The whole horses don’t eat fish oil argument has been bothering me of late. No, horses in their natural state don’t eat fish when their omega 3 to 6 ratios are out of balance, as far as I’m aware, but they don’t eat calcium or zinc deposits from the ground either since their bodies are not programmed to recognise and correct most mineral deficits. They don’t wear rugs in cold weather in their natural state either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against supplementing or rugging horses, quite the opposite in fact.
I think that when we fence a horse in, and ‘own’ it, we take on a very serious responsibility to provide all that horse’s needs, from nutrition to shelter, exercise and mental stimulation. If our horses were free to roam wherever they needed to, they could seek out more feed when supplies were running low, shelter from heat, wind and cold, they could move as much as they liked and interact with other horses as they wished. These are some of the ‘freedoms’ that we remove when we fence them in. We are therefore obliged to provide the feed, shelter, exercise and stimulation that our fences otherwise remove.
However, without our fences, intervention and protection, horses in a natural state would be more exposed to the dangers of predators, illness, disease, droughts and other environmental extremes. Their diets would be unlikely to provide what we consider to be scientifically proven minimum daily requirements and the seasons would have a big impact on the quality of their nutrition. They would die more often from tetanus and strangles and other diseases we now easily prevent with routine vaccination. Infections would be far more life threatening to a ‘wild’ horse than to an ‘owned’ horse whose owner would arrange a veterinarian to visit and administer antibiotics.
Most of us see only benefits in supplying hay when grass supplies dwindle, and we go to enormous extremes to provide the ‘best’ sort of calories to our horses when they lose weight – think of all the agonising process many owners go through selecting from grains, muesli’s, pellets, low starch options, oils, low GI, non-heating, cool fuels and so on. We also know that to provide the minimum daily requirements of vitamins and minerals, we need to add supplements sourced from the earth, chemically produced or manufactured into chelated compounds. These options are simply not available to ‘wild’ horses living in a ‘natural’ state but they are necessary to balance our horses’ needs with their environmental limitations.
Let’s get more specific. Say that the grass we grow in our own paddock contains around the same amount of calcium as it does phosphorous. We know that we want our horse to have at least as much calcium as phosphorous in the diet, and preferably twice as much calcium. However, our horse is losing weight due to increased work levels, and we have chosen to feed boiled barley to provide enough energy (calories) in the diet. The barley is much higher in phosphorus than calcium, so we add some calcium carbonate to correct the ratio balance of the diet as a whole. A ‘wild’ horse wouldn’t be able to do that but does that make what we’ve done wrong? NO. It means we’ve taken adequate care of our horse and lived up to our responsibility to provide what he needs.
Now let’s say we go into drought, and our grass stops growing. Our horse’s need for roughage doesn’t stop though, so we buy grass hay and provide our horse with 2% of his bodyweight, or as much hay as he will eat, all day, every day. We are meeting his need for roughage, we are still feeding him as much energy, protein, vitamins and minerals as he needs to perform his work for us while looking and feeling great. However, because the delicate omega 3 oils that naturally occur in grass have not survived to remain present in the hay we are feeding, and he’s getting lots of omega 6 fatty acids from his hard feed, our horse is no longer getting the best omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acid balance in his diet. This could negatively impact on the levels of inflammation in his body so we want to fix it.
We’ve been told that most of the vegetable oils we feed to horses are high in omega 6 oils so they won’t solve the problem. The produce store is full of feeds and supplements that say they contain omega 3 oils, but close inspection of the label usually shows that they contain even more omega 6 oils so they won’t correct the balance.
Linseed oil contains a ratio of fatty acids which is close to the balance naturally occurring in grasses, but it needs to be kept in the dark, and preferably in the fridge if it is not stabilised, or below 30 degrees for a shorter shelf-life if stabilised otherwise the omega 3s become damaged. Whole or freshly ground linseeds could help correct the ratio, but it seems like we’ll have to feed quite a lot to correct the balance, and linseeds are hard to reliably source where we live. Chia seeds are another option, but even more expensive to feed in the amounts required. The form of omega-3 oil in plants (ALA) is converted into DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids inside the horse’s body.
That pretty much leaves fish oil sourced omega 3 fatty acids as our last option. Fish oil omega-3s are DHA and EPA, the form of omega-3 that plant-sourced oils are turned into during metabolism. Fish oil is smelly stuff. Horses don’t like the smell, but it’s a very concentrated source of omega 3 and we need to put more omega 3 into the diet to balance the omega 6 that is present in the otherwise well-balanced diet. So tell me, what is wrong with using a concentrated supplement of omega 3 fatty acids sourced from fish, if the palatability problem can be overcome? I think it is just another way of fulfilling our duty to keep our horses healthy in return for the freedoms we’ve taken away.
Don’t like the idea of feeding fish products to your horse? Do you or would you feed a joint supplement? Perhaps one with glucosamine or chondroitin or green-lipped mussel as the key ingredients? Where do those ingredients come from?
Horses normally get low levels of oils in grass which is why they always look lovely and shiny in spring time. When the grass dries out, or you’re feeding a lot of hay, you should supplement some omega 3 oils to balance the omega 6 oils in the hay and grain. If you’re feeding a vegetable oil such as sunflower oil you’ll need to add extra omega 3s to balance the high omega 6 content of the sunflowers.
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