Does your horse need an oil in his diet? It’s a popular fad or trend, going on for many years, and the short answer is ‘no’, they do not need an oil in their feed for optimal health and performance. In truth, there are situations in which that oil in the feed can help a horse, but more commonly, it can add to problems, creating further health and lameness issues, but is rarely seen as the culprit because of perceived nutritional value. Let’s look closer at this subject and your horse.
Adding an oil to a horse’s diet is very common in todays equine world. Many owners go with very fancy or even specialized oils, such as hemp or other exotic varieties. There are many equine nutritionists that also push the use of oils for horses for enhancement of skin, hoof, and other ailments, touting benefits of nutrition, inflammation reduction, and balance of omega fatty acids. But, is this substance truly needed to obtain health in your horse? Is that added expense truly justified? Could the use of oils in your horse’s feed be contributing to health and lameness concerns in your horse?
Many experts will tell you the answer to that is ‘no’, oils do not contribute to health ailments, but the truth is, they do. You just have to look deeper and gain an understanding, then logic begins to tell you that oil administration in your horse may not be a great idea.
Why Oils May be Harmful to Your Horse
Health and soundness in your horse is all about balance. Too much of anything can create an imbalance, and this applies to fats and omega fatty acids. When things are out of balance, then disease and lameness become evident. Correct that imbalance and cellular health is restored or at least moved back towards a more normal state, which then allows for tissue repair and normal function on many levels. The thing here is that imbalance is easily created, but the longer that imbalance persists in your horse, the harder it is to remedy and restore. Not impossible, but it may take longer and require more effort.
In my world of equine consultations, a few things become evident in the industry when trying to help horse owners. First, many owners are trying to supplement their way out of feeding a healthy diet. They are feeding low quality hays and high amounts of processed grains, then trying to create ‘balance’ but adding oils to the regimen which are high in omega fatty acids and ‘balanced’. Second, when you look closely at these horses, there are three body types or constitutions which are readily evident. Given these body types, the requirements to help that horse return to a more balanced state is different than that from another. The problem here is that in many instances, owners and even veterinarians are treating every horse the same, as they perceive them as being the same. A horse is a horse, right? Wrong!
Let’s take the body types first. In human medicine and physiology, those body types are termed endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph. In truth, many people are not just one type, but more so are a combination of types, such as a predominant mesomorph but traits of an ectomorph as well, or an endomorph. These three types are evident in the equine world as well. The ectomorph is the thinner bodied horse which is leaner and has a finer bone structure. The mesomorph is the more athletically built and muscular horse. The endomorph is the heavier set horse, heavier bone structure, and carrying more weight. The ectomorph in my book would be something like an Arabian, the mesomorph equating to a Thoroughbred, and the endomorph relating to the Quarter Horse varieties, including the Paints, and the Warmbloods. This would be their predominant or natural body type.
Now, let’s transfer that over to alternative medicine, specifically Ayurvedic medicine. In Ayurveda, we have three doshas which are similar to constitutions. There is the Vata (ectomorph), Pitta (mesomorph), and Kapha (endomorph).
Before we go further, it is important to realize that every living body has all three of those doshas present within it, but one or two may be dominant. So, every horse has Vata, Pitta, and Kapha qualities. The key here is determining which dosha or body type is dominant in your horse, for this is their link to health and overall balance. The confusing part however, is that the horse, just like people, can fluctuate between the doshas, but when they do, this is when health is compromised as is lameness. Let me explain.
If we take a Quarter horse, which is generally a natural Kapha dominant type, and put them on a huge diet, restricting calories and intake, then cause massive weight loss, they will shift to the Vata dosha or ectomorph body type. The problem here is that the QH, when in balance, is more heavier set, not overweight mind you, but heavier set. They carry more weight by nature. If you shift them to the Vata type, then they will be out of balance and this is when you may see problems. However, this is also true if you create too much Kapha or over emphasize the endomorph aspect to them, which would be evident by gaining too much weight.
Also, as another example, look at the famous racehorse Secretariat. He was a heavier set Thoroughbred by nature, which equated to him being a Pitta-Kapha type. In training, he maintained that Pitta build most of the time, fit and in shape. However, in retirement, due to his feeding regimen and reduced exercise, he shifted to the Kapha dominant type, which was away from his nature. Then, surprise! He developed metabolic related problems, including laminitis.
Okay, following me? I hope so, because this is important to understand if you truly desire to help your horse.
Now, let’s look at oils and your horse.
