Sunflower Seeds for Horses: Yea or Nay?

Sunflower seeds have become commonplace in feed rooms across the country. They are a rich source of fat that may promote skin health, a shiny coat, and perhaps even weight gain in horses.

Are all sunflower seeds the same? Of course not. Classic sunflower seeds, like those consumed at sporting events and used in the bakery industry, are non-oil seeds that aren’t typically fed to horses. Black oil sunflower seeds, or BOSS, are more commonly fed to horses due to their higher oil content, better digestibility, and lower cost. BOSS have thinner hulls that are held more tightly to the kernel when compared to the thicker, non-oil seeds. Thinner hulls make BOSS easier for horses to chew and digest.

Are sunflower seeds safe for horses? The answer is yes, although ideal feeding rates have not been studied. Small amounts (2-4 oz/day, about 56-133 grams) are typically consumed by horses without complications and can provide some supplemental calories. BOSS are even included as an ingredient in some commercial horse feeds.

“Compared to other oil seeds, BOSS do not contain any anti-nutritional factors that would reduce nutrient utilization, making them safer and more digestible in general,” said Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research.

BOSS contain 40-50% oil and are rich in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are important for the inflammatory immune response and for cell integrity, the latter of which may support skin health. Modern diets, especially those that contain concentrates, tend to be high in omega-6s. To keep the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio in balance, an uptick in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids can be achieved through the addition of fish oil, like EO-3, to the diet. EO-3 contains direct sources of DHA and EPA, two important omega-3s.

The additional fat may help improve coat condition. In addition, sunflower oil is a rich source of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant. For horses that are not allowed to graze fresh pasture, it is always best to supplement with a natural-source vitamin E product, like Nano-E.

While BOSS contain a considerable amount of protein, they are low in the essential amino acid lysine, which is necessary for growth. Therefore, BOSS has value as a supplement but should not be the main dietary protein source.

BOSS has become popular for supporting shiny coats and overall condition. In moderation, BOSS can be a supplemental part of a balanced diet for the horse.

Contact a Kentucky Equine Research nutrition advisor to help formulate a diet for your horse, with or without sunflower seeds!