This is not my typical blog post, but, I felt it was worth writing.
Horses have always been my passion and a part of my life. Since a very young age, I have either ridden, owned or shared horses. Now, I have two beautiful babies with me that are the crux of my life and keep me busy. With my children grown and one out of the house, the other going soon, I’m glad that I have something important to focus on (although I’d really love a job – digressing). One is my trusted, old boy who has been with me for many, many years, through all the ups and downs, divorce, the almost dying thing and everything in between and the other is my six-year-old mare that I am hoping will go all the way one day and she is more or less my job for the time being.
Horse ownership is never easy and always expensive, it is a constant wave of ups and downs and we never, ever stop learning. If you think you know everything, then horses are not for you!
When my mare had a long, five-day journey in January, her mane and tail suffered badly with severe breakage. For months I carefully applied products to both and plaited her tail every night in the hopes that it would recover. After finally deciding to stick to all natural products, I started using pure coconut oil from the health food section and almond oil on both and it seemed to help a lot, but as soon as I stopped, her tail would break again. So, more research and reaching out was necessary. She’s got a great mane now, by the way. My older boy has a gorgeous tail, but a crappy mane, go figure!
Fast forward to the next problem, mud fever in my mare’s hind legs on her beautiful white socks! Back to the products in the tack shops and online shopping I went, applying daily for a couple of months, one seemed to make it better, but still not perfect. Then, I saw that linseed may actually be the thing that will help this and her tail woes. Do I use it topically or do I feed it to her? Well, both can be done, so I’m told. That brought me to embark on doing a lot of research on this little golden seed. I was surprised to find so much information out there and now here’s the information all in one handy place, albeit, some of it is a bit technical, so if you’d like, you can stick to the last few paragraphs and skip all the technical jargon, however, I do suggest you understand it and try and muddle through the boring bits. I am still in the early stages of giving her (and likely the boy) the linseed, so an update will follow in a couple of months to let you know how successful, if at all, the results will be. Maybe this blog post is premature, but I found it just fascinating stuff so really wanted to share what I’ve learned.
My research did bring about some conflicting opinions, but read on for the surprising overwhelming opinion of vets and equine professionals around the globe when it comes to the almighty linseed!
What is Linseed
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, linseed is defined as the seeds of the flax plant, which are the source of linseed oil and linseed cake. Not very exciting or impressive. But, it’s like a little magical seed that does wonders for a horse’s health when included in its every day diet.
From the Web MD archives:
Some call it one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. In humans, there is some evidence it may help reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. That’s quite a big ask for such a tiny seed that’s been around for centuries.
Linseed (or Flaxseed as it is known in the US and Canada) was cultivated in Babylon as early as 3000 BC. In the 8th century, King Charlemagne believed so strongly in the health benefits of linseed that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume it. Now, thirteen centuries later, some experts say we have preliminary research to back up what Charlemagne suspected.
With linseed containing lots of healthy stuff in them, the three most important elements are:
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids, “good” fats that have been shown to have heart-healthy effects. Each tablespoon of ground linseed contains about 1.8 grams of plant omega-3s.
- Lignans, which have both plant eostrogen and antioxidant qualities. Linseed contains 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
- Fiber. Linseed contains both the soluble and insoluble types.
For these reasons, the leap from human consumption to agricultural consumption has risen over the last decade and is not only used for feeding horses, it also is fed to those big, fat chickens that lay the glorious organic golden eggs that we all enjoy so much.
How Does Linseed Help In A Horse’s Diet
The only natural source of omega-3’s in the equine diet is fresh grass. As linseed is very high in omega-3 fatty acids, it enhances overall health in horses. So, if your horse doesn’t have access to good quality, fresh grass or, like mine, are competition horses where grazing in fields is infrequent for fear of risk of injury (most accidents actually occur in the fields), this is a definite must have on your list of additives to your feed.
There are two classes of fatty acids (the building blocks of fats) that must be in the diet, omega-3 and omega-6. Both are essential for peak immune function and the omega-3s contribute to normal homeostatic balancing of inflammatory reactions. Whole linseed are 30+% fat with the same high omega-3 profile as fresh grass. Omega-3s also support vision, the nervous system, development of young animals and keep all the cells’ membranes pliable.
There is a considerable body of literature detailing investigations into the rationale behind the use of essential fatty acids (EFAs) in the prevention and treatment of recurrent seasonal pruritus in other animals (6,7,8,9). Essential fatty acids can be classified as either “omega-6” or “omega-3”, and each class has a distinct and important biochemical role within the body. These compounds are not inter-convertible in mammals and are important components of all cell membranes. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the parent omega-3 fatty acid, is now widely recognized as an EFA. This is of increasing clinical interest as a precursor to the longer omega-3 chains, in addition to other hormone-like substances involved in many important biological functions in the body. Unlike cellular proteins, which are genetically determined, the EFA composition of cell membranes is exclusively dependent on dietary intake. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the metabolism of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are unique, and they have distinct eicosanoid consequences. Eicosanoids; particularly the series-2 prostaglandins (PGE2, PGI2), thromoboxanes (TXA2), and the inflammatory leukotrienes (LTB4, LTE4), are intimately involved in the inflammatory process and are implicated in the severity of allergic dermatitis (1,10,11). The unique metabolic pathway of ALA suggests that increasing its concentration in the diet may improve the clinical manifestation of the inflammatory dermatitis associated with sweet itch.
