6.

"It's an interesting area because of the connection between omega-3 and prostaglandin levels," she says. "There may or may not be a connection in terms of reproductive function." Results are expected to be made public soon.

Also nearing completion is an investigation by Warren concerning antioxidant effects of omega-3: Does adding more omega-3 fat to the horse's diet increase the production of free radicals, thereby increasing their need for antioxidants like vitamin E? Or do omega-3 fatty acids actually have antioxidant properties of their own?

Originally published on TheHorse.com

Quick Facts: Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids (EFA) are polyunsaturated fats needed for various metabolic processes. The body does not produce EFA, they are provided through the diet.

"Alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid are both EFAs," explains Lori K. Warren, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at the University of Florida. "Alpha-linolenic acid is the parent fatty acid in the omega-3 family, whereas linoleic acid is the parent in the omega-6 family. Other ‘child' omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be derived from the parents, including EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from alpha-linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid from linoleic acid. It is these fatty acids that have the greatest biological activity in the body."


"Omega-3 fatty acids are found in highest concentration in marine (fish) oils and in linseed/flax," says Ray Geor, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor and Paul Mellon Distinguished Chair at Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

Other sources contain omega-3 in varying amounts, reports Mary Beth Gordon, PhD, regional veterinary nutritionist at Land O'Lakes, Purina Mills LLC. Those include canola oil, soybean oil, walnut oil, walnuts, mustard oil, tofu, and fish (herring, salmon, oysters, trout, tuna, crab, etc.). "Omega-6 is found in varying amounts in borage oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, peanut oil, primrose oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, pine nuts, and brazil nuts," says Gordon.

Although hay and pasture forages are low in total fat content, most of the fat is made up of omega-3 fatty acids. In contrast, cereal grains such as oats and corn offer primarily omega-6 fatty acids.

Effects of Ratios

"There has been considerable work in other animal species and in humans to show that omega-3 supplementation affects the ratio of omega-3:omega-6 in blood and in tissues, with alterations in the fatty acid composition of plasma (cell) membranes," says Geor. "This effect is most evident when fish oil is fed. This change in composition alters the responses of cells under stress conditions such as an inflammatory insult, with the result being a moderated inflammatory response when compared to non-supplemented animals."

What this Means

"Actions produced by omega-3 fatty acids in lab animals, humans, and other species demonstrate a decreased inflammatory response and are said to improve osteoarthritis and bone formation, reduce allergic hyperactivity, and reduce exercise-induced bronchial constriction," states Joe Pagan, PhD, president of Kentucky Equine Research. "The actions produced from the omega-6 are just the opposite; they increase the inflammatory response, increase allergic hyperactivity, and increase exercise-induced bronchial constriction."

These ideas have been pursued in horse studies. "There is evidence that supplementation with linseed or fish oils alters fatty acid profiles and the responses of inflammatory cells when they are evaluated ‘in the test tube,' with moderation in production of inflammatory substances by these cells," Geor says.

What You Should Know

"Don't be afraid of omega-6 fatty acids because they are essential, necessary nutrients," states Warren. "Some inflammation, which is supported by omega-6, is needed to fight infection and heal tissues. It's when the body goes overboard that we are concerned. "We don't know enough about omega-6 in horses to condemn it. In fact, many of the scary references to omega-6 come from the human perspective."

The average human diet consists of about 30% fat, contrasting with the average horse diet (even fat-added diet) of about 5% fat.

"Horses just don't consume the same kind of diet as humans, so the impact of omega-6 might not be as great in horses, especially when we're talking about negative impact. That being said, we are trying to find out if we need to modify some of the fats we are adding to the horse's diet to make sure we're not causing problems--unknowingly causing inflammation," says Warren.

Originally published on TheHorse.com

Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids have direct anti-inflammatory actions that might be useful for the treatment of osteoarthritis and lameness in horses.
Inflammation is characterized by pain, swelling, heat, redness, and loss of use. One of the most important mediators of inflammation (the substances responsible for initiating and regulating the inflammatory process) is prostaglandin, which is produced from fatty acids in cell membranes. The usual mediators of inflammation are produced from omega-6 fatty acids. Dietary supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can offset the inflammatory response in several ways

Increased concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids compete with omega-6 fatty acids to produce prostaglandins. The end products produced from omega-3 fatty acids have less inflammatory effects than those usually produced from omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids must be supplemented for at least a 28-day loading period before they will have an effect on the inflammatory cycle.

A recent study involving 109 dogs with radiographically-confirmed osteoarthritis of the hip or stifle was conducted to investigate the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 12 weeks on the dose of carprofen required to control the dogs' pain levels. Carprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) often prescribed by veterinarians as supportive treatment for relief of arthritic signs in dogs. Study results indicated that the required dose of carprofen to improve lameness decreased significantly and saw faster results in dogs supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids.

Another group of researchers conducted a study recently of 16 horses with confirmed arthritis of the knee, fetlock, stifle, or hock to investigate the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 90 days. Arthritis was confirmed using radiography and force-plate analysis, which detects weight-bearing differences on each hoof. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation significantly decreased plasma concentrations of prostaglandin and joint fluid white blood cell counts, indicating there was less inflammation present in the joints. Force-plate analysis revealed a trend for horses to bear more weight on their lame limb, but this was not statistically significant.

Osteoarthritis is a common and potentially career-ending ailment of horses. Treatment of osteoarthritis involves rest and anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone (Bute), corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, or polysulfated glycosaminoglycans.
Originally published on TheHorse.com

There is much debate surrounding the use of supplements in equine diets, but adding fish oil to a horse's feed to increase omega-3 fatty acid intake can have a positive effect on exercising horses' health and endurance, according to Kyle Newman, PhD, of Venture Laboratories. Newman presented a study on the subject at the Veterinary Sport Horse Symposium for horse owners, held Sept. 22-24 in Lexington, Ky.

According to Newman, omega-3 fatty acids' effects on equine health include "increased vascular compliance, anti-hypertensive properties (lower blood pressure), inhibited production of cytokines (immunoregulatory proteins) involved in chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, positive effects on fetal development, and improved semen quality."

During his presentation, Newman focused specifically on how the fatty acid fish oil might benefit sport horses. He cited a study conducted by C.I. O'Connor et al. in 2004 that involved 10 mature geldings on an eight-week exercise program. Four horses were supplemented with corn oil and six were supplemented with fish oil at 180 g/day (which delivered approximately 30g /day of omega-3 fatty acids). Researchers then measured and compared the heart rates, packed cell volume (the amount of red blood cells in the bloodstream), insulin concentrations, plasma glucose, and serum cholesterol concentrations of the two groups of horses.

Originally published on TheHorse.com

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