Flax seed is one of those feeds that has just recently gained popularity in equine diets. Known as linseed in countries other than the United States, it has a number of nutritional benefits, the most notable being its high omega-3 content.
Many horse owners who feed it say that it is the most cost effective feed supplement, packing quite a nutritional punch for very little money.
When feeding flaxseed, feed no more than 8 oz. each day.
Whole flax seeds can be found in 40-50 pound bags at most feed mills or feed stores. I have personally had more luck finding it at feed mills as opposed to feed stores though. It can also be found in bulk bins at human health food stores, but you are going to pay a premium price for it there.
You can also buy pre-ground stabilized seeds, but they are going to be about twice the cost of regular whole seeds, if not more. However, for the owner that decides to feed ground seeds, the increased price may be worth it to avoid the hassle of grinding for every meal.
Flax seed is high in omega-3 fatty acids and enhances overall health in horses. The only natural, unsupplemented source of omega-3's in the equine diet is fresh grass.
It can help reduce inflammation, which can relieve symptoms associated with sweet itch and other skin conditions. It can also alleviate symptoms of allergies.
Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it also helps in cases of arthritis or joint stiffness. In some cases, it helps so much that it can replace the use of commercial joint supplements or regular doses of bute.
It also boosts the immune system and can help regulate thyroid function, making it an ideal supplement for metabolic horses as well as aging horses.
Many horse owners who have fed flax in the past would gasp in horror at you if you asked if flax can be fed whole.
The fact is, flax seed CAN be fed as whole seeds. Recent research done on various seeds found that the nutrients were extracted from the seed hulls even if some seeds appeared "whole" in the manure.
Even though some whole seeds may appear in the manure, the majority of them are used completely in the equine digestive tract.
If you do decide to grind your flaxseed, make sure you grind it fresh for every meal. The nutrients start degrading as soon as they are touched by light and oxygen, so by the time you've ground them and dumped them in the feed pan, they have already lost nutrients. Ground flax can also go rancid very quickly. You can grind early and store extra in the freezer, which will prevent rancidity for a few days, but you are still going to have nutrient loss.
If you grind your flaxseed, also make sure you clean your grinder thoroughly after each grinding. Small pieces of flax can easily get stuck inside the grinder where they will quickly go rancid, potentially ruining future batches.
Contrary to popular belief, flax seed doesn't need to be soaked or boiled before feeding.
The belief that flax needs to be soaked or boiled before being fed comes from the fact that the seeds contain components of cyanide, which is toxic.
However, the two components of cyanide that are found in flax are stored in different parts of the seed, never touching each other, and therefore never able to create cyanide.
Any contact with water (including boiling or soaking) brings the two components together, creating cyanide -- so the "prevention" to make the seeds "safe" actually is more dangerous than feeding them unboiled or unsoaked. (Note that saliva, stomach acid, and other digestive juices break the two components up before they could ever become joined and create cyanide within the horse's digestive tract.)
Soaked is actually one of the most dangerous ways to feed flax, as the cyanide is created and left standing in the water and flax.
Boiling changes the cyanide to a gas form, thus removing it from the flax. However, it also destroys all the fatty acids, effectively removing the entire reason for feeding the flax in the first place.
Another consideration is that when you remove the lid from the pot, you are going to be the one ingesting all the cyanide.
Thankfully, the amount of cyanide created when boiling flax is very small...in fact, we take in more cyanide in our daily lives through our food, water, and the air we breathe than is found in a cup of boiled flax. Cyanide is also very quickly removed from the body and is not stored in the body tissues -- so if you don't die immediately from cyanide poisoning, you're going to live.
Flax is one of those supplements that can help almost any horse in some way or another. The benefits, combined with the low cost in most areas, makes it an ideal choice to add to most feed programs. Hopefully the above information has helped you make an informed decision about whether flax is right for your horse's diet.