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Feeding High Fat Horse Feed | When To Feed Fats to Equines

Thin white horse grazing in a pasture

Feeding High Fat Horse Feed | When To Feed Fats to Equines | Effects of Feeding High-Fat Supplements 

The Evolution of Equine Nutrition: The Need for Higher Fat

Traditionally, horse diets have focused on forage and grains like oats and barley. However, equine nutritionists and veterinarians are increasingly recognizing the importance of higher fat content in horse feed. Higher fat feeds offer concentrated energy and can provide numerous health and performance benefits for horses, from weight gain to improved coat condition.

The Science of Fats: Fatty Acid Composition

Fats, particularly fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6, are essential in horse nutrition for cell membrane structure, energy, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Equine research from institutions such as Kentucky Equine Research has shown that a balanced ratio of these fatty acids can contribute to better health and performance in horses.

Benefits of Feeding Fat from Weight Gain to Improved Coat Condition

For underweight horses or those needing to build muscle, a high-fat diet can be a boon. Higher fat content provides concentrated energy, helping horses gain weight more efficiently. Kentucky Equine Research has conducted studies showing significant weight gain in horses fed a higher fat diet. For horses involved in high-intensity activities, a diet rich in fat provides sustained energy without the risk of digestive upsets that high-starch diets can cause. High-fat feeds like rice bran can significantly improve endurance and recovery times.

Senior horses often struggle with weight maintenance and may have dental issues that make it difficult to chew forage. High-fat feeds can provide the necessary calories and are often easier to digest. Mares, especially those in foal, have unique nutritional needs. A high-fat diet can provide the extra energy required for gestation and lactation. It's advisable to consult equine research studies for specific feeding recommendations for mares.

Feeding fat to horses has been shown to offer an array of benefits, significantly enhancing coat condition and imparting a radiant, glossy sheen. The omega-3 fatty acids found in high-quality fat sources help improve skin health, leading to a lustrous and softer coat. The difference is often noticeable within a few weeks of integrating fat into the diet, and the results can be striking.

Beyond aesthetics, the benefits of feeding fat extend to various other physiological aspects. For instance, incorporating fats in equine diets has been shown to provide a more concentrated energy source, which can be especially beneficial for high-performance horses and older equines that may have difficulty maintaining weight. Fat serves as a calorie-dense nutrient, providing 2.25 times more energy than carbohydrates. This high caloric density allows for smaller meal sizes, reducing the risk of digestive disorders like colic and laminitis.

The energy from fats is also released more slowly compared to carbohydrates, providing sustained energy that can be particularly beneficial for endurance and performance horses. Moreover, fats are easier on the horse's metabolic system; they produce less heat during digestion compared to proteins and carbohydrates, making them an excellent dietary choice in warmer climates.

Additionally, some fats contains essential fatty acids that play a crucial role in cellular function, aiding in everything from immune response to inflammation control. These essential fatty acids are also known to improve joint health, making them valuable for older horses or those with arthritis issues.

How to Supplement High Fat Horse Feed into Equine Diets

Rice Bran

Rice bran is a popular high-fat horse feed rich in fat and fiber but low in starch. It's an excellent source of gamma-oryzanol, which has antioxidant properties and helps muscle development. Feeding rice bran has been shown to increase endurance and improve the coat quality of horses. This is an excellent high calorie option for horses working hard that need to add fat in their diet but are unable to process high starch feeds. 

Rice bran is a byproduct of rice milling and is highly nutritious, making it an increasingly popular component in high-fat horse feeds. It typically contains around 20% fat, 11% protein, and a good amount of fiber, providing horses with a rich source of calories. One of the standout elements in rice bran is gamma-oryzanol, an antioxidant that has been shown to support muscle development and recovery in equines. This makes rice bran an excellent choice for performance horses, as well as horses that require additional support for weight gain.

From an equine nutrition standpoint, rice bran is attractive because it offers high-calorie content without the starches found in grains, reducing the risk of conditions like laminitis or colic. It's particularly beneficial for endurance sports, as its fat content can improve stamina and potentially decrease recovery time. Moreover, rice bran can contribute to better skin and coat condition, providing a sleek, glossy appearance.

However, it's important to balance the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio when feeding rice bran. It naturally contains more phosphorus than calcium, so if it constitutes a large part of the diet, it can lead to an imbalance. 


Flax is another high-fat feed option for horses. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, flax helps maintain a balanced immune system and supports joint health. It can be fed whole, ground, or as an oil, providing flexibility in how you can incorporate it into your horse's diet.

Flaxseeds are derived from the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum, and are another high-fat feed option for horses. They are notably rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are essential for immune function, joint health, and overall cellular integrity. Studies have shown that the Omega-3 fatty acids in flax can benefit horses with inflammatory conditions and may also improve coat quality.

Flax can be fed in various forms: whole seeds, ground seeds, or as flax oil. However, if opting for whole seeds, it's important to note that they sometimes pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract, reducing their nutritional benefit. Therefore, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil is often recommended for better nutrient absorption.

While flax is highly nutritious, horse owners should be cautious of the fact that raw, whole flaxseeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, which can produce toxic cyanide when soaked for long periods of time. However, the risk is minimal if the flax is ground and fed immediately or if it is processed as oil.

Alfalfa Pellets: The Forage Alternative

Alfalfa pellets are more commonly known for their high protein and fiber content, but they also contain a good amount of fat. They are especially beneficial for performance horses, senior horses, and mares, offering a balanced nutrient profile that includes essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

Alfalfa pellets are made from compressed alfalfa, a forage high in protein, fiber, and also contains a decent amount of fat. They provide a well-rounded nutrient profile, including essential amino acids, vitamins like Vitamin A, and minerals like calcium. Alfalfa pellets can be particularly beneficial for performance horses requiring higher energy inputs and for senior horses who may have difficulty chewing forage. They are also excellent for mares, especially those in the gestation or lactation stages, due to their rich nutrient content.

Though primarily valued for their protein and fiber, alfalfa pellets' fat content should not be overlooked. Fat serves as a concentrated source of energy, which can be especially helpful in maintaining or gaining weight. For horses that require a lower carbohydrate diet, alfalfa pellets can serve as an alternative energy source without causing spikes in blood sugar.

However, it's essential to monitor calcium and protein intake when feeding alfalfa pellets, as they are naturally high in these nutrients. Excess calcium can interfere with the absorption of other vital minerals like zinc and magnesium, while too much protein can lead to renal stress. Therefore, alfalfa pellets should be fed as part of a balanced diet, ideally under the guidance of a veterinary or equine nutrition professional.

Fat Supplements & Oils

Apart from high-fat feeds, fat supplements like oils can also be added to your horse's diet. However, these should be introduced gradually to allow the digestive system to adapt. These can be a convenient alternative, though they are often much more expensive than flax, alfalfa, or rice bran. 

Oils are a concentrated source of energy in equine diets and have been used to supplement fat content in horse feeds. With more than twice the energy density of carbohydrates or proteins, oils can provide a calorie-rich but low-volume addition to a horse's meal. Oils are primarily composed of fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential for numerous physiological functions such as inflammation modulation, cell membrane structure, and immune response. Different types of oils offer different profiles of fatty acids. For example, flaxseed oil is rich in omega-3s, while corn oil has a higher omega-6 content.

For performance horses, adding oil to the diet can enhance stamina and reduce recovery time post-exercise. Oils are metabolized more slowly than carbohydrates, providing a more sustained energy source, which can be particularly advantageous in endurance events. The higher fat content in the diet also spares glycogen in the muscles and liver, thus delaying fatigue. Additionally, a diet high in oils can improve coat quality, giving the horse a healthy, glossy appearance.

However, it’s important to introduce oils gradually into a horse’s diet to allow the digestive system to adjust. Too much oil too quickly can lead to digestive upsets like diarrhea. Moreover, not all oils are created equal. Some oils, like fish oil, have specific benefits, such as higher amounts of DHA and EPA, which have anti-inflammatory properties. In contrast, oils like sunflower or safflower oil have higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which are already abundant in most horse feeds and can promote inflammation if fed in excess.

Forage vs. High-Fat Diet

Forage should remain the cornerstone of any equine diet. The key is to find the right balance between forage and high-fat feeds or supplements, which may vary based on the horse's age, activity level, and health status.

Conclusion: High-Fat Diets for Horses

Adding fat to your horse's diet can significantly influence body condition, coat quality, and overall health. High-fat diets are a digestible and high-calorie source of energy that can especially benefit older horses and equine athletes. When incorporated into a balanced feeding program, fats and oils serve as an effective fat source that's high in energy density. Moreover, supplemental fat can be advantageous in maintaining desired body condition and weight, particularly if your horse needs 2.25 times more energy than provided by a natural diet of hay and pasture.

Opting for high-fat commercial pelleted feed, often containing beet pulp, can be an effective way to increase your horse's fat intake without the adverse effects of feeding high-starch grains. If you prefer a more tailored approach, various oils like soybean oil can be added to the total diet. Oils are not only a source of calories but also provide essential omega-3 fatty acids. However, it's crucial to balance this with adequate vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and niacin supplements. Some advanced feeds even include beneficial additives like dried Bacillus subtilis fermentation.

Your feeding rate should be adapted according to your horse’s activity level and body weight. Older horses or those working intensively might need higher fat levels. Always consult an equine nutritionist to help your horse attain the best coat condition and health outcomes. Don't overlook the importance of monitoring your horse's condition closely and adjusting the fat level in their diet as needed. Whether you're buying your supplies from a feed store or preparing a homemade ration, remember that the addition of fat may also require adjustments in supplemental feedings like molasses to ensure a balanced diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Therefore, integrating fat-supplemented diets should be a considered strategy to meet your horse’s unique nutritional needs.


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