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Flax seed oil supplements for horses provide health benefits, prevents disease

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Neither humans nor horses can function properly without two polyunsaturated fats in their diet: linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid. These are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are essential to normal cell structure and body function. Both are components of nerve cells, cell membranes and hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins.
    In humans, ingesting these “healthy” fatty acids can help prevent heart disease.
    Douglas Herthel of Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif., has done studies on EFAs and use of flax seed oil as a supplement to prevent carbohydrate overload-induced laminitis in horses.
    Every cell in the body has a bi-lipid cell membrane around it – two layers of fat. The health of these cells is dependent upon proper diet. Herthel stated that bioactive lipids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, found in flax seed oil are unsaturated fatty acids essential to equine health. They cannot be manufactured by the horse and can only be obtained by ingestion of lipids in feed.
    Alpha-linolenic acid Omega-3 and Linoleic acid Omega-6 are both polyunsaturated very chemically reactive oils.
    Horses fed processed feed or cured hay, especially older hay, don’t get as much Omega-3 fat as they need.
       Both types of lipids are needed by the horse and are present in cell membranes, but when Omega-6, or linoleic acid, is metabolized, it becomes arachidonic acid.
    An overabundance of this acid can be the precursor to serious pro-inflammatory mediators called leukotrienes, prostaglandins and thromboxanes. These are the “bad guys” that are involved when the body undergoes inflammatory processes.
Causing problems
    Herthel explained that cell membranes have Omega-3 and Omega-6, and they are both precursors for super-hormones – groups of inflammatory mediators and very potent hormones.
    “If you get too many of the arachidonic-type hormones, you’ll have problems with arthritis, muscle problems, laminitis, etc. If you can change the balance back to a more natural diet, such as fresh grass, the horse will have a higher ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6.”
    By contrast, with a corn-based diet, high in Omega-6, the horse is more prone to founder.
    “By changing the balance, by feeding these horses an Omega-3-rich diet, you can alter their response to trauma,” says Herthel.
Addressing hormone issues
    Many horses on hay/grain diets do not eat the same quantity or balance of Omega-3 fatty acid as horses on grass.
    “Omega-3 lipid is highest in fresh green pasture grass, and this is probably the reason horses thrive and look their best on spring pasture,” he says.
    This fatty acid is also found in flax seed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and certain fish. It is damaged by sunlight and storage however, and thus much of the hay fed to horses does not provide enough of this key nutrient.
    Herthel started using flax seed oil for his equine patients more than 10 years ago and has done studies to determine its effects on horses with diarrhea, muscle tie-up and other problems.
    “The surgical patients we put on this type of supplement don’t swell much, and if a horse suffers injury the injured tissues don’t swell; the insult does not elicit as much inflammation or reaction as when a horse is on a high corn diet or an Omega-3 deficient diet,” he says.
A look at Omega-3
    Alpha linolenic acid, or Omega-3, with its multiple unsaturated double bonds is extremely fragile, however, and light or heat will damage and oxidize it. After Omega-3 is oxidized, it is not healthy, for horse or human.
    The chemical structure of the EFA is changed to toxic derivatives known as lipid peroxides, which have a bitter, rancid taste. The degree of bitterness correlates with the level of lipid peroxides.
    There are other sources of Omega-3, such as certain fresh fish, but fish oil is even harder to utilize and oxidizes even more quickly – as soon as the oil is taken out of the fish.
    In a natural diet of grass the horse is always eating the Omega-3 fatty acid fresh, and there is no breakdown.
    Flax oil can be a healthy supplement for horses if it is processed properly without high heat, kept frozen or protected from heat and sunlight and not stored for long periods of time.
    Heather Smith Thomas writes for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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