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Add Fat for Weight Gain, Coat Condition in Horses

Kentucky Equine Research Staff  | Published on 9/20/2017
Despite its scarcity in a horse’s natural diet of forage, fat has proven to be a useful additive in equine rations for two primary reasons: to bump up energy and to boost coat condition. Fat may be offered in one of three ways, and horsemen often choose the method best suited to their management scheme.

Many horsemen prefer stabilized rice bran over vegetable oil because it’s a cleaner supplement to feed.Feed a high-fat concentrate. Feed manufacturers sell high-fat feeds for various classes of horses. In particular, products designed especially for performance and senior horses often contain high levels of fat. Many high-fat feeds have 10 to 12% fat, and occasionally 14% fat is included.

“In these feeds, fat is used as an energy source, just as starch and fermentable fibers such as soy hulls and beet pulp are,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor for Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “A mixture of energy sources fuels performance and weight gain efficiently, allowing for optimal results.”

What feedstuffs push up the fat content in these feeds? Namely, feeds manufacturers add vegetable oil and stabilized rice bran, though dried distillers grains, flaxseed, and full-fat soybeans are also used.

Augment with oil. Horsemen have been feeding vegetable oils for decades, and for much of that time corn oil was the hands-down favorite. From a nutritional perspective, vegetable oil is 100% fat.

As equine nutritionists began to better understand the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and their relationship to omega-6 fatty acids, they recalibrated their recommendations, choosing instead to suggest oils that are more naturally abundant in omega-3s.

“Because cereal grains are already high in omega-6 fatty acids, adding more omega-6s through the provision of corn oil skews the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in the entire diet. Other vegetable oils such as soybean oil are richer in omega-3 fatty acids than corn oil, and most feed stores carry these products. If they are unavailable at the feed store, check the local grocery,” she advised.

Most horses readily accept vegetable oil top-dressed on feed. Add oil slowly, first drizzling a small amount onto the feed and mixing thoroughly. Gradually increase the amount given every few days. How much total oil added to a diet depends on the condition of the horse and is limited somewhat by what the horse will tolerate.

“Working up to 8 oz (1 cup; 240 mL) each day is a reasonable goal, and some horses will accept twice this amount. Keep in mind that it might not be possible to add much supplemental oil to a feed already high in fat,” Whitehouse commented.

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Employ stabilized rice bran. Much like the widespread use of vegetable oil, stabilized rice bran has been a staple feedstuff in the equine industry for many years. Rice bran is naturally high in fat and extremely palatable, which makes it an appropriate energy source for horses.

In order for horses to derive the most nutrition from rice bran, it must be stabilized or heat-processed to denature enzymes that eventually cause rancidity in raw rice bran. Once stabilized, though, the product has exceptional value in feeding programs. No consideration should be given to rice bran that has not been stabilized.

“Stabilized rice bran contains between 18 and 20% fat, and that can add significant energy to a horse’s ration. For most horses, 1 to 2 lb (0.5 to 1 kg) of stabilized rice bran per day mixed into the feed works well to enhance the energy density of a ration,” said Whitehouse.

Many horsemen prefer stabilized rice bran over vegetable oil because it’s a cleaner supplement to feed. Oils tend to be messy, often requiring regular scrubbing of bins and troughs to wash away unsightly, sticky grime. Because rice bran is usually packaged as a pellet or a meal, it is easily churned into a textured or pelleted feed.