The Vata or ectomorph horse. A horse which is extremely Vata or an ectomorph, being one that has been pushed in that direction by dietary restriction, abuse, or other influences such as environment, may benefit from oil usage in their feed. The reason for this is purely due to caloric content. Vata types have a tendency to dry out very easily, loose weight, and become anxious. Thus, the oils can add calories, add moisture to the body, and through that, improve body condition and even reduce anxiety. However, to achieve this in a Vata type, one does not have to use expensive oils. You can simply use Virgin Olive Oil, Flax Oil, or ground flax seeds. Your goal is to rebalance that Vata, meaning add moisture and a little bit of weight to them. Once this is achieved, then those efforts are reduced or eliminated, meaning you may not need any more oil or Flax. Why? Because in many cases, you will then push that Vata out of balance again and more towards the Kapha type due to adding too many calories. To keep weight on the Vata type of horse, calories are provided from other sources for the long term and calorie burning anxiety is managed through proper herbal regimens.
The Pitta or mesomorph horse type. A horse which is predominantly Pitta in nature generally does not do well on oils. This Pitta type is more oily to begin with, often raging with internal heat, manifesting with ulcers, colic, and irritable bowel conditions. They also have behavioral problems, hard to manage and often difficult. They are ‘hot’ by nature and if that heat gets out of hand, problems develop because they are out of balance. This Pitta quality makes for a good race horse, because they are fueled with fire and energy, but as we all know, this quality when out of balance equates to a ton of health and lameness conditions. Oils can benefit some Pitta types due to oils being ‘cooling’ in nature, but over use can lead to more heat buildup in the body, which can work against you. Pitta types generally have an incredible amount of heat in the digestive system, hence ulcer prevalence, so the goal with this type in order to regain balance is to cool that fire or heat. If you desire to use an oil for the short term, coconut oil, flax oil and olive oil are just fine. Otherwise, they need to be cooled using herbs targeting this purpose. Use too much oil in these types and it can end up like a grease pan fire on the stove.
The Kapha or endomorph horse type. The predominantly Kapha horse is one that naturally carries more weight and are heavier set. They are also the ones that are prone to gaining weight easily, often just by sniffing food so they say. These are the easy keepers and the metabolic prone types of horses. Interestingly enough, at least in my experience, these are the ones which are on oils. Now, let’s think about that. Here we have a horse which is prone to gaining weight or may actually be overweight with metabolic problems and we are administering a high calorie supplement. Where is the logic in that? Well, many would say that the omega fatty acids in that supplement or even in the flax are ‘healthy’. While this may be true on paper, it is not true for this body type in the horse. Omega three or omega six fatty acids, it doesn’t matter. You are adding fat and with that calories to that horse. You can push that Kapha horse from a healthy body weight and balance into a deeper state of Kapha, where they have gained more weight and now are out of balance. In my opinion, oils and flax supplements are not intended for this body type in the horse. In Ayurveda, oils and heavy substance meals are not recommended for this body type for obvious reasons, but for some reason we overlook it in the horse.
As a veterinarian and working in the equine rehabilitation industry for many years, I have only used oils in the short term for the Vata types, which are ectomorphs, and generally are those horses which are underweight. I have not used them in the Pitta type and definitely not in the Kapha type. If I did use them, I quickly learned, which is why I am trying to convey this to you now. Logic dictates when and how to use oils, but in order to do that, we must think. In today’s equine society, oils are pushed on owners due to perceived health benefits. Now, while I am not denying perceived health benefits, it does not mean they are ideal for every body type. This is why, at least on the human side, there is much conflicting data on various oils, including fish oils, on many diseases and cardiovascular health. On paper, they look good, but when applied they don’t always work out. This body type scenario is the reason. It applies to the horse as well.
Instead of using oils and even ground flax every day in your horse, ideally instead, we just feed a higher quality forage and allow for access to nice pastures. Generally speaking, they will get all the omega fatty acids they require and if they need more, there are other ways of gaining them without the added calories of oils and potential side effects such as digestive upset. Off the top, spirulina is one extremely good option which can benefit all three body types or doshas in the horse. Your goal is to restore and maintain balance in your horse to minimize and control health and lameness issues. Oils are one of the main things which can easily push a horse out of balance, when used improperly, and are also one of the main things I quickly eliminate from many horses regimens.
Oils are not outright harmful, but when we look at the volumes in which they are administered to the horse, in comparison to the use in cooking with various recipes, there is room for harm. If you are using an oil and all is well in your horse’s world, then excellent! However, if you are using an oil in your horse’s regimen and he is not doing well in one way or the other, it may be time to reconsider.
Food for thought when it comes to your horse!
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN