Q. Recently, on social media, I’ve seen advertising for hemp-based equine products—mainly weight-gain, muscle-development-type supplements. Is hemp safe to feed horses? If so, when might a horse benefit from it?
A. This is a great question and a hot topic right now. Here’s a look at what we know.
The number of acres dedicated to growing help in the U.S. is increasing rapidly. In many places, farmers are growing hemp in place of cotton as it requires less water and still yields a crop that can be used for fiber production for the clothing industry as well seeds that have nutritional value. In 2018, U.S. farmers planted approximately 75,000 acres; this is expected to increase to 100,000 to 200,000 acres in 2019, only limited by seed supply.
While it is federally legal to grow hemp, it’s not legal in all states. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 significantly hampered help production. Later, President Richard Nixon included hemp as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Most recently, the 2018 Hemp Farming Bill removed the Schedule 1 classification and legalized hemp production as the THC (tetrohydrocannabinol, marijuana’s psychoactive component) content is less than 0.3%. Hemp crops with a THC content over 0.3% must be destroyed.
Hemp and Horses
Hemp grown for seed and fiber is similar to other traditional grain crops in that the plant grows quite tall, the tops are harvested for the seed, and the remaining plant material is harvested for other uses (in this case, fiber).
Hemp oil is not to be confused with CBD (cannabidiol) oil. While CBD oil can be extracted from hemp plants, it is typically extracted from other types of cannabis plants. Hemp oil is extracted from hemp seeds and contains little to no CBD or THC. That said it’s important to read product labels carefully, because hemp oil extracted from other parts of the hemp plant other than the seed could contain small amounts of THC and high levels of CBD.
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The seeds themselves have slightly less than three times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acid
. While this fatty acid profile of hemp seeds doesn’t match the higher omega-3 content of flax seeds, the hemp provides an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is somewhat unique among omega-6 fatty acids in that, unlike most omega-6 fats, research shows it supports anti-inflammatory processes in other animals. It’s not found in flax seed or other oils commonly fed to horses, whereas in hemp oil GLA makes up about 3% of the fat composition. Fat from hemp oil is about 76% polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) as compared to flax oil, which is about 66% PUFA. Reports suggest horses find hemp oil very palatable.