Take A Good Look At The Fat Fad

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Many horse owners want to increase their horse’s fat intake, either by feeding high-fat feeds or adding oils and other fats. For some reason, some folks believe every horse can benefit from having grain replaced in part, or completely, by fat. However, what matters is:

• The type of fat you choose,
• What you do with your horse,
• That your horse’s diet is properly balanced and at an overall protein level of at least 12%.

Fat For Performance
Fat can be either good nor bad, but it is definitely an unnatural energy source for horses.??Grain is, too, but it provides energy as carbohydrates, just as grass does. Basically, fat as the horse’s main energy source can be efficient for some types of work and detrimental to others.

For high-speed performance horses, we see no benefit to feeding higher fat. Horses performing at high speed must rely on glycogen for their fuel, which comes from grains, as fat can’t generate energy quickly enough to support high speeds. Fat fed at too high a level can also decrease the amount of glycogen muscles contain.

On the other hand, upper-level endurance horses may get a benefit from dietary fat, if it’s done correctly. After a period of adjustment, increasing dietary fat encourages the muscles to burn fat during aerobic work, which in turn helps preserve the muscle’s store of glycogen and therefore decreases muscle fatigue. There are limits, however. For endurance horses, especially those that don’t hold their weight on maximum grain feeding, we’d use supplemental fat at six to 10% of the total calories.

Other than endurance horses, however, we’d skip the added fat. If you take two horses of identical conditioning, size and body weight, one fed a high-fat diet and one fed a standard grain-and-hay diet, then work them side-by-side on treadmills until one becomes exhausted, there’s no proof that the fat-fed horse will last longer.

Fat For Illnesses
Much of the pro-fat propaganda is based on claims that feeding grain is harmful. Nonsense. Grain is dangerous in excess, of course, but reasonable amounts don’t cause problems in normal horses.

However, there are medical conditions where restricting intake of simple sugars and starches — grains are over 60% starch — is important, such as with equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (see EPSSM sidebar) and insulin resistance, which is often found in ponies and easy-keeper breeds of horses (see October 2002 article).

While removing grain/starch from the diet benefits insulin-resistant horses, it isn’t as clear that fat helps, and few of them need a concentrated source of calories anyway. In addition, high-fat diets can worsen insulin resistance in susceptible individuals in other species.

If your horse has tying-up problems because of EPSSM, grain will make things worse, and you’re wise to substitute fat if you need it. However, not all horses tie up due to EPSSM. For example, Thoroughbreds with a history of repeated episodes of tying-up may have a problem with accelerated release of calcium inside their muscle cells, which causes unregulated contractions/spasm.

Simply substituting fat for grain in the diet of a non-EPSSM horse with a history tying up isn’t likely to help, but overfeeding grain may be a risk factor, which is why it’s wise to cut back or eliminate grain on days the horse has a light workload or no work at all.

Drawbacks Of Fat Feeding
Feeding fat may somewhat affect fiber and protein digestibility. It’s believed that some fat escapes absorption in the small intestine and makes its way to the large bowel where it depresses fiber digestion by the microorganisms there. The drop in fiber digestion should be kept in mind if a horse on a high-fat/fiber diet isn’t holding his weight. Otherwise, this finding probably isn’t significant.

Decreased protein digestibility is another story, however, and is an important consideration for performance horses with a high turnover of muscles protein and for horses with muscle disease, like EPSSM. You must keep the dietary protein at 12% or more from the horse’s other food sources. Fat doesn’t provide protein.

The significance of cholesterol changes and their long-term effects in horses is unknown, but in people and other animal species cholesterol is a risk for coronary artery disease.

Choosing Healthy Fats
All fats, processed or unprocessed, vegetable oils or animal fats, have the same calories. They don’t have the same health benefits, however. The high-heat-processed corn oil you find in the grocery store will add fat to your horse’s diet — and calories — but no carbohydrates, protein, vitamins or minerals.

Fats found in natural foods are associated with antioxidant vitamins, especially vitamin E, and other naturally occurring antioxidants.

Oils can retain these antioxidants when the fats are extracted by mechanically squeezing out the oil, and stabilized by adding natural vitamin E, refrigeration or with special low-temperature processing. If you’re going to feed fats, choose naturally processed oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, Triple Crown Rice Bran Oil (www.triplecrownfeed.com, 800/451-9916), McCauley Brothers’ Rice Bran Oil (www.mccauleybros.com, 800/222-8635) or Uckele’s Coca-Soya (www.uckele.com, 800/248-0330). Work up your horse’s tolerance of oil in two-ounce increments, up to a maximum of one cup per day, depending on calories.

For added anti-inflammatory benefits from an oil that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, add a few tablespoons of cold-pressed flaxseed oil, which is available from most health-food stores but is expensive.

Bottom Line
While there is a place for supplemental fat in equine diets, especially in horses that can’t hold weight or horses with EPSSM, it’s not a miracle nutrient. Other than endurance horses, we wouldn’t feed fat, regardless of sport or activity level, unless the horse was unable to hold this weight any other way.

Just as you know from your own nutrition, fat calories are empty of protein, vitamins or minerals. In addition, fat can interfere with protein and fiber digestion and may interfere with mineral absorption. It can result in drops in muscle glycogen if too much is fed. If you use fat, be sure you have a valid reason for doing so, that you don’t overdo it and that the diet is correctly supplemented, balanced and adequate in protein.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Smart Fat Feeding.”
Click here to view ”Digestive Upsets.”
Click here to view ”My Horse Hates Oil.”
Click here to view ”Fe eding Fat And EPSSM.”
Click here to view ”FAQs About Fat.”