Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Flax vs. Chia Seeds

I'm not sure when I first read about the benefits of feeding a horse flax seed, but it was probably more than 10 years ago.  The big problem I've always had with flax seed is that it is supposed to be ground just before feeding because otherwise it will go rancid (see 5 Facts about Flax article).  At one time, I did try to grind small amounts of flax seed in a coffee grinder, but honestly, it just wasn't practical.  I know there are supplements and feeds out there that use stabilized flax seed, but I have concerns about how much of the nutrition is retained after the stabilization process.  I haven't been able to find a good description of what is involved in stabilizing the flax seed and if ground flax seed is so sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen that it must be fed quickly, I don't understand how there could be a process that protects the nutritional integrity of the flax seed while delaying rancidity.

Somehow, my internet surfing led me to Equine Chia.  The website has a glowing description of all the wonderful qualities of chia seeds (although there isn't really much legitimate research to back up all those claims), but what meant the most to me was that they can apparently supply a good level of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids and they don't need to be ground first. 

I also recently came across another company, called BioStar, that sells chia seeds for horses and they make claims similar to those of Equine Chia regarding the benefits of chia seeds for horses.  Again, though, the cited research appears to be for people, not for horses.  However, if certified organic chia seeds are of interest to you, they appear to be slightly cheaper through BioStar than through Equine Chia.  If non-organic is good enough, they are cheaper through Equine Chia.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, I started feeding Nimo chia seeds as a way to boost his fat intake without having to supplement with oils (messy and very expensive for good quality) and to provide a little nutritional boost.  I started with just a tablespoon per feeding (3 times a day) and then worked up to 1/3 cup per feeding, for a total of one cup a day.  (If I wasn't training for endurance rides, I would probably have gone with 1/4 to 1/2 cup per day instead.  Well, actually, if I wasn't training for endurance rides, Nimo would be really fat and definitely wouldn't need any supplemental food!)  A couple of months isn't really long enough for me to know one way or the other if the chia seeds are providing any kind of nutritional assistance or hindrance, though.  I haven't seen any adverse effects, but neither has my horse blossomed into some kind of Super Horse, capable of stopping speeding bullets:)

However, if we assume that horses can digest both ground flax seeds and chia seeds well, here is the nutritional comparison between the two, based on USDA's Nutrition Database for 168 g (or hopefully about one cup).  (Note that this database is for people, so I'm not sure that the Fiber and Sugars information is necessarily appropriate for horses.  Also, the database separates the fatty acids by saturated, monosaturated, and polyunsaturated, but those distinctions don't appear to match omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9.  (See this Wikipedia entry if you want to be really confused:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatty_acid.)  And, please note that both flax and chia seeds have significantly more phosphorus than calcium, which is typical for grains.  Horses need at least a little more calcium than phosphorus, so if you're thinking about feeding flax or chia seeds, it's important to make sure that you won't be unbalancing the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio or any other nutritional ratio.  I feed Nimo several pounds of alfalfa every day, so that gives me some room to add feeds that have more phosphorus than calcium because alfalfa generally has quite a bit more calcium than phosphorus in it.  And one final disclaimer:  I'm not formally educated in equine nutrition, so understand that I'm not an expert - I'm just writing about what I learn and I can be easily confused.)

Flax seeds/Chia seeds
Energy (kcal) - 897/816
Protein (g) - 30.73/27.79
Fiber (g) - 45.9/57.8
Sugars (g) - 2.6/NA
Calcium (mg) - 428/1060
Iron (mg) - 9.63/12.97
Magnesium (mg) - 659/563
Phosphorus (mg) - 1079/1445
Potassium (mg) - 1366/684
Sodium (mg) - 50/27
Zinc (mg) - 7.29/7.69
Vitamin C (mg) - 1/2.7
Thiamin (mg) - 2.762/1.042
Riboflavin (mg) - 0.270/0.286
Niacin (mg) - 5.174/14.834
Vitamin B-6 - 0.795/NA
Folate (ug) - 146/NA
Vitamin B-12 (ug) - 0/0
Vitamin A (IU) - 0/91
Vitamin E (mg) - 0.52/0.84
Vitamin D (IU) - 0/NA
Vitamin K (ug) - 7.2/NA
Sat. fatty acids (g) - 6.154/5.594
Monosat. fatty acids (g) - 12.645/3.879
Polyunsat. fatty acids (g) - 48.266/39.757

To me, the nutritional comparison shows that the two seeds are fairly close to each other for most nutrients.  Chia seeds appear to have more calcium and less potassium than flax seeds do, and the fatty acid profiles are a little different, but otherwise I do think it's reasonable to treat them as substitutes based on your budget and time.  I wish I could write more about the fatty acid profiles, but I'm having trouble finding good information along those lines.  By good information, I mean something not published by the company selling the product and something that can be understood by a layperson:)

If by chance, one of my lovely readers happens to know more about this topic than I do, I'd much appreciate some comments and/or links to equine studies or more detailed nutritional information.  In particular, I'm interested in studies on chia seeds simply because they are so much easier to deal with.  Unless I learn that chia seeds are either not well-digested by horses or cause a problem, I'm planning to continue supplementing them, at least for the foreseeable future.


