For years, chia has been famous for its ability to sprout out of ceramic containers shaped like pets or farm animals. In just days, the seeds grow and simulate a furry coat or hair.
The truth is, chia is remarkable, and not just for its ability to grow quickly. Produced by the Salvia hispanica plant, the tiny seeds are low in sugar and starch, high in water-soluble fiber and quality protein, and a concentrated source of Omega-3 fatty acids. They provide multiple health benefits, and protect virtually every area of a horse’s body.
A GOOD SOURCE OF OMEGA-3S
The perfect whole food for horses is living, healthy grass. It offers a variety of nutrients, but its fat content is especially worth noting. It contains the two necessary fatty acids – alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an Omega-3, and linoleic acid, an Omega-6 – in their proper balance, with four times more ALA than linoleic acid.
Without access to fresh grass, horses rely on supplemented fat. Unfortunately, the fat added to most feeds comes from “vegetable oil” (another term for soybean oil), which is very high in Omega- 6s. Too many Omega-6s increase inflammation. The high levels of Omega-3s found in chia seeds have the opposite effect – they decrease inflammation. In fact, chia seeds benefit horses in a variety of ways by:
- Lowering circulating insulin and glucose
- Balancing immune function
- Protecting joints and ligaments
- Reducing pain
- Decreasing nervousness
- Improving heart and blood vessel integrity
- Reducing allergic reactions to insect bites
- Diminishing respiratory inflammation
- Supporting normal gastrointestinal function
- Maintaining hair and hoof health
- Healing damaged skin
- Hydrating intestinal contents
PROTEIN AND FIBER
Chia seeds contain approximately 20% quality protein. This boosts the amino acid variety available to horses, enhancing protein production throughout the body in muscles, bones, joints, skin, hooves, lungs, liver, kidneys and blood, as well as those areas that aid in digestion, immune function, water balance and nutrient transport.
Mucilages, gums and pectin are water-soluble fibers found in chia seeds, and form a gel in water. This significantly benefits horses in two ways:
- It lowers circulating insulin by reducing glucose absorption.
- It reduces the incidence of sand colic by facilitating sand removal from the cecum.
Antioxidants known as chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin and quercetin naturally occur within chia seeds and protect their fatty acids from rancidity. They neutralize damaging free radicals, thereby reducing pain, inflammation and vulnerability toward disease.
PROTECTION AGAINST CUSHING’S AND INSULIN RESISTANCE
Horses suffering from insulin resistance (metabolic syndrome) or equine Cushing’s disease (otherwise known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction – PPID) require a diet low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). Chia seeds support this diet. They are low in NSC (less than 5%). Even more dramatic is their ability to enhance insulin sensitivity i because of their high Omega-3 content, offering a critical component in the fight to prevent laminitis. ii
PPID affects many horses as they age, and is generally due to the oxidative stress caused by exposure to mental and physical challenges, chemicals in the environment, and a diet low in antioxidants. Free radicals target dopamine-releasing neurons in the brain, leading to the onset of PPID. The Omega-3s and antioxidants offered by chia seeds reduce free radical formation, thereby counteracting the propensity toward, and severity of, the disease. iii
CHIA VS. FLAX
Both chia and flax are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and can be fed interchangeably for this purpose. In fact, flax has slightly more Omega-3s than chia, with an Omega-3 to 6 ratio closer to that found in pasture grasses (see table).
However, chia does not require grinding and therefore has a longer shelf life (since grinding exposes the unsaturated fatty acids to oxygen). Chia, unlike flax, does not contain phytoestrogens, which can cause fertility problems as well as alter behavior.
HOW MUCH CHIA TO FEED
Feed ½ cup (120 ml) per 1,100 lb (500 kg horse) as a maintenance dose. Higher amounts may be helpful for healing purposes, but should not exceed two cups per day. Chia seeds may be fed dry, top-dressed on a meal, or soaked ahead of time and mixed in with other ingredients.
A WORD ABOUT OTHER EQUINES
Ponies, minis, donkeys and mules cannot tolerate high levels of fat like horses can. They are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, which is exacerbated by obesity. Therefore, high fat and protein feeds such as chia seeds should be fed at a reduced level. Approximately one third the amount normally fed to horses (adjusted for size) will give them the Omega-3s they need. Donkeys and mules require less protein, since they have the ability to recycle up to 80% of the urea created during protein metabolism.
Including chia seeds in the diet is an excellent way to enhance health. They are easy to feed, have a long shelf life and horses love the taste. More importantly, they bring healing to inflammatory conditions, allergies and illnesses, calming every cell within a horse’s body.