Flax Seed and the Health of our Horses.

October 26, 2023

Dr. Sandra Blackwood DVM

Flaxseed is a popular supplement for horses due to its many potential health benefits, easy accessibility, and relatively low cost.  It benefits more body systems for a lower cost than many commercial supplements on the market. Its main advantages arise from its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as well as other nutrients such as fiber, protein, and lignans.  In nature, with fresh sources of forage as the mainstay of a horse's buffet, a horse's diet is naturally higher in omega-3 than omega -6 fatty acids.  Omega - 3 fatty acids are deficient in diets that are primarily hay and / or grain based.  The overall ration of fatty acids is important as having a decreased omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in the diet promotes inflammation in the body, which results in many negative sequella from lameness to immune issues to poor hair and coat among other issues.   Here are some of the benefits of flax and how I recommend feeding flax to my horses. 


1. Improved Coat and Skin Health: One of the most noticeable benefits of feeding flaxseed to horses is the improvement in coat shine and skin health.  This benefit can take 6-8 weeks to become noticeable. 

   - Reference: "Effects of Dietary Fat and Riboflavin Supplementation on Coat Condition in Show Horses" published in the *Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.


2. Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory properties. This can potentially benefit horses with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and help offset daily wear and tear.

   - Reference: "Omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the effects on inflammation" published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.


3. Gut Health: The soluble fiber content in flaxseed can support gut health by promoting a healthy microbiome and possibly helping with issues like hindgut ulcers.

   - Reference: "The Effect of Milled Flaxseed on the Intestinal Microbiota and its Resistance to Salmonella Enteritidis PT4 Infection in Broilers" published in the Poultry Science Journal.


4. Laminitis and Insulin Sensitivity: Some studies suggest that flaxseed may be beneficial for horses with metabolic disorders, such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and Cushings disease.

   - Reference: Frank, N. "Equine metabolic syndrome" published in the *Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.


5. Protection against Oxidative Stress: Flaxseed contains compounds like lignans that have antioxidant properties, which can help combat oxidative stress in the body.  Oxidative stress breaks down tissues, increases toxic compounds in the bloodstream, and suppresses the immune system.

   - Reference: "Antioxidant properties of different edible flaxseed preparations" published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.

6. Reproductive Health: Omega-3 fatty acids might play a role in optimizing reproductive health in mares.

   - Reference: Harris, P. A., & Ellis, A. D. "Metabolic adaptations to the reproductive cycle of the mare" in Equine Nutrition and Training Conference proceedings.


One common myth in feeding flaxseed is that it must be ground prior to feeding.  Although husks may be occasionally seen in the manure, these are empty husks and the beneficial aspect of the seed has been absorbed.  As soon as flax is ground or processed in any way, the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids start to degrade and can even become rancid.  One of the keys to feeding flax is to feed enough.  Horses can digest up to 20 percent of their diet as fat.  The limiting factor to feeding fat in the diet is diarrhea.  If a particular horse does not digest fat well or if the fat content of the diet is increased too quickly, benign diarrhea will ensue.  This problem is easily remedied by decreasing the amount of fat and then slowly working up again.  I believe that most horses can benefit from a pound of whole flax seed, ideally split over 2 daily feedings.  Many people do not feed enough flax to make a significant benefit to the diet. As with any diet change, I do recommend working up to this amount slowly, over 14-21 days.  One added benefit that I have observed is the formation of slightly looser stool, which I believe may help to decrease the likelihood of intestinal impaction.