  1. I added Triple Crown Omega Max (at Saiph's suggestion) as a way to help with Ashke's coat. He came to me with a horrible coat (to be expected) and we are still dealing with some residual issues, in my opinion. He wasn't shedding out as easily or sleekly as I expected last spring, and the hair over his ribs and tail was rough and thick. I added the flax hoping the oil and fatty acids would help with this issue. He gets 5 oz a day and has been on it for several months now. I have seen a definite improvement in both his coat and his hooves. His hooves are the best I have ever seen. Even with his winter coat, he feels sleek and smooth (I do not clip nor do I blanket unless we are trailering). I have been very pleased with the results. I have no idea how it stacks up against Chia seeds, but I can say I will continue to feed it until he is on the barley fodder.

    1. That's awesome that you got such a great result with Ashke, Karen. I once boarded at a barn that supplemented flax seed for part of the year, but I never saw a difference in either of my horses. Maybe that means their diet was already OK to begin with, though. I am really curious about the barley fodder - what is it and why are you planning to feed it?

    2. Barley fodder is fresh grown barley grass. It is a six days process, with the seeds spread on a tray then slid through a trailer that provides the perfect environment for sprouting seeds and growing grass. On the sixth day the fodder, which is now an 18 lb mat of sprouts and grass (about six inches tall) is harvested and fed to the horses. Starting on Friday night, Ashke will get 9 lbs in the morning and 9 lbs at night. The barn we are moving to has not had a colic episode since they began feeding this barley fodder.

    3. Sounds interesting! I'm definitely going to look into it - thanks for the info:)

    4. Good sharing, for healthy purpose, Chia seeds offer the highest volume of Omega-3, as well as addition fiber (soluble and insoluble) along with vitamins or perhaps minerals you don’t usually get whenever you take sea food oil. Chia seeds giving you long lasting energy during the day moving in deep, restful sleep during the night time. May read this article about Chia seeds at:

  2. I used to buy flaxseed in a 50lb bag and grind it in a coffee grinder at each meal. Then I got lazy and fed it whole. I never saw whole seeds in the manure, but I read somewhere that they utilize the oil in the seed even if it appears whole in the manure. There was research done on it or something but I don't remember the details because this was years ago. I eventually stopped feeding it because it's so hard to find. I'm pretty sure my feed has it in it though. I used to love grinding it up every day. LOVE the smell of it! I'm really curious about the chia seeds though. Thanks for the info. I never even thought about them for horses before. :)

    1. It sounds like you are much more responsible than I am:) I didn't last more than 2 weeks grinding in it!

  3. I love all the research that you do on everything that you give Nimo. I completely understand your search for minimally processed feeds and supplements for him, as I was there at one point myself. But I was driving myself crazy trying to find something safe to feed my IR horse at the time and basically it boiled down to beet pulp, which is a majorly genetically modified product. And that's when I sort of gave up. Nowadays there is a certified organic horse feed out there called Genesis, but since it is oat-based it is not safe to feed metabolic horses, and given the existing research on the adverse effects of high starch diets in horses, I won't feed it to my non-metabolic horse anyway. I would love it if one day they could come up with an organic beet-pulp-based feed that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

    I've read about chia but like you, I could not find any solid research on its use in horses: all of the studies seem to have been done on people, and our digestive systems are completely different from a horse's. So between that and the cost, I just feed stabilized ground flax. I love Triple Crown feeds because they are one of the few horse feeds out there that have a true fixed formula: I have read of numerous people who have had different TC grains analyzed by Dairy One and Equi-Analytical and the results have matched what it says on the bag. So the flax product I feed is Triple Crown's Omega Max. It doesn't hurt that it's also the most cost-effective equine flax product on the market that I've found so far: one 25 lb bag is $25 in MD vs $50 for a 20 lb bag of Nutraflax. Gracie is on 1/2 cup a day, Lily is on a full cup a day now over the winter to prevent fungal issues from the increased wetness.

    I've fed flax on and off for the past 6 years, switching from Omega Horseshine to Horsetech's Nutraflax to the current Omega Max with different horses. Every time I stop using it on a horse for a period of months and re-start it, I notice a marked difference in both coat condition and horn quality. In summer of 2013 I took Lily off of her flax supplement because I figured she'd be getting her omega-3s from the grass she was on 24/7. I forgot to re-start it in the fall when the grass died and by November she had one of the worst cases of scratches I'd ever seen. I re-started her on flax at my vet's suggestion and she didn't have another issue with fungus over the winter. I just kept her on it year-round. During the summer she normally gets some rain rot on her hind legs, but she developed none this summer while on ground flax. Both Gracie's and Lily's winter coats are positively shimmery in the sun and their hooves are healthy and solid. My IR horse, Cloud, was an iridescent white after I started him on flax (Omega Horseshine). I can't say what is going on at a cellular level, but the horses I've had on flax certainly looked better while on it. :)

    You may have heard of her already, but I tend to get most of my equine nutritional information from Dr. Eleanor Kellon. She is one of the few equine vets in the world that has done extensive studies on equine nutrition and she has revolutionized the treatment and management of metabolic horses with her Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance group. She has several courses on equine nutrition that I dream of taking one day: http://www.drkellon.com/coursedescriptions/nrcplus.html They are thorough enough to count as veterinary CE. She does recommend chia seeds as an alternative source of omega-3s for horses that won't eat flax. If she's recommending chia, I'm going to guess horses can digest it just fine! :)

    1. Thanks for both the info on how your horses have done on flax and on Dr. Kellon. And now I have more things to add my bucket list - I'd love to take some equine nutrition classes!:)

    2. I have seen a marked improvement in the strength and quality of Ashke's hooves, which I didn't realize would be a side effect, but which I am very happy for. He has attained soundness over rocks and convexity for the first time on his front feet.