Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) that are essential in the horse’s diet. Supplementing your horse’s feeding program with omega-3 oil can support anti-inflammatory mechanisms in the body and contribute to overall health and well-being.
The horse cannot synthesize these essential fats on their own, which is why they must obtain them through the diet. Giving your horse a source of omega-3 fats can support a calm demeanor, immune function, and joint health. Omega-3 fats also help prevent dry skin and dull coats and support weight maintenance.
The main healthful omega-3s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Horses do not naturally get DHA in their diet.
Instead they convert ALA (alpha linolenic acid) from fresh grasses and forages into DHA and EPA. However, this process is inefficient and does not generate enough of these omega-3s to benefit from their anti-inflammatory properties.
Enriching your horse’s diets with EPA and DHA has numerous beneficial effects. One of the most noticeable benefits is a shiny, healthy coat. These PUFAs also helps prevent skin allergies and dry skin.
Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to prevent tying up in horses that have a history of exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER).
EPA and DHA also support healthy joints and minimize stress responses related to transport. Supplementing with omega-3’s is especially recommended for heavily-worked horses or those in competition.
Dense sources of fat such as omega-3 oils are considered “cool energy” because they are metabolized efficiently without generating much heat. This is particularly beneficial for horses exercising during the hot, humid summer months. 
For horses that are prone to ulcers or hindgut issues, adding omega-3 oil to the diet allows the horse owner to replace some of the grain as a source of calories in the feeding regimen.
This may help reduce the risk of ulcers or dysbiosis related to high-grain intake. Reducing grain intake by adding omega-3s also has a calming effect on horses, improving their focus and handling.
Hard keepers that have difficultly gaining weight could also benefit from essential fatty acids as a dense energy source. This allows you to provide more energy in your horse’s to support healthy weight gain without feeding higher volumes of commercial grains.
Mad Barn’s W-3 oil provides an equine source of omega-3s from plant sources (flax and soybean oil) and microalgae. Microalgae contains high levels of DHA, the main omega-3 in fish oil, but without a fishy smell or taste making it highly palatable for horses.
This supplement also contains Vitamin E which is a potent antioxidant that is best absorbed when consumed along with a fat source and increases the shelf-life of the oil.
This product should be introduced at a rate of 1 ounce (30ml) per day and slowly increased to a maximum dose of 8 ounces (250 ml) per day.
Why Horses Need Omega-3 Fatty Acids
When fatty acids are consumed, they get incorporated into cell membranes in all tissues and organs of the body. Therefore, the composition of fatty acids in the body can have significant effects on how cells function.
Having more polyunsaturated fats like DHA, instead of saturated fats, makes cell membranes more fluid which helps cells respond to outside signals better and stay healthier. DHA can be converted into numerous other molecules in the body that have a wide array of beneficial effects in your equine companion.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in the horse’s diets. They are composed of are long chains of at least 18 carbon atoms in a row connected by chemical bonds.
Many (ie. ‘poly’) of these bonds are unsaturated which means they feature one or more double bonds between adjacent carbon atoms. In contrast, saturated fats have single bonds between all carbon atoms because their bonds are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms.
Specifically omega-3 fatty acids have an unsaturated bond at the 3rd last carbon atom whereas omega-6s have an unsaturated bond at the 6th last position.
The balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is important because omega-3s are converted mostly into anti-inflammatory molecules whereas omega-6s are converted into pro-inflammatory compounds.
The optimal ratio has not been worked out in horses. However, it can be presumed from evidence in other animals and humans, that the optimal ratio would be between 1:4 and 1:6 of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
Pasture grasses and forages are high in the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Although total fat content of grass is relatively low at 2-4%, horses that spend a lot of time grazing fresh pasture will consume significant levels of ALA.
Certain plant-based oils are also high in ALA, including flax (linseed), canola, and soybean oil. Grains like oats and barley are typically higher in linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, which is also high in soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, and safflower oils.
Horses that are constantly grazing on fresh grasses in the natural environment and consuming little grains will not have a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6s are generally considered bad, the compounds generated from them are important for normal physiological responses and inflammatory events like wound healing.
However, when levels of omega-6s far exceed omega-3s it can put horses at higher risk of inflammatory overreactions, including exaggerated allergic reactions such as heaves and sweet itch. It can also impede recovery from exercise and further exacerbate the metabolic consequences of obesity in easy-keepers or equine metabolic syndrome.
Modern equine nutrition programs with high grain intake often require a correction in the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids by adding omega-3s to the diet. This supports a proper balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds which helps maintain healthy tissues and organs.