Chia Seeds for Horses
- Horse chia seeds in a horse’s diet aren’t a new thing, and we know a few things about them despite limited research about them. Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega fatty acids, whose health benefits include healthy skin and a shiny coat.
- The ideal equine diet is fresh grass, but this isn’t possible for most horses. There are limits to land, seasonal considerations, and risk factors that may limit how much grass a horse should eat. Enter dietary supplements!
What are chia seeds?
- These tiny seeds belong to the Salvia hispanica plant, part of the mint family! They are tiny little buggers, about 2 mm when dry, but can expand up to 12 times their weight when soaked. Like flaxseeds, chia seeds become gelatinous when wet.
- Traditionally, chia seeds were cultivated in Central and South America. Enter science, and now there are varietals (with patents, of course) designed for growing in northern parts of the US.
- One reason chia seeds are popular with horse owners is the Omega-fatty acid content AND ratio of the fatty acids.
The basics of Omega fatty acids for horses
- Omega fatty acids come in the Omega-3 and Omega-6 varieties. There are also Omega-9’s, but your horse’s body produces those.
- It’s not unusual to hear that Omega-3 fatty acids are “anti-inflammatory”, while Omega-6 fatty acids are “pro-inflammatory”. Surely we should be bombarding our horse with the 3’s? Not so fast. The 6’s are also vital to your horse’s health, and it’s the ratio that matters.
- The exact ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids isn’t known for horses, but researchers and equine nutritionists suggest the ratio should be about somewhere around 4:1.
The components of Omega fatty acids
- Omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acids (ALA’s) found in plant-based horse food – like grass! The active forms of Omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Both EPA and DHA are in fish oil, which makes this the absolute best Omega-3 supplement for horses. But, horses can transform ALA’s from plants into EPA’s and DHA’s. It’s one more step for your horse’s body to take.
- Omega 6 Fatty Acids are linolenic acids (LA’s). These LA’s convert into dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) and arachidonic acid (AA). These two lovely acids are what your horse’s body uses.
- Side note: Why you should stop using corn oil for your horse.
- One of the main reasons I despise corn oil, and most vegetable oils, for horses is the massive amounts of Omega-6 and virtually zero Omega-3. Corn oil is about 46:1, rice bran comes in at about 21:1. Soybean oils hits at about 7:1, while canola oil is 2:1, a huge improvement over corn oil.
The nutrition packed into these tiny seeds
- The protein content of chia seeds is about 20% – giving your horse access to essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle, bone, skin, and joint tissues, among others.
- Chia seeds also serve as a way to bust up free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with missing electrons. They steal electrons from other cells, which in turn creates disease and damage. It’s a natural process involved in aging. The anti-oxidants in chia seeds help your horse’s body and help chia seeds with an exceptionally long shelf life, years even.
- Chia seeds are a great source of Vitamin B, and have a higher niacin content than corn, soy, or rice.
Chia seeds and metabolic disorders
- Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and Cushing’s disease, also known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), interfere with insulin regulation in your horse’s body. As your horse starts to ignore insulin, he compensates by creating more – known as insulin resistance. This creates a dangerous risk for laminitis.
- Horses with PPID and EMS benefit from low “sugar” diets. Looking for non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) values in hay and feeds of less than 10% is standard practice for metabolically compromised horses to keep sugars low. As the amount of NSC that your horse eats increases, the more sugar hits his belly, triggering reactions that increase insulin levels.
- Good news for chia seeds – their NSC value is about 5%. It’s SAFE to eat, and the high Omega-3 content works to increase insulin sensitivity. Double bonus.
Chia seeds next to flax seeds for comparison.
Other benefits of chia seeds for horses
- Right out of the gate – chia seeds are sometimes more affordable than flaxseeds, and they have a longer shelf life! You can safely store these bad boys for years, even in extreme temperatures.
- You don’t need to grind your horse’s chia seeds, and if you do, there is no need to feed within 15 minutes of grinding.
Chia seeds vs psyllium for clearing sand and preventing sand colic
- There’s a lot of talk that psyllium works to clear sand because it becomes jelly-like when wet, and the sand particles glue to that. That may be the case for minute quantities of sand. We understand now that the psyllium acts differently – it’s used by the gut’s microbes, thus promoting overall gut health. When the digestive tract is healthy, it can clear small volumes of sand by itself.
- This vet’s article goes into more details about clearing sand and stresses one crucial fact: ZERO scientific research about chia seeds removing sand.
- When shopping for chia seeds for horses, you will see claims that chia works in the same way as psyllium – to physically pick up sand (which psyllium doesn’t). There is no research exploring this – only marketing.
- These claims and lack of evidence do NOT mean that chia seeds won’t support your horse’s gut health to move sand. It simply means no one has studied it.
- If you are worried about your horse’s sand load in his belly, have your vet out for a visit. The “fecal balls in a bag of water” test for sand is not a complete picture. A positive result shows that sand precipitates out of the manure. This positive result doesn’t tell you if sand remains and how much might remain.
- A negative test result only tells you that he didn’t poop any sand out. He might have some in his belly, and you don’t know how much.
- To get a clear picture of your horse’s sand accumulation, you need your vet to examine your horse and perhaps do an x-ray. Then you can proceed with dietary supplements. Repeat the tests in a month or so to look for any changes.
How much do you feed your horse?
- There’s no clear answer on this one; a few sources have listed 2 to 4 oz. of chia seeds per 500 kg (1,100 lbs.) of horse. I have also seen suggestions of 1/2 a cup of chia seeds per 500 kg.
Some resources say you can wet it before feeding; others say you don’t need to. I’m sure your horse can tell you which method he prefers!