Adding fats and oils to your horse’s diet is a great way to increase calorie supply without relying on grains and high-NSC feeds.

Fats can be added to the diets of underweight horses as weight gain supplements. Oils also provide cool energy to support exercise performance, weight maintenance and gut health without contributing to “hot behavior”.

High-fat feeds are typically made with rice bran, ground flax, or vegetable fat. Oils such as canola, soybean, flax, or camelina oil are also popular options for horses.

All oils and pure fats provide the same amount of caloric energy per gram. However, not all oils are equal in terms of how they influence processes in the body.

When deciding which fat supplement to add to your horse’s diet, equine nutritionists also care about the fatty acid composition of the feed. As this article will discuss, certain fat sources have advantages over others.

Fat in the Equine Diet

Wild horses evolved to graze for up to 16 hours per day on fibrous forages on vast low-quality grasslands.

On a forage-only diet, most of the horse’s energy needs are met through hindgut fermentation of fibre, with only small amounts of fat present in the diet.

Hay and pasture typically contain 1 – 3% fat on a dry matter basis. This means that an average-sized horse consuming 10 kg (22 lb) of forage only gets 100 – 300 grams of fat in their diet per day, and not all of this will be absorbed in the gut.

Although not a significant part of the horse’s natural diet, there are some considerable advantages to supplementing your horse with fats in modern management settings.

Fat is often added to feeds targeting performance horses, hard keepers, growing horses or lactating mares who require additional calories in the diet.

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Grains vs. Fats

Commercial feeds for horses with high calorie needs often contain grains or grain by-products as energy sources. Examples of grain-based ingredients include:

  • Ground corn
  • Ground wheat
  • Corn germ meal
  • Oats

Although grains add calories to the diet, they are also high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) such as starch and sugar.

Horses have small stomachs and are not well-suited to digest large grain-based meals. Undigested starches and sugars spill over into the hindgut and cause gut health issues, such as dysbiosis, gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis.

Horse with metabolic issues, such as PPID, equine metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, also need to avoid high-grain diets to prevent laminitis.

Oils and fats are often a better option than grain-based feeds to increase the calorie density of the diet because they provide calories without starch and sugar.

Replacing grain with fat sources can help to protect the health of your horse, reducing the risk of digestive issues or metabolic dysfunction.

Benefits of Feeding Fat

There are several additional benefits to meeting the energy requirements of performance horses from fat instead of carbohydrates. These benefits include:

  1. Reduce heat from digestion: The digestion of fats generates less heat than protein and carbohydrate digestion. Fats are a great option to provide cool calories for performance horses or for horses in hot climates.