Coconut oil is a popular fat supplement for horses used to promote weight gain, skin health and a shiny coat.

It is also used as a cool energy source for exercising horses to add calories to the diet without relying on sugars and starches.

Coconut oil is derived from the kernel of mature coconuts that are harvested from the coconut palm tree. The two main types of oil obtained from coconuts are copra oil and virgin coconut oil. [1]

High-fat equine feeds are typically made with vegetable fats derived from canola, rice bran, soybean, and flax, but a growing number of products are now using coconut oil as an ingredient.

Coconut oil offers unique health benefits because it contains a high proportion of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) which are a rapid source of energy.

Nutritional Profile of Coconut Oil

The digestible energy content of coconut oil is approximately 9.52 Mcal/kg (dry matter).

Coconut oil contains approximately 92% saturated fat, along with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. [2]

This oil is predominantly made up of medium-chain fatty acids or triglycerides. These are unique because they are transported directly to the liver and used immediately as fuel. [2][3]

Approximately 45 to 55% of the saturated fats in coconut oil contain lauric acid. [2][3] Once ingested, lauric acid is metabolized into monolaurin, an organic compound that has antimicrobial properties.

Virgin coconut oil also contains trace amounts of vitamin E. [2]

Fatty Acids in Coconut Oil

All fatty acids are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. They are classified according to their molecular structure as either saturated or unsaturated fats.

Saturated fat is made of hydrocarbon chains that are only connected by single bonds, whereas unsaturated fats are connected by one or more double bonds. [2]

Saturated fatty acids are also usually solid at room temperature (approximately 20 oC/68 oF), while unsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature. [2]

In organic chemistry, saturated fats are described as:

  • Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs): contain two to four carbon atoms
  • Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs): contain 6 to 12 carbon atoms
  • Long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs): contain 14 to 24 carbon atoms

Most of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids, but it is also a source of LCFAs and SCFAs. [2]

Saturated Fats

Coconut oil contains several types of saturated fatty acids including: [2][3]

  • Lauric acid (45-52%)
  • Myristic acid (16-21%)
  • Palmitic acid (7%-10%)
  • Caprylic acid (5%-10%)
  • Capric acid (4%-8%)
  • Stearic acid (2%-4%)
  • Caproic acid (0.5%-1%)
  • Palmitoleic acid (trace amounts)

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fatty acids present in coconut oil include: [2][3]

  • Oleic acid (5%-8%)
  • Linoleic acid (1%-3%)
  • Linolenic acid (up to 0.2%)
Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn - Equine Nutrition Consultants | Mad Barn USA

Coconut Oil for Horses

Coconut oil is suitable for feeding horses and offers unique benefits compared to other fat sources in the equine diet.

High-fat diets are recommended for underweight horses, hard-keepers, PSSM horses and performance horses requiring additional calories.

Fat is efficiently absorbed and, unlike grains and sweet feeds, it does not pose the same risk of digestive issues and metabolic dysfunction. Replacing grains with fat can also reduce tying-up episodes in susceptible horses. [4]

Most equine diets contain less than 8% fat. However, horses in heavy exercise programs can be fed up to 20% or more of their digestible energy requirement from fat. [4]

Coconut Oil as a Fat Supplement

All oils and pure fats provide the same amount of caloric energy per gram. However, not all oils are equal in terms of how they influence processes in the body.

Coconut oil is unique because of its high saturated fat content. While there is limited research on the effects of feeding coconut oil to horses, there have been studies on equine diets containing saturated fatty acids.

One study showed no adverse effects of feeding horses a fat-supplemented diet for 16 months. There were also no apparent disadvantages of providing a vegetable oil with predominantly saturated fat versus an oil with unsaturated fat. [5]

Coconut oil is also more stable than other vegetable oils and has a longer shelf-life.

Oils that contain primarily polyunsaturated fatty acids are prone to rancidity. However, saturated fats in coconut oil are less reactive with oxygen and will not oxidize as quickly.

Digestion

MCTs in coconut oil are easier for your horse to digest than long-chain fatty acids. These fats are more water-soluble, which enhances their intestinal absorption. [2][6]

After medium-chain triglycerides are absorbed from the intestinal tract, they are transported directly to the liver. [2][6]

They are carried via the portal vein from the small intestine to the liver, rather than being transported through the lymphatic system like the long-chain fatty acids. [6][7]

In the liver, medium-chain fatty acids are either converted into triglycerides (a storage form of fats) or used as a source of energy to fuel metabolic processes. [6]

Because MCTs are absorbed and digested more rapidly than long-chain fatty acids, they are preferentially burned for energy instead of being stored as body fat. [6]

However, they can also be stored as body fat if excess amounts are consumed.

Benefits of Coconut Oil for Horses

More research is needed to understand all of the health benefits of coconut oil for horses. However, some benefits of feeding coconut oil include:

1) Source of Cool Calories

Cool calories are energy sources that do not make your horse “hot”.

Adding coconut oil to your horse’s diet is one way to increase calorie supply without relying on grains or commercial feeds.

These products are often high in non-structural carbohydrates (sugars and starches), which can increase blood sugar and cause gut disturbances.

