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Feeding Horses
First Posted: Feb 19, 2011
Feb 19, 2011

Fat in Your Horse's Diet

Have you ever wondered if fat is a good thing to add to your horse's diet. After all, what horses eat naturally--forages such as hay, grass and other fibers have no fat. Grains such as oats, corn, or barley contain very little fat--about 2-3.5%. Carbohydrate is the main stay for horses. It is their energy source. Fat actually supplies about 1 1/2 times as much energy than equivalent weight of carbohydrates or starches. Is fat safe for horses? Since horses do not have a gall bladder can they digest fats? The scientific data seems to suggest that in horses the liver secretes bile and salts to help break down fats without any identifiable digestive problems.

Pros and Cons
  • "...Fat-supplemented diets also have been shown to decrease the amount of energy used for heat production in the horse's body. This decreases the horse's heat load and increases the amount of energy available for physical activity...."
  • "Horses fed high-fat diets (15% added soy oil) appear to perform better than those fed either a high-starch diet (40%) or a high-protein (25%) diet for both high-speed (racing) activities, and moderate-speed activities (fast trot/slow canter speeds of about five meters a second)."
  • "The horse's body must 'learn' to use fat as an energy source, a process requiring considerable metabolic adaptation on the part of the muscle cells. It can take three to four weeks, and the blood chemistry might continue to adapt for up to six weeks."
  • "...only carbohydrates can fuel the anaerobic system of metabolism, which all horses use to some degree in their work--and that forages alone provide a minimum of carbohydrate. (Fed by itself, forages provide plenty of fuel for maintenance metabolism but not enough for the vast majority of horses to do the work we ask.)..."
  • Some horses have a genetic defect known as polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). This defect makes it difficult for horses to convert carbohydrates to energy. In these cases fats can be used in place of grain.
  • Fat makes the coat shine.
  • Fat can help keep weight on an older horse or an horse that is a "hard keeper."
  • There is less stomach upset or other problems with the use of fat instead of a high carbohydrate diet.
  • Brood mares may benefit from added fat to their diets. Before breeding it can help the mare gain condition, after foaling added fat to the diet can help with the stress of lactation and the mare's milk will have a higher fat content.
  • There is no cost reduction in feeding when adding oil to your horse's diet.
How to Feed Fat
  • Vegetable oils such as corn oil or soy are most often used.
  • Add it slowly to the diet--I added 1/4 cup in the morning to 1 cup of grain and the same in the evening for several weeks. Then the ration was increased to 1/2 cup in the morning and 1/2 cup in the evening with 1-2 cups grain. Enough grain is used to absorb the added oil.
  • Rice bran can be added in power form or extruded pellet form. It is about 22% fat.
  • Extruded soybeans are good for young growing horses because they are also a good protein source.
  • Flax seed is about 30% fat. It also has omega-3 content which makes it an increasingly popular option. It has to be ground up in a coffee grinder before feeding.
  • Sunflower seeds contain between 25% and 40% fat.
  • Use a commercial grain that is fat supplemented. Any feed that contains more than about 3.5% fat is considered to be fat-supplemented.
  • This article is only a sketch on adding fat to your horse's diet. The two links below are much more comprehensive. Of course, you should always consult your vet first.

    For More Information:

    Fats in Your Horse's Diet (Book Excerpt)
    High-Fat Diets for Horses

    Feeding Horses