Flaxseed is one of the highest natural vegetable sources of ALA (12); and also contains phytoestrogens (lignans), flavonoids, and a complex array of amino acids and minerals (13). Flaxseed is a common additive to many equine diets; often for the purpose of improving skin and hair-coat quality, despite the fact that current research suggests the practice has little academic validity (14). The purpose of this study was to quantify the effect of crushed flaxseed supplementation on the skin test response of atopic horses. ¹
Are you still with me here? Good, keep reading.
With about 25% protein, linseed is also an excellent protein supplement with some key specific benefits. It is a good source of the most commonly deficient amino acid, lysine, (building block of protein. It’s also a very good source of methionine,an essential amino acid that be can converted to cystine by the body. Cystine is useful in healthy collagen, assisting with strong hoof infrastructure (hoof, skin, hair, ligaments, tendons and cartilage).
It can help reduce inflammation, which can relieve symptoms associated with sweet itch and other skin conditions. It can also alleviate symptoms of allergies.
Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it can also assist in some cases of arthritis or joint stiffness.
Wait, there’s more? Yes, it also boosts the immune system and can help regulate thyroid function, making it an ideal supplement for metabolic horses as well as ageing horses.
Seriously, is there anything that this little seed can’t do? Well, it can’t make a cup of coffee, but it does do just about everything else for horses and humans alike.
Soak, Boil, or Grind: Those are the Questions
Previous schools of thought were to soak the linseed to reduce the risk of cyanide poisoning. This, however, cannot be FURTHER from the truth. As the seed is made up of two components that do not come into contact with one another unless you soak them, it is wise to avoid this method.
Boiling the linseed actually REMOVES the beneficial parts of the seeds, leaving it nutritionally ineffective. As noted in the 2002 Canadian Study, Reference 1, it states that flaxseed contains compounds called cyanogenic glycosides. When the flax seeds are chewed up by a horse these cyanogenic glycosides come into contact with an enzyme (β‐glycosidase) which converts it to hydrogen cyanide, which can then lead to cyanide poisoning. HOWEVER, the β‐glycosidase enzyme is destroyed by the acidic environment of the horse’s gastric stomach, meaning the cyanide is never produced in quantities large enough to cause any problems. This means effectively, that whilst the horse may create a cyanogenic glycoside when chewing it, the stomach acids quickly sort that out, making it safe to eat the ground seed. So the winner is GRIND!
You should grind shortly before you feed it to your horse as there is evidence that the ground seeds when combined with oxygen or light, they lose their nutritional value quickly and the longer it’s left out, the more it loses and eventually becomes rancid, leading to the toxicity of the seeds. Cleaning the grinder after every grind is also important as the seeds can become stuck in the grinder, again, leading to rancidity.
Grinding daily seems to be a lot of work, especially when one might not be there every day at feeding time, so it is possible to grind a week’s worth and freeze, however, you will lose some nutritional value if you do this. Again, it’s about how the seeds interact with light and oxygen and how quickly they lose their nutritional value. If you want the highest nutritional value for your horse, then you’ll have to be there for the daily grind. You can find some shops that sell stabilised, prepared, ground linseed, however, it is more expensive and therefore it depends on your budget and your availability to be with your horse during feeding time. If you do use your own or buy them already ground, make sure that they are of a nice golden colour.
Feeding whole linseed is SAFE, but my research indicates that it is not as effective. Some say that the horse cannot digest the seeds whole, so it will just end up coming out the other end and lose the nutritional value you’re seeking. I’ve read enough information on this to agree that whilst some of the seeds are broken down in the digestive tract of the horse, but the majority of them just end up in the muck pile.
You should not feed more than one cup of linseed per day.
Potential Side Effects
Linseed contains phytoestrogens, as noted above, and as changes in a horse’s eostrogen levels can affect fertility, it’s best to avoid feeding to a mare that you are trying to breed. If you are having any problems with fertility and feeding linseed or flax seeds, then it’s wise to stop this an additive to their diet.
Final Thoughts on Linseed
Aside from the daily grind issues, it sounds like it’s an absolute winner!
I am going to give linseed a go and see if it helps clear up my mare’s skin issue and potentially help her tail growth along with just good health, in general and my older boy’s joints could benefit from this as well. The fact that both my horses live mostly indoors, I suspect they are both lacking in the important Omega 3 fatty protein that they need for better health. So, here’s to starting the daily grind or maybe I’ll buy the stabilised, pre-ground seeds as they are both at a yard where someone else does the feeding.
I hope that I’ve put together a helpful piece for you, drawing on the resources I could find and, although not my typical kind of post, it won’t be the last of this type. Nutrition for my horses as with myself has become somewhat of a new hobby for me. So, until next time.
As always, thanks for stopping by and Cheers!
Oxford English Dictionary
¹ 2002. Canadian Journal of Veterinary Medicine. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. References as cited above: