Coconut oil: A new age in feeding oil to horses

Coconut oil: A new age in feeding oil to horses

While the benefits of feeding fats and oils to horses are now widely recognised, a thorough review of the literature will show that saturated oils such as coconut oil are more effective at exerting a positive influence on the horse than the unsaturated oils.

Until now, saturated fats have only been available in the unpalatable, unpractical form of animal fat (tallow), and as a result have been virtually ignored in the diet of horses, meaning many of the benefits available from high fat diets have not been achieved.  Coconut oil, a saturated tropical oil, is now available in a user friendly form.

Why Feed Fats and Oils?
Working and breeding horses held in intensive environments have energy requirements higher than that which can be satisfied with pasture or hay alone. Cereal grains, though not a part of the horses natural diet, nor well digested by the horse, have traditionally been used to meet these raised energy requirements as they were a cheap and readily available commodity. Cereal grains are known to have several negative impacts on equine health that negatively affect performance.

In contrast to cereal grains, some oils are documented as being a safe, well digested and readily utilised source of energy for horses. Oils can be used to assist in meeting the energy requirements of working and breeding horses. The use of oils reduces the reliance on cereal grains in the diet and thus reduces the negative impact grain can have on equine health. In addition to being a safer source of energy for horses, oil supplementation may impart additional benefits, including:

  1. Increased muscle glycogen storage capacity and reduced reliance on glycogen for energy generation during exercise, which combine to prolong time to muscle fatigue.
  2. Reduced heat generation during digestion and metabolism, which decreases the amount of heat a horse needs to dissipate via sweating. This goes some way to preventing dehydration and electrolyte depletion.
  3. Oils are energy dense. The high energy density of oil means that smaller meals will meet a horse's energy requirement. One of the most commonly encountered problems for horses in heavy work is that they go off their feed or only have the capacity to eat small meals, thus the use of energy dense feeds for these horses becomes a crucial management practice to ensure their requirement for energy is met.
  4. Oils are thought to provide energy that does not affect behaviour to the same extent that energy from cereal grains negatively affects behaviour in some horses.

Are all oils equal?

Saturation, and rancidity.  Not all oils are the same. Some such as soybean, maize, canola, flax seed are unsaturated, and are absorbed through the intestines, and transported slowly through the lymphatics to the liver.  These oils are prone to rancidity.  By comparison, the tropical oils such as coconut oil are saturated, they do not go rancid, and they are absorbed directly into the portal blood and transported directly to the liver. Further, coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCT), which have unique properties in preserving gut health.

Oil and glycogen. While all oils share similar properties when it comes to energy content, their ability to influence muscle glycogen storage in the horse appears to be affected by oil type. Scientific studies designed to investigate the effects of oil supplementation on resting muscle glycogen storage and glycogen utilisation during high intensity exercise have returned conflicting results. Studies utilising saturated animal fats have shown increases in both parameters, whilst studies utilising the unsaturated corn and soybean oils have generally shown no change or a decrease in muscle glycogen storage and utilisation. Thus it appears that in order to have a positive influence on muscle glycogen parameters, saturated fats or oils must be fed.

Saturated animal fats, whilst having a positive effect on muscle glycogen present a number of difficulties, including; they are solid at room temperature making them difficult to handle; horses generally find them unpalatable; and they may infringe 'restricted animal material' regulations in stockfeed. Thus in order to influence muscle glycogen storage capacity in the horse an alternative saturated fat must be found. Coconut oil, which contains more than 90% saturated fat, presents the horse industry with a safe, clean and palatable alternative that may provide performance benefits over and above those that can be provided by the traditionally utilised vegetable oils.

The Benefits of Coconut Oil?
Aside from presenting the horse industry with an attractive alternative to animal fat as a source of saturated fatty acids, coconut oil has other unique properties including:

  • It is stable and resistant to rancidity. Because of its saturated structure, coconut oil can be stored for long periods of time without risk of rancidity. Rancid oils reduce the palatability of a feed, interfere with the utilization of fat soluble vitamins and may cause damage to muscle and organ tissue if consumed.
  • Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids that are easier to digest, absorb and utilize in comparison to the long-chain fatty acids found in other oils such as maize, soy, canola and rice-bran oil. Medium chain fatty acids appear to behave more like glucose than fat in the body and are preferentially oxidized to generate energy over long-chain fatty acids, meaning coconut oil provides a ready source of energy for use during exercise.
  • Coconut oil may have performance benefits. A study by Pagan et al (1993) found that horses supplemented with coconut oil versus soybean oil had lower blood lactate and ammonia and higher free fatty acids than a control group of horses who were not supplemented with fat during the gallop and the warm down phase of a standardized exercise test. These effects may have a positive influence on performance. In addition, a study by Matsumoto (1995) found that mice supplemented with medium chain fatty acids took longer to reach a state of exhaustion whilst swimming than unsupplemented mice.

Which horses is Coconut oil suitable for?

Coconut oil can be utilised for:

  • Horses competing in short duration (thoroughbred racing, show jumping, dressage) or long duration (endurance, polo, trotting/pacing) events to provide energy and enhance muscle glycogen storage.
  • Horses needing to gain weight
  • Finicky eaters or horses with a poor appetite
  • Horses with Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis (tying up)
  • Horses that don't cope well with grain in their diet.
  • Horses whose behaviour is affected by grain in the diet.
  • Horses in show or sale preparation
  • Aged horses
  • Pony club horses

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