Weight Gain Without Sugar or Starch

Horses that need to gain weight are often fed high amounts of grain-based concentrates or sweet feeds flavoured with molasses.

These feeds increase the sugar and starch content of the diet, which can contribute to laminitis, hindgut acidosis, and insulin resistance.

Coconut oil is a calorie-dense additive that can help horses gain weight without having to feed excess sugar or starch.

Metabolic Dysfunction and Laminitis

Coconut oil is a good option for horses with metabolic conditions who require a low sugar and stach diet.

Oils provide calories without increasing blood glucose or raising insulin levels. [8]

High intake of starch and sugar can disrupt the hindgut microbiome which increases the risk of laminitis. Horses that are adapted to added oil in the diet maintain hindgut function and are not at risk of laminitis from this energy source.

Reducing Heat from Digestion

The digestion of fats generates less heat than protein and carbohydrate digestion. Because of this, fat supplements such as coconut oil are ideal for performance horses and horses in hot climates.

Reducing the Risk of Tying Up

As a source of cool calories, coconut oil may benefit horses prone to tying up. High-starch diets contribute to a high frequency of tying-up episodes.

Decreasing starch and using a fat source such as coconut oil for energy can reduce the risk of recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis. [4][9]

Supporting Calm Behavior

Coconut oil provides cool energy that promotes calm behaviour, in part because it does not increase blood sugar.

Research suggests that replacing starch with fat reduces startle behaviour and reactivity to new noises and visual stimuli in horses. [10]

2) Provides Immediate Energy

Medium-chain fatty acids are used preferentially as energy during exercise, and prevent fatigue by sparing glycogen. [4][11][12]

Glycogen is a readily available sugar that is stored in the liver and muscles. By sparing glycogen, fat could enable the horse to exercise longer before glycogen is depleted.

In some studies, horses adapted to high-fat diets had faster race times, delayed fatigue, and reduced heart and respiratory rate.

This could be due to glycogen-sparing, reduced dry matter intake contributing to less gut fill, and reduced metabolic heat production. [4][11][12]

3) Reduces Lactate Production

Medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil reduce lactate production during exercise.

Lactate or lactic acid is a by-product of glucose metabolism. When muscle cells use glucose as energy, lactic acid and hydrogen ions can accumulate in the tissues, causing pain or a burning sensation in the muscles.

Reducing lactic acid build-up in muscle tissues may improve performance and stamina, and delay the onset of fatigue.

A study of six standardbred horses fed either a high-fat diet (11.8% fat) or a low-fat diet (1.5% fat) over four weeks were subsequently given a treadmill exercise test.

The horses on the high-fat diet had delayed lactate accumulation in their blood. [13]

4) Support Skin and Hair Health

Coconut oil can be applied directly to the skin and hair to condition it and prevent dryness and dandruff.

Oils support skin health by enabling sebum production. Sebum is a waxy substance that makes the coat glossy and provides a protective barrier against irritants.

Coconut oil also has antimicrobial properties, which may benefit healing cuts and scrapes. Research on rodents treated with virgin coconut oil shows faster wound-healing activity. [14]

In vitro studies conducted on human skin cells indicates that coconut oil has an anti-inflammatory effect and protects the skin by enhancing skin barrier function. [15]

5) May Support Immune Health

More research is needed to investigate the benefits of coconut oil for equine immune health. However, it has strong antimicrobial properties that can inhibit the growth of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. [16]

Lauric acid and capric acid are effective against various bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens based on in vitro studies. Caprylic acid is particularly effective against Staphylococcus aureus. [16]

Monolaurin, a metabolite of lauric acid, possesses antimicrobial activity against gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. [16]

6) Supports Gastrointestinal Health

Diets containing excessive amounts of starch cause changes in the horse’s microbiome, increasing the population of lactic acid producing bacteria. This can contribute to dysbiosis, hindgut acidosis, increased intestinal permeability and colic.

Replacing starch with fat can support a healthy microbiome and reduce the risk of hindgut acidosis.

Medium-chain triglycerides support gut health by maintaining healthy epithelial cells and intestinal barrier function. [17]

Barrier function refers to the ability of the intestines to prevent harmful substances (endotoxins) from entering the body and causing inflammation. [17]

Research also shows that medium-chain triglycerides can decrease pathogens and increase probiotic organisms in the gastrointestinal tract of humans and monogastric animals.

These fatty acids also help regulate inflammation and allergic responses in the gut. [17]

How to Feed Coconut Oil

Coconut oil can be top-dressed on your horse’s feed, mixed with a carrier, or fed via a syringe (in liquid form).

Consider the following tips when feeding coconut oil:

Choose Virgin Coconut Oil

The fat from coconuts is processed into two different products – copra oil and virgin coconut oil – using different extraction methods. [1]

Copra oil is produced by crushing dried coconut kernels to extract the oil. It is then refined, bleached, and deodorized. [1]

Copra oil is commonly used as shortening and for frying foods.

Virgin coconut oil is made by pressing shredded wet coconut kernels to squeeze out the oil and coconut milk. This produces an emulsion, which is then separated.

Unlike copra oil, virgin coconut oil is not refined or subjected to high temperatures. [1] Choose cold-pressed virgin coconut oil to feed your horse because this unrefined product retains more natural health benefits. [1]

Once the fat has been extracted from coconuts, the remaining fibrous product is referred to as copra meal. This is a high-energy and high-protein by-product that is added to the diets of animals that need to gain weight.

Feed an Appropriate Amount

How much coconut oil should you feed your horse? This depends on their activity level, breeding status, calorie needs, and the total digestible energy content of their diet.

All oils provide roughly 9 kilocalories (kcal) of energy per gram (mL). In comparison, carbohydrates and protein provide 4 kcal per gram.

This means that fats are a very concentrated energy source and can be used to add calories without adding a lot of bulk to the diet.

Typical serving sizes for coconut oil range between 30 to 100 mL or more, depending on the horse’s individual needs. 30 mL (1 oz) of oil provides 270 kcal of energy.

Introduce Fat Slowly

Horses need to be gradually adapted to a high-fat diet. When introducing any new feeds to your horse’s diet – and especially when adding fat to the diet – start by feeding a small amount and increase slowly.

Reviews from horse owners indicate that coconut oil is generally very palatable for horses. Virgin coconut oil has a slightly sweet taste with undertones of fresh fruit.

Copra meal is another palatable additive that you may want to consider, especially if your horse also requires more protein in their diet.

Add Vitamin E

When adding fats to your horse’s diet, ensure they get enough of the antioxidant nutrients: vitamin E, vitamin C, selenium, zinc, and copper.

Nutritionists recommend feeding at least 100 IU of natural vitamin E per 100 ml of oil. [9][17]

Consider Omega-3 Fatty Acids

While coconut oil is a valuable fat source in the equine diet, it does not contain any omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3’s are polyunsaturated fatty acids with particular health benefits, including supporting joint health, regulation of inflammatory processes, cognitive function, and respiratory health.

The natural equine diet contains a higher proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, but horses consuming commercial feeds often get more omega-6’s and not enough omega-3’s.

Consider feeding an omega-3 supplement, such as Mad Barn’s w-3 oil, to benefit from some of the unique properties of these essential fatty acids.

w-3 Oil

5 stars
79%
4 stars
11%
3 stars
7%
2 stars
2%
1 star
2%

Learn More

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

Consult With a Nutritionist

Work with an equine nutritionist to design a balanced feeding program for your horse that includes coconut oil.

You can submit your horse’s information online to receive a free diet evaluation and balancing report.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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

References

  1. Wallace, TC. Health Effects of Coconut Oil-A Narrative Review of Current Evidence. J Am Coll Nutr. 2019.
  2. Deen, A. et al. Chemical composition and health benefits of coconut oil: an overview. J Sci Food Agric. 2021.
  3. Kappally, S. et al. “Coconut oil–a review of potential applications.” Hygeia JD Med. 2015.
  4. Geor, R.J. and Harris, P.A. Nutrition for the equine athlete: above and beyond nutrients alone. In: Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery. Saunders.2014.
  5. Harris, PA. et al. Effect of feeding thoroughbred horses a high unsaturated or saturated vegetable oil supplemented diet for 6 months following a 10-month fat acclimation. Equine Vet J Suppl. 1999. View Summary
  6. Schönfeld, P. and Wojtczak, L. Short- and medium-chain fatty acids in energy metabolism: the cellular perspective. J Lipid Res. 2016.
  7. Papamandjaris, A. et al. “Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications.” Life sciences. 1998.
  8. Nagao, K. and Yanagita, T. Medium-chain fatty acids: functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Pharmacol Res. 2010.
  9. Harris, P.A. Feeding and management advice for tying up. BEVA Specialist meeting on Nutrition & Behaviour. 1999.
  10. Redondo, A.J. et al. Fat diet reduces stress and intensity of startle reaction in horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2009.
  11. Pagan, J.D. et al.Effects of fat adaptation on glucose kinetics and substrate oxidation during low-intensity exercise. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  12. Mesquita, V.S. et al.Effect of Non-Structural Carbohydrate, Fat and Fiber Intake on Glycogen Repletion Following Intense Exercise. Equine Vet J. 2014.
  13. Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan MM. et al. Exercise- and metabolism-associated blood variables in Standardbreds fed either a low- or a high-fat diet. Equine Vet J Suppl. 2002.
  14. Nevin, KG. and Rajamohan, T. Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2010.
  15. Varma, SR. et al. In vitro anti-inflammatory and skin protective properties of Virgin coconut oil. J Tradit Complement Med. 2018.
  16. Batovska, D. Antibacterial study of the medium chain fatty acids and their 1-monoglycerides: individual effects and synergistic relationships. Pol J Microbiol. 2009.
  17. Jia, M. et al. Effects of Medium Chain Fatty Acids on Intestinal Health of Monogastric Animals. Curr Protein Pept Sci. 2020.
  18. White-Springer, S.H. et al. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation does not impair vitamin E status or promote lipid peroxidation in growing horses. J Anim Sci. 2021.View Summary