Canola oil is a calorie-dense fat commonly used in the equine diet to promote weight gain and help maintain body condition. [2]

This oil provides cool energy for performance horses and can replace grain-based feeds in your horse’s ration to support metabolic health. [1] Feeding fat also improves coat quality and can support gut health.

Compared to other oils, canola oil is relatively affordable and widely available. However, some horse owners might not want to feed this oil due to its fatty acid profile.

Canola oil is primarily comprised of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and contains more than twice the amount of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids. [3]

The balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is important because omega-3s are converted into anti-inflammatory molecules, whereas omega-6s are converted primarily into pro-inflammatory compounds.

Characteristics of Canola Oil

Canola is a plant crop that belongs to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). [3] Widely grown in Canada, Europe, Australia, and some parts of the United States, canola is used for animal feeds, biofuel production, and the food industry. [3]

The most common canola plant species grown in Canada include Brassica napus, Brassica rapa, and Brassica juncea. [3]

Canola plants produce flowers that develop into pod-like structures with seeds containing 45% oil and high in protein. Oil derived from canola is lower in trans fat and saturated fat than some other vegetable oils. [3]

Extraction

Commercial canola oil is produced by crushing the seeds of the plant and extracting the oil. The seeds can be cold-pressed or treated with heat and a solvent (hexane) to release more oil.

Further refining of the oil produces a clear, neutral-tasting, and shelf-stable oil. Refined canola oil is stable for approximately one year when stored at room temperature.

Canola meal is the byproduct that remains following extraction of the oil from the deeds. Canola meal is a cost-effective, high-protein feed for horses.

Canola vs. Rapeseed

Canola plants are not the same as rapeseed plants. Although bred from rapeseed plants, canola plants contain less than 2% erucic acid and under 30 micromoles of glucosinolates per gram of canola meal (air-dried and oil-free). [3]

High intake of glucosinolates has been associated with negative health effects such as reduced feed intake, liver damage, and impaired thyroid and reproductive function in other species. [15]

Due to the lower glucosinolate content, canola should be fed to livestock rather than rapeseed.

Canola Oil Nutritional Composition

In addition to canola oil, several supplemental oils are commonly used in equine diets, including camelina, flax, soy, corn, fish and rice bran.

Although every oil provides the same energy per gram serving, each has a different fatty acid profile that can influence the horse’s health.

Fatty Acid Profile of Canola Oil

Fatty acids are generally classified as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Saturated fats have no double bonds in their structure, whereas monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond and polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more.

When fatty acids are incorporated into structures of cells in the animal, the number of double bonds influences membrane fluidity, responses to hormones and other signals, and metabolic function. Saturated fats are generally considered less healthful than mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.

Canola oil is comprised of approximately: [3]

  • 67% Monounsaturated fatty acids
  • 23% Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • 7% Saturated fatty acids

Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Unsaturated fatty acids present in canola oil include: [3]

  • Oleic acid – 65% (an omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid)
  • Linoleic acid – 16% (an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid)
  • Alpha-Linolenic acid – 7% (an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid)

The fatty acid composition of canola oil is determined by plant genetics and can be modified to suit desired uses. [3] Canola plants have been bred with various linolenic, oleic, lauric, stearic, palmitic, and gamma-linolenic acid contents. [3]

Digestible Energy

Like all pure fats, canola oil provides roughly 9.5 megacalories (mcal) of energy per kg of dry matter (DM).

A 120 ml (4 oz) serving of canola oil will provide 1.13 mcal of digestible energy. To put that into context, a mature horse at maintenance requires 16.65 mcal of digestible energy per day.

Vitamin E

Canola oil is a source of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), an important antioxidant nutrient. The oil contains approximately 1 mg per tablespoon (standard oil). [3]

However, refining canola oil reduces the vitamin E content. This results in negligible levels of vitamin E in most commercially available sources of canola oil. [16]

Benefits of Canola Oil for Horses

There is limited research on the health effects of canola oil in horses, but there is research examining the benefits of using fats in the equine diet.

Diets containing fat support metabolic processes that influence skin & coat quality, metabolic health, cardiovascular function, and inflammation. [7][8][9][10]

Research in humans suggests canola oil can reduce blood cholesterol and improve insulin sensitivity compared to oils that are higher in saturated fat. [6]

When comparing canola oil to camelina or flax oil in healthy horses, a recent study found no difference in skin & coat quality or markers of inflammation or oxidative stress between the three oils. [17]

Below are some of the benefits observed when feeding fat supplements to horses.

Cool Calories

Canola oil can be added to equine diets to increase calories without promoting hindgut issues. In horses adapted to dietary fat, oils are easily digested and absorbed in the small intestine without reaching the hindgut.

Unlike high-grain diets, high-fat diets do not increase the risk of hindgut acidosis, colic, and right dorsal colitis.

Providing calories as fat rather than starch and sugar can also reduce excitability in horses, making them less “hot”. [18]

Digestion of fat in the gut produces less heat than carbohydrate or protein digestion. Therefore, fat is a source of cool calories for exercising horses and those in hot climates. [2]

Cost-Effective

Canola oil is widely available at a low cost. It typically costs less than other commonly fed oils such as fish oil, flax oil and camelina oil.

Sugar-Free

Canola oil provides a source of calories free of sugar and starch. Feeding oil does not increase blood sugar or insulin levels. [19]

This makes fat suitable to feed to underweight horses with insulin resistance, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), or Cushing’s/PPID.

Note that if your horse is overweight or an easy keeper, feeding excess oil can lead to obesity, which will impact metabolic health.

How to Feed Canola Oil

If your horse cannot maintain a healthy body condition on forage alone, a dense source of calories such as a fat supplement can help.

All pure fats provide approximately 9 kilocalories of energy per gram. This means feeding 30 mL (1 oz) of canola oil will supply 270 kcal of energy.

To calculate how much canola oil to add to their diet, you will need to determine your horse’s energy requirements, body condition and how much digestible energy their current diet provides.

Energy Requirements

Equine energy requirements are determined based on body weight and workload. A typical non-exercising adult horse requires 16,600 kilocalories (16.6 mcal) per day. [28]

Exercising horses have higher requirements. A typical mature horse in heavy exercise requires 26,640 kilocalories (26.64 mcal) per day. [28]

Monitor your horse’s body condition to determine whether they are currently meeting their energy requirement and track changes in condition over time.

A Henneke body condition score of 4 or lower is considered underweight and indicates the horse needs more calories in their diet.

A body condition score greater than 6 indicates the horse is overweight. Added calories may not be required because energy needs can be partially met by stored body fat.

Digestible Energy

You can determine the energy content of your horse’s current diet by adding up the calories supplied by their forage and any commercial feeds or concentrates.

Use Mad Barn’s equine diet analysis tool and our nutritionists can help you calculate how much energy your horse is currently consuming.

Legume hays and immature forages tend to have higher digestible energy levels compared to grass hays or mature forages. A forage analysis will tell you how much energy is supplied by hay or pasture.

Adding Fat to the Diet

Oil should be introduced to your horse’s diet slowly to avoid digestive upset and allow the gut to adapt. Enzyme and bile production increase on a high-fat diet to enable the digestion and absorption of fatty acids.

Start by feeding 1 oz (30 ml) and increase gradually by 0.5 oz (15 ml) every 3-4 days until you reach the desired feeding rate.

Divide the total amount of oil into multiple meals to avoid feeding large doses of fat at once.

Top-dressing or mixing oil with a carrier can improve palatability. Popular carriers for fat supplements include forage cubes/pellets, beet pulp, rice bran or other mashes.

For most horses, fat should not exceed 8% of the dry matter content of the diet. However, horses in heavy work can tolerate up to 20% of their digestible energy provided as fat. [12]

Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio

Canola oil has an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of approximately 1:2. This makes it better than corn oil (1:59 ratio) and rice bran oil (1:19 ratio), but less ideal than flax oil (4:1 ratio). [11][20]

Omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the horse’s body and must be supplied in the diet. [5] Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6s are pro-inflammatory.

Both types of fatty acids are important for functions in the body, but diets that contain excessive omega-6s and not enough omega-3s may be associated with certain health problems.

Although the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the equine is unknown, horses grazing on pasture naturally ingest a higher amount of omega-3 than omega-6.

Studies in other monogastric animals (humans and pigs) have found an optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 between 1:4 to 1:10. [4][5]

Benefits of Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids provide anti-inflammatory benefits and support skin, joint, respiratory and metabolic health.

If your horse has a health concern such as laminitis, skin problems, srthritis, ostechondritis dissecans, allergies, equine asthma, or other conditions involving inflammation, feeding a diet high in omega-3s may help. [10][21][22][23][24][25][26][27]

Horses on pasture generally have adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids. However, horses on grain-based feeds may consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. [13]

Not All Omega-3s are Equal

It is a common misconception that all forms of omega-3 fatty acids have the same effects on the horse’s body.

However, the benefits typically associated with omega-3s are only observed when feeding docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are found in marine sources, such as fish oil and microalgae.

The main omega-3 found in plants is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA must first be converted into DHA and EPA to have anti-inflammatory effects on the horse’s body. [4][5]

The overall conversion rate of ALA to EPA or DHA is low in mammals. It is estimated that approximately 10% of ALA is converted to EPA and less than 0.1% is converted to DHA. [14]

For this reason, it is more effective to provide EPA and DHA in the diet directly rather than feeding plant-based oils to promote omega-3 benefits.

Mad Barn’s w-3 oil is a fat supplement that contains 1,500 mg of microalgal DHA and 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E per serving. This is a more palatable and environmentally sustainable source of DHA for horses.

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  • Promotes joint comfort
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Summary

Canola oil is a cost-effective fat source to increase the caloric density of your horse’s diet. Whether or not you should feed canola oil to your horse depends on their individual needs, activity level and body condition.

Hard keepers and horses in demanding exercise programs such as endurance or racing can benefit from additional calories provided by canola oil.

However, canola oil does contain a higher proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Some horses may benefit more from fat supplements that provide omega-3 fats, such as EPA and DHA.

Work with an equine nutritionist to help you formulate a balanced feeding program for your horse. You can book a free nutrition consultation online.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Geelen, SN. Et al. [Supplemental fat in the diet of horses…is it advantageous?]. Tijdschrift Voor Diergeneeskunde. 2001.
  2. Feeding fat (oil) to horses. Iowa State University Agriculture and Natural Resources. Accessed 12/08/22.
  3. Dunford, N. Canola Oil Properties. Oklahoma State University. Accessed 09/12/22.
  4. Barcelo-Coblijn, G. and Murphy, E.J. Alpha-linolenic acid and its conversion to longer chain n-3 fatty acids: Benefits for human health and a role in maintaining tissue n-3 fatty acid levels. Prog Lipid Res. 2009.
  5. Sinclair, A.J. et al. What is the role of alpha-linolenic acid for mammals?. Lipids. 2002.
  6. Lin, L. et al. Evidence of health benefits of canola oil. Nutr Rev. 2013.
  7. Goh, Y.M. et al. Plasma n-3 and n-6 fatty acid profiles and their correlations to hair coat scores in horses kept under malaysian conditions. J Vet Malaysia. 2004.
  8. O’Neill, W. et al. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. Can J Vet Res. 2002.
  9. Munsterman, A.S. et al. Effects of the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, on lipopolysaccharide-challenged synovial explants from horses. Am J Vet Res. 2005.
  10. Nogradi, N. et al. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation provides an additional benefit to a low-dust diet in the management of horses with chronic lower airway inflammatory disease. J Vet Intern Med. 2015.
  11. Allegretti, C. Valorization of Corn Seed Oil Acid Degumming Waste for Phospholipids Preparation by Phospholipase D-Mediated Processes. Catalysts. 2020.
  12. Geor, R.J. and Harris, P.A. Nutrition for the equine athlete: above and beyond nutrients alone. In: Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery. Saunders.2014.
  13. Mowry, K.C. et al. Effects of Crude Rice Bran Oil and a Flaxseed Oil Blend in Young Horses Engaged in a Training Program. Animals. 2022.
  14. Willams, C.M. and Burdge, G. Long-chain n-3 PUFA: plant v. marine sources. Proc Nutr Soc. 2007.
  15. Bischoff, K. Glucosinolates and Organosulfur Compounds. In: Gupta, R., Srivastava, A., Lall, R. (eds) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer. 2019.
  16. Saleem, M. and Ahmad, N. Characterization of canola oil extracted by different methods using fluorescence spectroscopy. PLoS One. 2018.
  17. Richards, T.L. and Shoveller, A.K. Effects of dietary camelina, flaxseed, and canola oil supplementation on inflammatory and oxidative markers, transepidermal water loss, and skin and coat health parameters in healthy adult dogs and horses. University of Guelph. 2022.
  18. Fat diet reduces stress and intensity of startle reaction in horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2009.
  19. Wilson, A. D. et al. The effects of diet on blood glucose, insulin, gastrin and the serum tryptophan: Large neutral amino acid ratio in foals. Vet J. 2007.
  20. USDA FoodData Central . Accessed November 2021.
  21. Manhart, D.R. et al. Markers of Inflammation in Arthritic Horses Fed Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Prof Anim Sci. 2009.
  22. Ross-Jones, T. et al. Effects of Omega-3 Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation on Equine Synovial Fluid Fatty Acid Composition and Prostaglandin E2. J Equine Vet Sci. 2014.
  23. Ross-Jones, T. et al. Influence of an n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid-enriched diet on experimentally induced synovitis in horses. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2016.
  24. Khol-Parisini, A. et al. Effects of feeding sunflower oil or seal blubber oil to horses with recurrent airway obstruction. Can J Vet Res. 2007.
  25. Hall, J.A. et al. Effect of type of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid supplement (corn oil or fish oil) on immune responses in healthy horses. J Vet Intern Med. 2004.
  26. Hess, T.M. et al. Effects of n-3 (n-3) Fatty Acid Supplementation on Insulin Sensitivity in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2013.
  27. Elzinga, S.E. et al. Effects of Docosahexaenoic Acid-Rich Microalgae Supplementation on Metabolic and Inflammatory Parameters in Horses With Equine Metabolic Syndrome. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  28. NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Chapter 3. National Research Council. 2007.