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.

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