Myth: A Shiny Horse is a Healthy Horse

May 21, 2014

By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

Fat from any source will make your horse shiny. A fatty substance called sebum, secreted from the sebaceous glands in your horse’s skin, increases when the diet is higher in fat. It coats the hair, making it reflect the sun’s rays. Any fat will do; the type of dietary fat doesn’t matter when it comes to making the hair coat shine – but it sure does matter when it comes to your horse’s health.

The opposite is true: A healthy horse is a shiny horse, as long as he’s shiny for the right reason – because you are feeding the right type of fat! But with so many feeds and supplements available, where do you start?

Start with what comes naturally

Fresh grass contains two to three percent unsaturated fat consisting of a variety of fatty acids that vary in their chemical profile. There are two specific essential fatty acids that the horse’s body cannot produce and therefore must be in his diet: The omega-3 known as alpha linolenic acid (ALA), and the omega-6 known as linoleic acid. Grasses contain both of these in a 4:1 ratio of ALA to linoleic acid. Most commercially prepared horse diets, however, have an inverted ratio of these two fatty acids because high omega-6 fat sources (such as soybean and corn oils) are added to boost the fat concentration. When the omega-6 content exceeds the omega-3 content, you are asking for trouble.

Linoleic acid leads to inflammation

While some linoleic acid is important, too much can exacerbate your horse’s inflammatory response. Horses in training, working, or performing produce inflammation in their joints and muscles that can worsen when high amounts of linoleic acid are present. The aging joints of older horses are more painful when this omega-6 fatty acid is fed in large amounts. And inflammation leads to oxidative stress, which can damage all tissues throughout the body.

ALA reduces inflammation

Omega-3s block the formation of inflammatory molecules that are readily formed from omega-6s. Take a close look at the fat sources you are feeding to confirm that enough omega-3s are in the diet. Read the ingredients and note the concentrations. Manufacturers of products that are high in soybean oil, for example, will often tout that the product contains omega-3s. This is true, but misleading. Soybean oil does contain about seven percent omega-3s. But what they don’t tell you is that 50 percent of the fatty acids in soybean oil are from linoleic acid (omega-6).

Coconut oil is popular, but it has no omega-3s. Therefore, if you feed this as your only source of fat, your horse will become deficient in this essential fatty acid. He’ll be very shiny, but he will be unhealthy. Coconut oil is more than 90 percent saturated, with a smidgen of linoleic acid. The saturated fatty acids exist mostly as medium chain triglycerides, which is controversial because these types of fatty acids do not exist in grasses.

The table below provides a better understanding of oils and oily feeds:

juliet getty, equine fatty acid, equine nutrition horse fatty acid, coconut oil horses, flax horses, canola oil horses, corn oil horses, chia seeds horses, hempseeds horses, olive oil horses, rice bran horses, sunflower seeds horses,

Once fresh grass is cut, dried, and stored, the naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids are destroyed by oxygen. If hay is the predominant forage source for your horse, it is critical that you add a fat source that offers more omega-3s than omega-6s. Ground flaxseed or chia seeds are best for omega-3s. When supplementing, limit the amount fed to no more than a one-half cup per 400 lbs of body weight (120 ml per 180 kg of body weight). The dosage for flaxseed oil should be 1.5 tablespoons per 400 lbs of body weight (22.5 ml per 180 kg body weight).Hay has virtually no fatty acid content

Not all equines are the same

Equines such as ponies, minis, donkeys, and mules cannot tolerate as much fat as horses. They require some fat, but generally one-third to one-half the amount given to horses, proportionate to their weight.

Bottom line

Read the ingredient label on any feed or supplement designed to add more fat to your horse’s diet. The ingredients may be imbalanced. While it will make your horse shine, it may do nothing to contribute to overall health and may actually increase inflammation.

i Omega-9s are another classification of fatty acids that do not promote inflammation and may protect the heart and blood vessels.

ii Fish oils are also high in omega-3s. However, ALA from plants is converted to the longer chain omega-3s found in fish oils.

iii Hempseeds also contain the beneficial omega-6 fatty acid known as Gamma Linolenic Acid, which reduces inflammation.

Dr. Getty provides a world of useful information for the horseperson at Sign up for her informative, free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. And for the growing community of horse owners and managers who allow their horses free choice forage feeding, Dr. Getty has set up a special forum as a place for support, celebrations, congratulations, and idea sharing. Share your experiences at Reach Dr. Getty directly at

Photo: ©Viktoria Makarova/



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