Updated: Apr 9
Spring brings the anticipation of longer days and better weather. But for owners of horses & ponies with ‘sweet itch’, Spring signals the end of the temporary relief of the winter months and often prompts anxiety about the rug changes & topical products required to keep their equines comfortable through the Summer. A chronic allergy to midges bites, ‘Sweet itch’ is difficult to manage despite the vast range of products available.
But what if we tackled ‘sweet itch’ from the inside?
The skin is the largest and most visible organ of a horse and owners are advised to monitor changes in skin condition as a guide to general health and well-being . The skin protects inner organs from the outer environment, maintains body temperature and water balance. The coat and skin are susceptible to lacerations, sunburn, irritants and infections. For owners of animals with ‘sweet itch’, keeping the skin protected from the inflammation and infection caused by this chronic illness is an annual battle. While the rugs and topical creams will help, supporting the immune system is critical This is what adding flaxseed to the daily diet does.
Dr Sue Doherty, a Veterinarian and equine enthusiast had trawled through the available research on how best to tackle her horses compromised immuno-response to insect bites. She found interesting research from the Equine Research Center at the University of Guelph indicating that flaxseed helped to relieve allergy conditions like ‘sweet itch’ by reducing skin inflammation and lesions (O’Neill 2002 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC227015/). Consultation with Dr Richard McCormick, a long-time advocate of adding flaxseed (as a palatable and nutritionally ‘ideal’ source of essential fatty acids) to the diet confirmed these findings from his extensive clinical practice and life-long exposure to high performance equines.
An age old remedy
Adding flaxseed to the diet is definitely not a ‘new’ thing! Previous generations of Irish and UK horse owners fed cooked flaxseed daily to their horses and experienced the immune-supportive effects of the small seed of the flax plant. As a nutrient, flaxseed is a powerful wholefood source of Omega-3 & omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, it is the richest source of Omegas in the plant world, far exceeding those available via fish oils, canola, soybean or corn.
Flaxseed is also an excellent source of soluble & insoluble fibre, lignans and anti-oxidants. Additionally, the anti-inflammatory effects of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) intrinsic to flaxseed are supportive to all systems in the equine (including the skin, respiratory, cardiac & reproductive systems as well as the joints).
However, with the decline of the Linen industry (and associated decline in flax production) and parallel arrival of alternative protein sources (such as soya bean and cotton-seed meal), flaxseed has fallen out of favour with the current generation of equine enthusiast.
Balance is the key ...
The addition of fat or oil as a supplement will increase energy levels available and is often advised to horse owners, But not all fats are created equally:
Omega - 3 fatty acids will reduce pain, soreness, swelling and help the horse get back to normal health.
Omega - 6 fatty acids will kick start the immune system in case of infection and illness
It is important to know that fats differ substantially in their palatability, digestibility and function. When it comes to Omegas, the correct ‘balance’ is needed to achieve optimum benefit. The ideal balance of Omega-3 & Omega-6 is 4:1. For equines, fresh forage contains an ideal balance of omegas and upholds the long held belief that "Horses at grass do not get ulcers, only stabled horses get ulcers", (Dr Tom Divers, University of Pennsylvania – personal communication 1996). When essential fatty acids are out of balance through poor nutrition or over supplementation, the horse will experience chronic inflammation across some or all systems as well as lower performance.
Having long believed in the health benefits of flaxseed in the equine diet, in 2008 Dr Richard McCormick obtained a high quality source of roasted flaxseed and introduced it into the daily diet of a small sample of stabled performance horses – the benefits were evident very quickly. Since this initial research, Dr McCormick has seen a vast range of equines across all equestrian disciplines benefiting from the addition of roasted flaxseed to their diet. Their skin improved as well as their weight and condition. Notable positive changes in demeanor have also been observed and their performances in competition and on the racetrack have been exceptional.
Why use roasted flaxseed?
Quite simply, the roasting process kills pathogens, enhances palatability and digestion as the quality of Omega-3 and Omega-6 are not affected by the roasting process (Dr Henry Soita, Researcher, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dept. of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Saskatchewan) . This makes roasted flaxseed a 100% pure source of balanced omegas that is easy to handle and simple to use.
Reaping in the benefits.
Adding roasted flaxseed daily not only improves coat appearance, keeping skin supple and healthy. But for those owners of ‘sweet itch’ equines who want to use a natural alternative to corticosteroid medication and its possible dangerous side effects (such as laminitis), roasted flaxseed can provide a real alternative. According to Dr Sue Doherty, "since using Champion Roasted Flaxseed with such positive effects on my own horse I am recommending it to all my clients ’sweet itch horses’" . Doherty also noted that "up to last year, I had the chronic condition reasonably well controlled (with rugs and topical creams), now this year with the addition of flaxseed in the diet, it would be impossible for anyone to tell she has sweet itch".
For more information on Champion Roasted Flaxseed and how owners have benefited from adding it to their horses diet, please visit www.belmontequineproducts.com
Dr. Richard. J. McCormick, M.V.B, Dip.Eq.St, M.R.C.V.S.
Licensed Veterinarian (Kentucky, USA, Ireland & United Kingdom)