Omega Fatty Acids
By Eleanor Blazer
What does the last letter in the Greek alphabet have to do with horse nutrition?
"Omega" is associated with many things that are the end of a series. This is true for the names of the fatty acids 3, 6 and 9. The numbers represent the location of their first double bond (a section linking two atoms) from the end (omega) of their molecular makeup.
Omega fatty acids play a vital part in supporting a healthy horse.
Omega-3 helps form healthy cell walls within the body and is important to brain function, circulation and oxygen utilization. Broodmares need an adequate amount of omega-3, as it supports fetal development and milk production. Stallions produce healthier sperm when receiving an adequate amount of the fatty acid. Research also shows omega-3 can provide relief from inflammation.
Omega-6 is important to healthy skin, bone health, hair growth and metabolism. Proper levels may also provide relief from inflammation, but too much omega-6 will cause the opposite effect...promoting inflammation.
Omega fatty acids 3 and 6 are "essential" fats. In nutrition "essential" means the nutrient must be supplied by feed - it cannot be synthesized (produced within the body). Feed sources that supply a high level of omega-3 are flax, canola, rice bran and fish. High levels of omega-6 are in corn, soybeans and sunflowers.
Keeping omega-3 and omega-6 in balance with each other is important to nutrition. The equine diet should not consist of more six than three. Unfortunately equine nutritionists have not determined the best ratio. But it is known when the two are not in balance the benefits that can be provided by each are not available. A good rule-of-thumb is a ratio of 1:1.
Research has shown when high levels of omega-6 are present in the diet inflammation, the chances of osteoarthritis and inadequate bone formation increases. High levels of omega-6 block the benefits omega-3 can provide.
The modern equine diet tends to provide an excessive amount of omega fatty acid six. Forage (grass and hay) is the natural way of providing adequate amounts of both essential fatty acids, but many horses are supplemented with high grain diets and supplements (corn oil, for example) that skew the balance.
The key to keeping the beneficial omega fatty acids in balance is to feed plenty of good quality forage. If the diet needs to be supplemented, use products that avoid ingredients that raise omega-6 above the omega-3. Anyone feeding corn oil or sunflower oil to an arthritic horse should find an alternative fat source, as these supplements are high in omega-6.
Another omega fatty acid is omega-9. This fatty acid is non-essential, meaning it is produced within the body. An adequate amount of nine will be synthesized internally if the omega fatty acids three and six are available, and in balance. There is no need to add omega-9 to the balanced equine diet.