Camelina oil is commonly fed to horses as an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. It is used to support weight gain, joint health, coat quality and general well-being.
Camelina oil is extracted from the seeds of the camelina sativa plant, also known as false flax. It contains 35 – 40% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an essential omega-3 fatty acid.
Omega-3 fatty acids are generally recognized for their health-promoting properties in both humans and animals. They are considered anti-inflammatory because these fatty acids decrease activation of the immune system.
But is camelina oil the best source of omega-3’s for your horse? Not all omega-3 fats are created equal; ALA must first get converted into other fatty acids including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to be active in the horse’s body.
However, the overall conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is low in horses. Research shows that direct supplementation with EPA or DHA works better.
There have not been any research studies on camelina oil in horses to examine whether this supplement works. In this article, we will review the research available from other species as well as general research on omega-3 fatty acids to help you determine whether this supplement is appropriate for your horse.
Characteristics of Camelina Oil
Camelina oil is extracted from Camelina sativa oilseeds. This plant is a member of the Brassicaceae family which includes flax, mustard plants, and cabbage among others.
Camelina sativa is native to Northern Europe and Central Asia but is now commonly grown in Europe, Canada and the United States. It has been cultivated by humans for over 3,000 years, both as a food source and for use in oil lamps.
Camelina oil is high in unsaturated fatty acids with 38% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. ALA is the main omega-3 fatty acid found in plant oils. 
Vitamin E Content
Camelina oil also naturally contains vitamin E, which protects the fatty acids from oxidation and improves the shelf life of the product.
100 mL of camelina oil provides 150 IU of natural vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol).
This is higher than the amount found in flax oil and most other plant oils. It is one of the reasons why camelina oil is less susceptible to going rancid (peroxidation).
However, camelina still provides a relatively low amount of vitamin E. A typical 500 kg (1100 lb) horse should consume a minimum of 500 – 1000 IU per day to avoid deficiency, with optimal supplementation at levels between 2000 – 4000 IU per day.
Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil provides 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E per serving, sufficient to meet the needs of most horses. W-3 Oil also contains 1500 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
Below, we will discuss the advantages of supplementing with DHA compared to ALA from camelina oil.
Fatty Acid Profile
Health Canada provides the following breakdown of fatty acids in camelina oil. 
|Type of Fat||% of total fat|
|Oleic acid (omega-9)||16.7%|
|Linoleic acid (omega-6)||16.9%|
|Linolenic acid (omega-3)||38.1%|
Based on the above information, the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of camelina oil is 2.2:1. 
Other Active Ingredients
While camelina’s fatty acid profile is mostly ALA, the oil also contains other fatty acid molecules that may have health benefits.
Oxylipins are a large group of lipid mediators found in plants, animals and fungi. This group of molecules may be responsible for some of the beneficial health effects of flax.
Although the oxylipin response has not been investigated with camelina oil, it is possible that these lipid mediators elicit some of the health benefits of camelina. 
Health Benefits of Camelina Oil
There are no published research studies examining the effects of camelina oil in horses.
Most studies on camelina have been done in humans and rodent models. These have shown several promising benefits including:
- Cholesterol-lowering: 30 grams/day of camelina oil lowered LDL-c (the “bad” cholesterol) by 12% in adults with high cholesterol 
- Immune modulation: Diets containing camelina oil decreased inflammatory markers in humans 
- Decreases oxidative stress: In people with fatty liver disease, a weight loss program with camelina oil supplementation supported insulin sensitivity and decreased oxidative stress 
Although the above studies were conducted in humans, they support the notion that camelina oil has health benefits for specific target groups. Horses may also benefit from feeding camelina oil, but more research is required.
Should you Feed Camelina Oil to your Horse?
Many of the proposed benefits of camelina oil are attributed to the ALA content of the oil. Is camelina the best source of ALA?
As an ALA supplement for horses, flax oil is more cost-effective and provides a higher concentration of this fatty acid.
Camelina oil does have a longer shelf-life, but buying small quantities of ground flax and storing the product in the refrigerator will help you lower the cost of your horse’s feeding program while providing a better nutrient profile.
Feeding Oil to Horses
When deciding which source of oil to add to your horse’s feeding plan, the reasons for feeding oil will dictate the correct answer. For example, are you feeding oil to support weight gain or to address a specific health concern such as joint issues, skin problems, allergies or inflammation?
Oil supplements in general are a great way to add caloric density to the equine diet, particularly for hard keepers or performance horses that require more calories.
Feeding fats reduces reliance on grains and sugars – such as molasses – as energy sources. These high NSC feeds can lead to health issues such as gastric ulcers, hindgut acidosis and increased risk of laminitis.
To add calories to the diet, flax, rice bran, soybean and canola oil are common cost-effective options.
However, as will be discussed in detail below, using an oil high in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and/or EPA will support anti-inflammatory benefits for joint and respiratory health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Horses
Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body and must be supplied in the diet.
Fatty acids are used as energy sources in cells and to make other molecules. They are a dense source of calories to support exercise, growth and a variety of metabolic processes.
In mammals, fatty acids are found in all tissues within cholesterol, lipids and other fatty substances that make up structures of the cell including the cell membrane. They can be used for a variety of functions including primarily:
- To produce cellular energy (ATP)
- To supply precursors used to make other molecules, including hormones and other fatty acids
Omega-3, 6 & 9
Fatty acids also have other properties determined by their chemical structure, depending on the location of their first double bond within the molecule.
Omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond between their third and fourth carbon atoms. Omega-6’s have a double bond between their sixth and seventh carbon atom. Omega-9’s have a double bond between the ninth and tenth carbons.
You may have heard that omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. While this is largely true, it does not mean that omega-6’s should be completely avoided.
Inflammatory processes are important for fighting off infection and supporting tissue repair. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are needed at appropriate levels and ratios in the diet.
However, many equine diets – particularly high grain diets – contain too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3’s.
Optimal Omega-3:Omega-6 Ratio
What is the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the equine diet? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question as research in horses is limited.
Horses grazing on pasture naturally consume more omega-3’s than omega-6’s. A forage-based diet provides high quantities of ALA, with 55% of the crude fat in fresh grass and 18-35% of fat in hay consisting of ALA.
The fat content of forages is generally low, but because horses consume large amounts in a day, forage provides significant omega-3 fatty acids.
Horses consuming grains or complete feeds tend to have higher levels of omega-6’s in their diet. This imbalance could lead to pro-inflammatory processes in the body.
However, the optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in equine diets is still an active area of research and no ideal ratio has been established.
This ratio has been studied in many other species under different diets and conditions. In monogastric diets (i.e. humans and pigs), the ratio is generally between 1:4 to 1:10. 
Although this is the typical ratio in diets, it does not imply that this is the optimal ratio. The ideal ratio to achieve in the body through diet depends on the outcome desired, which tissue is of concern and the physiological state of the animal. 
Is the Ratio Important?
The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet is important when dealing with inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and respiratory issues.
However, increasing the ratio by adding more ALA to your horse’s diet in the form of camelina oil, may not support anti-inflammatory benefits. This is because ALA needs to be converted to EPA and DHA for benefits to occur.
Providing supplemental DHA and/or EPA directly is more effective than simply altering the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
You can get an estimate of the ALA, DHA, and EPA content of your horse’s diet by submitting their feeding program online for analysis with our feed formulation tool.
Fatty Acid Supplements
There are a variety of supplemental oils used in equine diets including camelina, flax, canola, soy, corn and fish oil.
All fat sources provide 9 kcal per gram. If your goal is solely to add calories to the diet, all oils are equivalent. However, they do not all have the same fatty acid profile or nutrient content.
When choosing an oil source, it is important to consider the diet as a whole, taking into account
- the absolute amounts of fatty acids
- the ratio of omega 3 to omega-6 fatty acids
- theform of omega-3 fatty acids
Below is a table of fatty acid sources in the equine diet, including absolute levels (grams per 100 grams of fatty acids) and ratios of fatty acids. 
|Grass Pasture||51g ALA (55% of fat)||17.1g||3:1|
|Ground flax||61g ALA||16.5g||3.7:1|
|Cereal grains (ex: whole oats)||1.5g ALA||33.7g||1:22.5|
|Camelina oil||38g ALA||17g||2.2:1|
|Flax oil||57g ALA||16g||3.6:1|
|Corn oil||1.1g ALA||55.2g||1:50.2|
|Canola oil||7.9g ALA||18.8g||1:2.4|
|Soy oil||7g ALA||54g||1:7.7|
|Fish oil||30.8g DHA & EPA||7.8g||3.9:1|
Horses on fresh pasture consume ample ALA and will likely not need an additional source of omega3s, such as ground flax. However, in wintertime when pasture is inaccessible, ground flax can serve as a suitable source of ALA. 
Note that horses fed diets high in cereal grains such as oats consume high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which should be balanced by an omega-3 fatty acid source.
ALA vs. EPA and DHA
Not all omega-3 fatty acids have the same effects in the body.
ALA found in camelina, flaxseed and other plant-based oils is actually an inactive precursor to other omega-3 fatty acids, namely docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
DHA and EPA are active forms of omega-3’s and the anti-inflammatory benefits attributed to diets high in omega-3’s are linked specifically to the activity of DHA and EPA in the body.
In order for ALA to promote an anti-inflammatory effect, it must first be converted to EPA or DHA. However, the overall conversion rate is low in mammals.
Conversion of ALA
ALA is converted to EPA by a series of three enzymatic reactions that involve elongation and desaturation of the molecule. An additional four steps are required to make DHA. The enzymes that carry out these steps also convert omega-6 fatty acids to pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid.
The overall conversion of ALA to EPA has been estimated at around 10% and conversion to DHA has been estimated at less than 0.1%.  This means that only a small amount of dietary ALA is converted into an active form of omega-3.
This research has been conducted in several species including humans, mice, rats and non-human primates all of which show similarly low rates of conversion. 
Research in horses also shows that feeding ALA does not increase levels of DHA and EPA in the blood. In horses fed equal amounts of fatty acids from flaxseed (high in ALA) or fish oil (high in DHA and EPA), only fish oil increased blood DHA and EPA content. 
Therefore, to increase levels of DHA in tissue and support anti-inflammatory benefits, it is best to provide EPA and DHA directly.
Plant-based oils do not naturally contain DHA or EPA. Only marine sources, such as fish oil and microalgae provide these active forms of omega-3’s.
Fish oil is used in some equine supplements but is often unpalatable to horses due to its unique smell and taste. However, microalgal DHA is palatable and is also a more environmentally sustainable source of DHA compared to fish oil.
This is the source of omega-3 fatty acid that we use in Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil.
Fatty Acid Research in Horses
In the following section, we will discuss results in equine research studies on different sources of fatty acids. Where appropriate, inferences will be made from research in other species.
In general, camelina oil and other plant-based oils that contain ALA have not been extensively studied in horses. There is more research data on EPA and DHA from algal sources as well as fish oil.
One of the main reasons why horse owners feed camelina oil is its effects on skin, hair and coat quality. However, this is not unique to camelina oil; benefits for coat quality will be observed with sufficient fatty acid supplementation in general.
Skin is the largest organ in mammals and serves as an important barrier against the external environment.
Sebum is a complex mixture of fats and cholesterol that is produced by sebaceous glands in the skin. Sebum provides an oily layer that coats the skin and hair and makes the horse’s coat gleam.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for supporting sebum production, providing defences against irritants and supporting a healthy coat appearance.
The overall ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet has been shown to affect skin health. Horses consuming diets higher in omega-3’s had higher coat quality scores with a smooth, glossy appearance.
In contrast, horses consuming diets high in grains with elevated levels of omega-6 fatty acids had lower coat quality scores. 
The extent of allergic responses to common triggers like Culcoides, a type of biting midge, might also be influenced by the omega-3 content of the diet.
In a small study of six horses, three horses fed ground flax reacted less to Culicoides compared to three horses fed bran. 
Other studies have found conflicting results. In a study that compared flax oil to corn oil, there was no difference in reaction to Culicoides.  A similar study comparing fish oil to coconut oil showed no difference in seasonal itchy skin known as pruritus. 
Many joint health studies involving fatty acids are performed in vitro by applying treatments to cells isolated from joints.
Using these methods, several compounds have shown anti-inflammatory benefits. But it cannot be known from these studies whether these effects will translate to therapeutic benefits in animals.
In one study, fresh cartilage biopsies known as synovial explants were treated with seven different levels of ALA and then challenged with lipopolysaccharide to induce inflammation. Only the highest level of ALA inhibited the inflammatory response. 
Studies in Healthy Horses
A study comparing 90 days of dietary supplementation of flax (high in ALA) to marine-derived sources of omega-3 fatty acids (containing EPA and DHA) in mature mares found that only direct supplementation with DHA and EPA increased the levels of these fatty acids in joint synovial fluid.
In fact, horses supplemented with flax had no detectable levels of EPA or DHA in their blood or joints. Levels of the pro-inflammatory prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) tended to be lower with supplementation of marine-derived sources of oil, supporting a potential anti-inflammatory benefit. 
In a continuation of this study, on the 91st-day horses were challenged with an injection of IL-1B into the joint to trigger an inflammatory response. Samples of joint fluid were collected over a 48 hour period.
Although no differences were found in PGE2, the expression of a key gene involved in breaking down cartilage was lower in the horses fed DHA and EPA.  A longer observation period may reveal differences in indicators of joint damage.
The above studies were conducted in healthy horses with no signs of arthritis or impaired joint function.
Studies in Athritic Horses
Studies on the benefit of a supplement for joint health are more relevant when they use horses that suffer from joint issues.
In arthritic horses, feeding DHA resulted in a decrease of inflammatory compounds in arthritic joints. Horses fed DHA exhibited decreased levels of immune cells in joint synovial fluid – an indicator of inflammation – and decreased blood (plasma) PGE2.
The overall omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in the horses fed DHA was 1:5 compared to 1:11 in the control group. This data shows that horses with arthritis could benefit from supplemental DHA to decrease inflammation in the joints.
After 90 days of supplementation, there was a tendency for increased weight placement on the arthritic limbs in horses fed DHA, which indicates an increase in joint comfort. 
In a separate study, supplementation with fish oil improved trot stride length compared to supplementation with corn oil. This suggests improved comfort for arthritic horses fed fish oil. 
Recurrent airway obstruction (RAO or heaves) and inflammatory airway disease (IAD) are chronic inflammatory diseases in horses, similar to asthma in humans.
Horses affected by these conditions may experience chronic cough, excess mucous production and poor performance. A low-dust diet and environment are important for supporting these horses.
Supplementation with DHA can also provide anti-inflammatory benefits to support respiratory health.
In horses with RAO, supplementation with 1.5 to 3 g of DHA decreased the number of neutrophils (immune cells) in lung fluid and improved coughing scores as well as measures of respiratory effort. These benefits were observed after 2 months of supplementation. 
In another study, the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio was altered using sunflower oil – a source of omega-6 fatty acids – or seal blubber oil – high in the omega-3 fatty acid docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). Horses showed no change in symptoms when following an altered diet.
However, supplementation with omega-3 rich seal blubber oil decreased the number of leukocytes (white blood cells) in lung fluid.  This suggests that supplementation controlled the immune response in the lungs.
In another study, healthy horses fed fish oil exhibited decreased proinflammatory PGE2 levels compared to horses fed corn oil. 
The studies mentioned here demonstrate that direct supplementation with DHA and EPA have a beneficial impact on markers of respiratory inflammation in horses.
To our knowledge, there have not been any studies directly accessing the effects of camelina oil on respiratory health in horses.
Equine exercise performance is determined by a variety of factors including diet, training, genetics, respiratory, muscle and cardiovascular fitness.
Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s recovery process following exercise and plays a role in the adaptive response to training. While inflammation mediates tissue repair post-exercise, excess inflammation can impair performance.
Three studies have shown that fish oil supplementation alters the metabolic response to exercise and may support performance.
In two studies, eventing horses were supplemented with fish oil for 21 or 28 days and ratios of omega-3:omega-6 fatty acids in blood were improved.
The horses also experienced improved oxidative balance and decreased exercise-induced reductions in red blood cell membrane fluidity. Membrane fluidity of red blood cells is relevant to exercise because it can influence heart rate.
In the supplemented group, membrane fluidity decreased after exercise, possibly because of oxidation of membrane lipids. This effect was not seen in fish oil supplemented horses. 
In another study, 63 days of fish oil supplementation in training Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds reduced heart rate compared to horses given corn oil.
Horses fed fish oil also had lower cholesterol and improvements in insulin sensitivity. 
There are no published studies evaluating the benefits of camelina oil in horses. Some studies use flax oil which is similar, but actually contains higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA.
Furthermore, the ALA found in camelina oil is an inactive form of omega-3, which must first get converted into DHA and EPA to promote anti-inflammatory effects.
Because the enzymatic conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is very low in horses, direct supplementation with these fatty acids is preferable for supporting joint health, respiratory function and normalization of inflammatory responses.
Fish oil is a great source of DHA and EPA, but it is not palatable for all horses. Microalgal DHA is a suitable alternative that does not have a fishy smell and is more palatable.
Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is formulated with 1500 mg of microalgal DHA and 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E per 100 ml serving.
W-3 Oil also costs 20-50% less to feed per day compared to an equivalent amount of camelina oil.
The recommended amount to feed depends on the goals of your feeding program and the calorie needs of your horse. You can consult with our equine nutritionists for free to help formulate the best feeding plan for your horse.
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