Chia seeds are derived from the Salvia hispanica plant and are fed to horses to support gut health and provide nutrients. [1] A member of the mint family, chia has been cultivated for over 5,000 years in Central America. [1][2]

The seeds of the chia plant are rich in nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. [3] Chia is also a source of amino acids and beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals). [3][4]

Chia is included in the equine diet as a source of cool calories with digestible energy primarily supplied from fat. Feeding chia is also purported to support gut motility, possibly reducing the risk of sand colic, among other purported benefits.

In this feeding guide, we will review everything you need to know about feeding chia seeds to horses, including nutritional composition, health benefits and feeding rates.

Characteristics of Chia Seeds

Global production of chia seeds for human consumption and the animal feed industry has increased in recent years due to their valuable nutritional composition.

The chia plant is native to a region spanning from Northern Mexico to Guatemala. The seeds are commonly referred to as a superfood due to their fiber, fatty acid, protein, vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content. [4]

Salvia hispanica plants produce brown to black and beige-coloured seeds. These small seeds measure approximately one millimetre each.

The outer three layers of the seeds contain mucilage, a viscous gel-like substance comprised of soluble fiber. When the seeds come into contact with water, mucilage appears immediately.

Chia seeds provide a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. The nutrients in chia have been studied for their beneficial effects on human health conditions ranging from metabolic disease to cancer. [1]

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Nutritional Composition

The digestible energy value of chia seeds is 459-495 kcal per 100 grams. [7]

Chia seeds are comprised of: [4]

  • 20 – 34% fat
  • 23 – 41% fiber
  • 16 – 26% protein

Fatty Acid Composition

Chia seeds contain approximately: [3][5]

  • 80% polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • 11% monounsaturated fatty acids
  • 10% saturated fatty acids

The polyunsaturated fatty acid component of chia seeds is approximately 59% omega-3 fatty acids as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and 21% omega-6 fatty acids as linoleic acid (LA). [3][5]

The 3:1 ratio of omega 3 to 6 in chia seeds is close to the essential fatty acid ratio naturally present in pasture grasses.

Amino Acids

Chia seeds contain ten essential amino acids, including higher amounts of leucine, phenylalanine, valine, arginine, and lysine. [6]

They also contain non-essential amino acids, including high amounts of glutamic and aspartic acids, glycine, serine, and alanine. [6]

Vitamins: [4][8]

  • Thiamine (B1): 0.6 mg / 100 g
  • Riboflavin (B2): 0.2 mg / 100 g
  • Niacin (B3): 8.8 mg / 100 g
  • Folic acid (B9): 49 mg / 100 g
  • Vitamin E: 0.5 mg / 100 g
  • Vitamin A: 0.054 mg / 100 g
  • Vitamin C: 1.6 mg / 100 g

Minerals: (per 100 g) [8]

  • Calcium: 430 – 806 mg
  • Phosphorus: 530 – 1248 mg
  • Potassium: 407 – 870 mg
  • Magnesium: 322 – 462 mg
  • Iron: 7.7 – 24 mg
  • Zinc: 0.6 – 10 mg
  • Copper: 0.6 – 2.4 mg

Polyphenols

Chia seeds contain naturally occurring polyphenols – diverse biological molecules that serve protective roles in plants. [6][8]

Many polyphenols have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other health-promoting properties. Polyphenols present in chia seeds include: [6][8]

  • Phenolic Acids: Caffeic acid, Ferulic acid, Gallic acid, P-coumaric acid
  • Depsides: Chlorogenic acid, Rosmarinic acid
  • Flavonoids: Quercetin, Myricetin, Kaempferol, Rutoside, Apigenin
  • Catechin Derivatives: Epicatechin
  • Isoflavones: Daidzein, Glycitin, Genistein, Genistin

Other Nutrients

Chia seeds contain a small amount (0.50 ug/g) of naturally occurring plant pigments (carotenoids).

They also contain plant sterols, substances that are similar to cholesterol in terms of their molecular structure but produced in plants. [8][10]

Fibre

Chia seeds contain mucilage in the outer layers of the seed. A water-soluble fiber, mucilage forms into a gel consistency when chia contacts water.

Mucilage offers multiple benefits, including reducing bowel irritation and inflammation. [11]

Benefits of Chia Seeds for Horses

Although there are no published research studies examining the effects of chia seeds on horses, researchers have found health benefits in humans for conditions including obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes. [1]

The purported benefits of feeding chia to horses include weight management, insulin regulation, gut health,and more.

Source of Cool Energy:

Fat is considered cool energy because it can help to promote a calm demeanor in horses. 

Exchanging some of your horse’s grain ration for a fat source, such as chia seeds, can help to prevent blood sugar spikes that contribute to hot behavior.

Fat is also more efficiently digested by the horse’s gut and produces less heat than protein or carbohydrate digestion.

Provides Essential Fatty Acids:

Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, including ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with anti-inflammatory benefits and can support joint health and overall well-being.

Omega-3 fatty acids also affect immune system activation to reduce excessive inflammatory responses. [15]

Omega-3s in flax oil have been shown to reduce allergic skin responses to biting midges (culicoides). [16] Chia seeds could provide similar benefits due to their high omega-3 content, although this has not been proven in research.

Supports Healthy Weight:

The high-fat content of chia seeds provides a valuable source of calories for horses needing to gain weight.

Chia is a great way to add energy to your horse’s diet without adding bulk. All fats provide 9 kcal (kilocalories) of energy per gram, making fat a much more concentrated source of calories than carbohydrates or protein.

Research in human and animal models also suggests fat supplementation improves the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D. [15]

Support Insulin Sensitivity:

The omega-3 fatty acids in chia seeds help to regulate insulin levels by supporting insulin sensitivity. [12] The soluble fiber component of chia slows glucose absorption into the bloodstream and helps to mitigate blood sugar spikes. [14]

Supports Gut Health:

The mucilage and phytochemicals in chia seeds are believed to nourish and protect the gastrointestinal tract. [13]

Anecdotal reports suggest that chia can be used instead of psyllium in horses prone to sand colic. Mucilage may aid in the elimination of sand from the digestive tract. [17]

Source of Protein:

Chia seeds provide amino acids required to support growth, muscle function, and the building and repair of tissues. Amino acids in chia support the synthesis of keratin, the structural protein found in hooves and hair.

However, the feeding rate of chia is generally too low to be a major contributor to a horse’s daily protein requirements.

Low in Sugar and Starch:

Chia seeds are safe for horses with metabolic conditions including insulin resistance, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) (formerly referred to as Cushing’s disease), and polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM).

Metabolic horses need to avoid excess non-structural carbohydrates in their diet. Horses with metabolic dysfunction may also benefit from other plant compounds (phytonutrients) found in chia.

How to Feed Chia Seeds

The recommended amount of chia to feed your horse depends on their individual needs and what else you are feeding. Higher feeding rates are generally used in underweight horses needing to gain body condition.

A typical daily serving of chia seeds for an 1100 lb (500 kg) horse can range from 1/4 to 1 cup (40 – 170 g) or more. Work with an equine nutritionist to determine the best feeding rate for your horse.

For the majority of horses, the total fat content in the diet should be less than 8%. However, horses in heavy work may be fed up to 20% of their digestible energy requirement as fat. [20]

Feeding Directions

Make changes to your horse’s diet gradually when giving any new feed, including chia seeds.

Horses need time to adapt to higher fat content in their diet by increasing the production of digestive enzymes and bile to break down fat.

Chia can be top-dressed on your horse’s ration or mixed with forage cubes or pellets. The seeds do not need to be soaked and can be fed dry. However, adding water and feeding in a mash can help to support the hydration status of your horse.

Balanced Diet

Although chia seeds contain vitamins and minerals, the amounts will not be sufficient to fully meet the horse’s needs or to be in the correct balance. Chia seeds are slightly higher in phosphorus than calcium, but the small amount of chia seeds typically fed is unlikely to cause an imbalance in the overall diet.

Example Diet for 500 kg / 1100 lb Mature Horse at Maintenance

Feed Amount / Day
Hay (10% crude protein) 10 kg (22 lb)
Chia seeds 170 g (1 cup)
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Premix 120 g (4 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 108%
Protein (% of Req) 145%
NSC (% Diet) 8.7%
Fat (% Diet) 3.3%
ALA (grams) 74

 

In this forage-based diet, Mad Barn’s Omneity is to meet the horse’s vitamin and mineral needs from high-quality ingredients. Omneity also contains digestive enzymes and yeast to support gut health. Loose salt should also be provided to meet the sodium requirement and support hydration.

Omneity – Premix

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  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
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Feed Comparison

In addition to chia, many other fat supplements are used for horses. Some alternative plant-derived oils include:

Compared to most of these alternative fat sources, chia seeds are higher in ALA and have a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. The only fat supplement that has a superior ratio is flax oil.

Flax Seeds vs Chia Seeds

Horse owners often wonder whether they are better off feeding chia or flax seeds. Both provide similar nutritional profiles but with some important differences.

  • Like chia seeds, flax seeds are a source of omega-3 fatty acids. The fatty acids in flax seed consist of approximately 55% ALA. [18]
  • For optimal digestion, flax seeds should be ground just before feeding them. Once ground, they are prone to oxidative rancidity.
  • Chia seeds can be fed in their whole state and do not need to be ground, making them more convenient to feed. Some stabilized ground flax products do exist, but these tend to be more expensive.
  • When in contact with water, chia and flax seeds absorb moisture and form mucilage. A water-soluble viscous material, mucilage is part of the fiber component of the plant seed.
  • Chia seeds are higher in antioxidants than flaxseed due to the presence of multiple polyphenolic compounds and vitamin E. [19]

Omega-3 Supplements

The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the equine diet has not been formally established. However, pasture grasses are known to provide more omega-3 than omega-6. [9]

Chia seeds are approximately 16% omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While diets high in omega-3s are generally associated with health benefits, not all omega-3s are the same.

Health benefits linked to omega-3 intake are primarily attributed to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in algae and fish oil.

These long-chain fatty acids are converted into metabolic products (resolvins, neuroprotectins, and protectins) that reduce inflammation. [21] These substances interfere with the action of inflammatory compounds (prostanoids) and regulate inflammation. [21]

A small percentage of the ALA in chia seeds is converted into active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, but the conversion rate is too low to promote direct physiological benefits. [21]

In mammals studied to date, only roughly 10% of ALA is converted into EPA, and less than 0.1% is converted into DHA. [22] This means feeding chia, and other plant-based fats, will not provide the same benefits as directly feeding EPA and DHA. [23][24]

EPA and DHA

Sources of EPA and DHA that can be added to the horse’s diet include fish oil and microalgae supplements. Research documents benefits for joint health, respiratory function, reproductive health, and skin health in horses fed EPA and DHA.

Mad Barn’s w-3 Oil is a fat supplement that provides 1,500 mg of DHA-rich microalgae per serving. W-3 Oil is also formulated with 1,500 IU of natural Vitamin E per serving in a flax and soybean oil base.

w-3 Oil

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

Summary