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Fat: It’s a Good Thing
By Leigh Ballard
Fat is an important nutritional component of a healthy equine diet. The merits of fat are many. It is a safe and efficient energy source. Fat helps put or keep weight on a horse; it provides nutrients for good skin, a gleaming coat, and healthy hooves. Research shows that fat in the diet helps horses that suffer from “tying up syndrome” (equine rhabdomyolysis) during or after exercise.
Traditionally, horse owners boost the quantity of feed when they perceive a need for extra calories (winter cold stress, hard work). However, studies show that rather than increasing the quantity of feed, it is better to increase the calorie density of the feed, and fat boosts the calorie density of feed. Because traditional grain feeds contain high carbohydrates, increasing grain rations can increase the risk of problems like colic and laminitis. Since the horse’s digestive tract is limited by the total volume of feed it can safely consume at one time, an energy-dense feed can safely give the horse more calories to burn. Depending on the horse, a slight increase in quantity may be merited as well, but the first strategy for boosting weight or energy should be to increase the calories within the normal sized ration.
Many horse owners pay close attention to the protein level of their feed concentrate, especially for their performance horses. However, protein’s chief nutritional function is to build bone and muscle. While performances horses do need good bone and muscle, protein is a poor source of energy compared to fat. A North Carolina State University bulletin informs: “Fat contains 2.25 times more energy than either carbohydrates or protein, and increasing the fat level of the diet is the easiest and safest way to increase the energy density of the diet. Higher energy levels can be obtained by feeding fewer pounds of a high-fat concentrate mix compared to a concentrate mix containing lower energy carbohydrates.” For the equine athlete’s needs for high energy for performance, feeding a high fat ration provides the calories a horse needs without overfeeding grain.
Energy from fat lets the horse do more work with less fatigue. Research by Dr. Gary Potter at Texas A&M University shows that more fatty acids let the horse’s muscles work better and longer, rather than working off of the relatively short burst of energy from carbohydrates. His research shows that horse’s muscles use energy in two ways: aerobically (with oxygen) for slow steady work, and anaerobically for bursts of speed and effort. For aerobic work, the muscles use fatty acids in the bloodstream and glycogen stored in the muscles. When the horse’s effort exceeds the ability for the heart and lungs to get oxygen to the muscles, the muscles go into anaerobic mode using glycogen.
Feeding fat ensures that the horse will have an abundance of fatty acids circulating in his bloodstream to fuel his work, and save the glycogen in reserve for extreme effort. An additional benefit to using fat for performance energy is that burning fats rather than carbohydrates produces less body heat. So fat is a good source of energy for hot weather performance sports.
Research has shown that a diet high in fat can help horses which suffer from the disorder known as tying up. In this disorder, during or after exercise, muscles spasm, cramp and seize up, sometimes severely, and sometimes severely enough to cause permanent health damage or death. Although many factors may be at work to create this disorder, one theory as to its cause is that some horses are not able to use carbohydrates well to fuel their muscles. A low carbohydrate/high fat diet seems to change the way the muscles function, relying on fat for energy rather than carbohydrates. Research horses on high fat diets have shown improvement as their muscles “reprogram” themselves to use fat more than carbohydrates for energy.
Supplementing the feed ration with fat is an excellent way to build weight on a thin horse or keep weight on a “hard-keeper.” Building a horse’s condition with fat supplements as winter approaches is a good idea since many horses drop weight during winter from increased energy needs. While increased forage (hay) should be the chief source of extra calories during the winter, additional fat can give extra calories for maintaining weight and condition.
Fats and oils are a traditional supplement for achieving a glossy hair coat. However, fat alone won’t accomplish a healthy coat. A balanced diet of all vitamins and protein is needed. But, the fatty acids like Omega-3, 6 and 9, some of the chief components in fats and oils, are found to have beneficial effects on the coat, as well as overall positive health effects. Supplementing fat for the coat requires much less fat than for building weight. Dr. Juliette Getty, in her book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, recommends canola oil as the most balanced oil for an equine supplement. About two to three ounces of oil per day or small scoops of commercial fat mixes (per label recommendations) are all that’s needed for a shiny coat.
Always introduce fat supplements to the diet gradually so as not to upset the digestive tract. The recommended way to increase fat for weight or energy is to substitute fat for 10% of the normal grain ration. For example, if your horse is eating 20 pounds of food per day, e.g., 15 pounds hay and 5 pounds concentrate (grain), reduce the concentrate by half a pound and substitute half pound of fat. As mentioned previously, oils are commonly used (canola being the best choice). One cup of oil equals half a pound. Rice bran and flaxseed are also excellent sources of fat. For tying up, a higher percentage of fat is recommended, but since this is a complex disorder, a veterinarian or equine nutritionist should be consulted for supplement recommendations.
Many commercial horse feeds are now formulated with high fat. Check feed tags for fat percentages. A traditional crude fat level is about 3-4%, and 8% crude fat or higher would be considered “high-fat.” Also check feeding rates. The recommended feeding rate on a high fat concentrate may be much less because it is a more energy-dense feed.
“High Fat Diets For Horses” www.ncsu.edu/resources/livestock/horses/ag558-7.html
“Reading the Feed Tag” www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1354/
“Feeding Fat” (Dr. Gary Potter’s study) www.vitaflex.com/res_feedfata.php
“Four Reasons to Feed Fat to Your Horse” www.equisearch.com/horses_care/nutrition/feeds/eqchewfat540/
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