Simply put, horses need energy. Energy is traditionally supplied by cereal grains such as oats, corn, and barley. These feedstuffs deliver energy as carbohydrates or starch. But what if you want to supply more energy to your horse without increasing his feed intake? Feeding a fat supplement is an excellent way to achieve this.
Fat is added to the diet because it is an excellent energy source. It contains almost 2.25 times as much energy as an equivalent weight of carbohydrates or starch. The horse can use energy derived from fat efficiently. In a typical hay and grain diet, a horse is only able to utilize between 50% and 60% of the energy provided. However, a horse can utilize 85% to 90% of the energy contained in some fat supplements. In addition, fat is digested and absorbed well by horses. Numerous studies have shown that as much as 20% overall fat in the diet is well tolerated by horses with no negative side effects. Because fat is absorbed almost exclusively in the small intestine, a high-fat diet does not affect the delicate bacterial population of the hindgut as a high-carbohydrate diet might.
The supplementation of fat into the diets of horses has several benefits. First and foremost, additional fat in the diet increases the calorie content of a ration without increasing meal size. A fat supplement is ideal for bulking up hard keepers or aged horses. By feeding fat, horsemen reduce the risk of gastrointestinal upset caused by the consumption of large grain meals. For weight gain, such a change in diet carries far less risk of colic or other health complications than does a shift to a high-grain diet.
In addition to underweight and aged horses, fat can help broodmares transition effortlessly from one phase of production to another. During the last three months of gestation, mares need considerably more energy to support rapid fetal growth than they require earlier in their pregnancies. Likewise, mares experience incredible drains on energy stores during the first three months of lactation. To ensure consistent body weight through these periods, the calorie consumption of mares can be bumped up through the addition of a fat supplement.
Excessive starch intake has been implicated as a factor in certain muscle conditions that often sideline performance horses such as polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER), collectively called tying up. These problems are worsened by high-grain diets. In an attempt to reduce the occurrence of these conditions, veterinarians recommend that afflicted horses be fed fat, which provides the necessary calories to perform high-intensity exercise without having to eat excessive amounts of starch-laden grain.
Another advantage of feeding fat is a reduction in metabolic heat produced at rest and during exercise. A reduction in heat load, especially for horses that train and compete in hot, humid environments, can provide a competitive edge. By decreasing the heat load, horses sweat less, thereby reducing water loss during exercise.
Fat is considered a source of “calm” energy and is thought to modify behavior in some horses, making them more tractable. This, in turn, allows horses to focus their energy on work rather than nervousness.
Finally, fat supplementation improves skin and coat condition. Fat is often a staple ingredient in the diets of sale and show horses, as it imparts an incredibly healthy shine to the coat.
One safe source of supplemental fat is Equi-Jewel, a heat-stabilized rice bran product. Equi-Jewel contains 20% fat. Because it is pelleted, Equi-Jewel can be mixed quickly into the horse’s grain. Unlike some rice bran products, Equi-Jewel is formulated with a balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio.