Flax Seed: How and why to feed it

These beautiful blue flowers are the signature of the flax plant.
These beautiful blue flowers are the signature of the flax plant.

I’ve been feeding my horses flax seed (also called linseed) for about a decade. I started with HorseTech’s fabulous products, first with Glanzen, their hoof & coat supplement, then moving onto one with glucosomine in it. I found that feeding a flax-seed based supplement improved their coats so that they glowed. I also liked the fact that flax seed adds Omega 3 fatty acids to the diet — the only other natural source of Omega 3s in a horse’s diet typically is fresh grass, something my horse doesn’t get enough of!

These days I feed flax as part of my horse’s overall diet. I feed it separately now mostly because when I had two horses, they had different needs: it was easier for me to customize their nutritional packages by buying individual components than finished products. Now I’m used to “building” my own supplements.

There are several benefits associated with Omega 3 fatty acids:

  • It can help reduce inflammation which may help horses with joint stiffness or arthritis.
  • It helps improve coat quality adding shine and softness.
  • It improves digestion.
  • It boosts the immune system and can help regulate thyroid function.
  • It can help reduce the chance of laminitis.

In humans, Omega 3 fatty acids improve heart health and can reduce the chance of blood clots forming in the veins, thereby reducing the chance of strokes. There have been no comparable equine studies, but hey, it can’t hurt!

Horses are able to extract the nutrients from whole flax seeds.
Horses are able to extract the nutrients from whole flax seeds.

How do you feed it?

If you do a Google search on feeding flax seed you’ll see that there are several recommended ways to feed it: ground, boiled, soaked — anything except whole seeds. Lots of sites tell you that whole seeds can’t be digested. However, that appears to be a myth. Current research shows that horses can masticate flax seeds just fine and that the nutrients were extracted from the seed hulls even if you see a few whole seeds in your manure pile.

I’ve been feeding whole flax now for about a year. Previously, I fed ground flax seed. I haven’t seen any changes in my horses so far and it’s far easier to feed it and store it. I’ve also read that there’s another benefit to feeding whole seeds: when they are eaten they form a coating in the digestive tract that helps keep the gut moving effectively.

Probably the most popular way to feed flax is ground. When you buy commercially ground flax seed it is stabilized. That’s an important point: if you grind it yourself, you need to grind it fresh for each meal. The nutrients in flax seed start to degrade very quickly if they are not stabilized and when they are exposed to heat, light or oxygen. Ground flax also goes rancid quickly so you should be very careful about cleaning the grinder very well as the remnants can contaminate new batches. Refrigeration can help extend its shelf life a few days, but you’ll still see a loss in nutrients.

People who boil or soak their flax seed often do so because they believe that otherwise the flax might contain harmful levels of cyanide, which is toxic. In truth, while the seeds do contain the two components necessary to create cyanide, they are in different parts of the seed. Ironically, it’s the contact with water that brings the two components together and causes the formation of cyanide. Soaking is actually the most dangerous way to feed flax.

Boiling isn’t a good idea because while it changes the cyanide to a gas form, removing it from the flax, it also destroys the fatty acids which is why you feed flax!

Another consideration

While cyanide shouldn’t be a concern, if you feed flax seed keep in mind that it’s calcium/phosphorous ratio is not balanced appropriately for horses. Since it is high in phosphorous you should feed either a calcium supplement or a feed high in calcium (such as alfalfa) to balance your ration.

Generally nutritionists recommend feeding 4-8 oz of flax seed per day which makes it a very low cost supplement with many nutritional benefits.


Feeding Alfalfa Beneficial for Ulcer-Prone Horses

Alfalfa Hay Buffers Stomach Acids and Helps Ulcer-Prone Horses
Alfalfa Hay Buffers Stomach Acids and Helps Ulcer-Prone Horses

Research into equine ulcers has revealed that 90% of racehorses, more than 50% of performance horses, and as many as 37% of pleasure horses suffer from gastric ulcers. That is a stunningly large amount of the horse population.

Ulcers occur in horses largely because of how we now keep them: contributing factors include feeding large amounts of concentrated high energy feeds, lower amounts of forage, greater intervals between feeding, and stall confinement. Horses evolved to eat small quantities of forage continuously throughout the day. By changing their dietary regime, we have created a digestive environment with excess acidity that causes ulceration of the stomach; when a horse grazes all day, the large amount of forage in its stomach absorbs a significant amount of the digestive acids, keeping levels in the stomach low. Add to that the anxiety and stresses that can be caused by intense training and/or competition, and it’s no surprise that ulcers are an endemic problem.

I have an OTTB that’s a prime candidate for ulcers. He’s an anxious horse that cribs, weaves, and frets. I have him on an ulcer-prevention lifestyle: he’s turned out 24/7, receives no grain concentrate, and has access to grass hay continuously. While he has good appetite and maintains his weight well, he is still anxious.

Recently I read that research from Texas A&M University showed that feeding alfalfa to horses either prevented or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers. According to Dr. Pete Gibbs, Extension horse specialist, the alfalfa hay buffers acid production.

The research conducted at the University comprised 24 quarter horses from 12-16 months old that were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass hay and the other fed alfalfa hay to meet the daily roughage needs. The yearlings received forced exercise during the study.

The horses were examined internally with an endoscope at the beginning and end of two 28-day trials.

Although it’s commonly thought that horses turned out on pastures are better off than those that are confined, it turns out that if horses only receive grass hay, they can still get gastric ulcers. In this study, ulcer scores increased when alfalfa was removed from the horses’ diets and they were turned out on pasture.

As a result of the research, Gibbs said that horse owners have two options for preventing and treating ulcers: they can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that decreases acid production or they can manage their horse’s diets by adding feeds such as alfalfa, which offer buffering capabilities. He recommends that horses weighing between 1,000-1,300 pounds should be fed about 1 pound of alfalfa after a grain meal. Researchers at Texas A&M will next investigate what it is about alfalfa and alfalfa products that lessens the occurrence and severity of horses’ ulcers.

As for my horse, I have started feeding him alfalfa/timothy cubes as part of his forage ration. I’m reluctant to feed him straight alfalfa, as he’s quite a hot horse by nature. However, the 50/50 mix does not seem to make him overly energetic. I’ve started to feed him the cubes twice a day along with free choice grass hay and hay stretcher pellets. I’ll report back as to whether this dietery change helps with his behavior.

Limbering Up your Horse with Basic Stretches

Many people have heard that “carrot stretches” or the “tail stretch” can help your horse stay supple and loosen up tight muscles. Theses stretches take only a few minutes and are a great way to end a grooming routine.

The beauty of the Internet is now there are videos on line that show you how to perform these stretches safely and properly. In these two videos, the stretches are demonstrated by Dr. Joanna Robson, a veterinarian from Napa, Calif. (Please note that these videos used to be posted on Google video and could be embedded. Unfortunately, you now have to link to them on the Baystate Equestrian Network site, which is a great resource).

The Carrot Stretch

The Tail Stretch

That Massage Sure Feels Good

Ever since the Jim Masterson DVD arrived I’ve been practicing the bodywork techniques on my two boys (massage techniques to try at home).

The two horses are very different; I’ve gotten a much better understanding of where each one holds tension in their bodies and how each one likes to be touched. It’s been a great bonding experience and I enjoy doing something for them that so obviously makes them more comfortable.

Freedom, my TB, is super sensitive. He reacts to the lightest touch and is most reactive around his poll (perhaps being a cribber has something to do with it). I get a lot of chewing, licking and yawning from him as he releases tension.

Kroni, my Trakehner, likes to lean into the pressure. He particularly enjoys being massaged over his lumbar region, and he definitely lets you know when you hit the right spots. You can see from the photos below that he’s enjoying every moment of his massage. That lip is just so expressive! (Many thanks to my daughter for helping me with the photos. It’s hard to massage and take pictures!)

Kroni at the start of his bodywork.
First he started to lick and chew.
First he started to lick and chew.
As he gets into it, his lip starts to extend.
As he gets into it, his lip starts to extend.
The longer the massage went on, the longer his lip became!
The longer the massage went on, the longer his lip became!

Equine Massage Techniques to Try at Home

I wrote before about the bodywork that Gary Severson (the Saddle Doctor) did on my horses when he came to fit my saddles in the spring (part of an article about the impact of poll pressure from bridles). It wasn’t traditional massage; rather he released tension in their backs through a form of trigger point massage.

Gary showed me two releases and promised to show me more when he returns in the fall, but I didn’t want to wait. I’ve been searching for more information since he left.

Reading on the Internet I found a therapist named Jim Masterson whose practice addresses many of the same ideas. It’s not “massage” in the traditional sense; it’s more along the line of acupressure or cranio sacral therapy. It centers around the idea of releasing stress and tension in your horse’s body. I read some of the articles that were on his Web site and ordered his DVD. When it came last week I was inspired! After watching the first couple of chapters I dragged my daughter to the barn so I could try the introductory techniques on my horses.

First of all, the DVD is an excellent training tool. The instructions are clear and well illustrated. I find it much easier to use than a book because you can see how Masterson works with a horse – the amount of pressure used, how he moves his fingers, the lines that he follows on the horse – and how the horse responds. The mantra of Jim Masterson’s approach is search, response, stay, release. You search for the areas where the horse is holding tension, feel the response, then stay with the horse until it releases. Signs of release can be subtle, like the softening of the eye, or more direct like chewing, licking or yawning (this fits with what I wrote earlier about why horses yawn).

The first exercise outlined in the DVD is to trace the line of the Bladder Meridian along the horse’s side from the poll to the coronet band on the horse’s rear hoof.

I was amazed by how well my two horses responded. I tried it on Kronefurst, my Trakehner, first.  He’s a very steady horse that responds well to massage and I feel confident that he will accept almost anything that I try calmly. Using just a light touch (he describes it as the pressure you would use to crush a grape), I found some tension near his poll, and over his withers. Over his sacrum, he was quite tender, visibly flinching, and required a very light touch. Very quickly he started licking his lips and chewing; eventually he yawned.  Once he released, he started to lean into the pressure of my hand and seemed to really enjoy the experience.

My Thoroughbred gelding, Freedom, is a much twitchier horse. He’s always been sensitive about being touched at the poll, which I’ve attributed to the fact that he wears a cribbing collar. The challenge with him was to get started. Using a very light touch (described in the DVD as an air gap), I was able to start the sequence. It became clear very quickly that Freedom is holding in a lot of tension. He was very fidgety and difficult to stay with, but he did start to relax after a few minutes. His eye softened and he started to chew. He didn’t give me a real yawn until after I’d stopped, but at that point he yawned repeatedly.

I can’t wait to try the techniques described in the next chapter!


Secret Fly Repellent Benefits Leukemia Research

The bugs are already out in New England, which caused me break out my fly spray. Since last year I’ve been using a “secret” recipe that I obtained by giving a $20 donation toward leukemia research.

The all-natural spray works pretty well — certainly as well as most of the commercially available sprays, it has a pleasant smell and it is made from ingredients that are safe to spray on both you and your horse. I’ve always felt funny about spraying what was essentially an insecticide all over my horse every day. This spray is safe enough that I use it on my children! I was able to find all of the ingredients on line from a single source, or you might be able to find them at a store that sells essential oils.

At the source of the fund raiser is Mr. Thomas Fletcher, of Flodden Edge Riding and Driving Centre, Northumberland, (also known as Thomas_1 on the Chronicle of the Horse discussion board). As of May 1st, donations for the recipe have topped $10,000!

So, before you go out and spend $20 on a bottle of commercial fly spray, consider trying this one.

The link to donate in the U.S. is: