Feeding sunflower seeds as treats is far from a new idea, as sunflowers are a staple in equine diets in other parts of the world, such as Australia. The sunflower seed cake, which is what is left over after extracting sunflower oil, is commonly included in livestock feeds as a protein source and may even be included in some horse feeds as a component of the byproducts category of ingredients. In fact, the entire plant is edible.
Sunflower seeds are higher in fat, fiber and protein than grains. Because they are also calorie-dense, they can even be used to replace part of the grain. Like grains, sunflower seeds are higher in phosphorus and magnesium than calcium, with quantities of these major minerals running similar to grains. They don’t provide much in the way of key trace minerals, but many grains don’t either.
The high fat content of sunflower seeds is why they’re high in calories. They’re also high in omega-6 essential fatty acids, which are essential for skin/coat/hoof health and a strong immune system. They’re an excellent source of vitamins A and E. Even the hulls are good for your horse. We can’t digest them, but the horse does a good job of handling the fiber.
Although the protein levels in sunflower seeds are high, they have low levels of the amino acids lysine and threonine, which limits the usefulness of sunflower-seed meal as a concentrated protein source in horse feeds. However, they do contain good levels of several other amino acids.
Although all portions of the sunflower seeds are highly digestible, introduce them to your horse slowly. A handful or so as a treat shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t start feeding them by the pound.
You can simply share your own snack bag of sunflower seeds with your horse or use the same bagged sunflower seeds sold for birds. If you choose bird seed, only choose the large, striped seeds. Avoid the small, black, high-oil sunflower seeds, which the horse may not chew as well as the striped seeds.
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