Hemp, a plant whose time has come

Hemp for horses is the all the buzz these days, and for good reason, it's a plant with literally thousands of uses. It can be used for clothing to fuel to paper and everything in between. It is a weed and capable of growing many different conditions with little additional fertilizer or other inputs. Hemp is also very nutritious and has healthful properties for horses. We will concentrate on those qualities in this article. 

First, a few definitions to clear up the confusion between the different uses and types: 

  • Hemp is known by the Latin plant names as cannabis sativa or cannabis indica. There is not a clear botanical differentiation between the two species, despite some claims otherwise. And in modern times cross breeding has blurred the lines even more. Hemp is a cannabis plant that contains no detectable level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that can make the user “high”. 
  • Marijuana is the same basic plant but does contain THC and can make the animal “high”. 
  • Cannabinoids are the medicinal compounds that have been shown to be useful for many conditions. These are found only in the leaf and the buds of the plant. The acronym CBD is commonly used for medicinal preparations, but in reality, there are over 100 different cannabinoids in a hemp plant. There are active compounds called terpenes that work synergistically with the CBD. Herbs in general contain many hundreds of compounds that make up the action of the single plant. 
  • Endocannabinoid system is the receptor system for cannabinoids found in all mammals including horses and in most body systems. This means the plant or herb has the potential to help many parts of the body.
  • Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are found only in the seeds of the plant. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that cannot be made in the body, so needs to be eaten by the horse. 
  • Industrial hemp is generally grown for its fiber (stems) and seeds. The plants are grown close to each other to promote tall stemmy fibrous plants with lots of seeds. It contains very little if any CBDs.
  • CBD hemp for horses is grown to enhance the leaf and bud growth, with high levels of CBD and no Omega 3 or 6 fatty acids.

Hemp is plant that can grow just about anywhere but is also what is called a bio-accumulator, which means that contaminants or toxins in the soil will end up in the plant. So, when feeding hemp in any form, it's important to use organically grown hemp. 

Hemp seeds are the most nutritious part of the plant used as food. They contain about 20% protein, 6% carbohydrates and about 73% healthy fats. They also have significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and vitamins A&E. Most diets contain an excess of Omega 6 (an inflammatory compound). Hemp contains a healthy balance of omega 6 (linolenic acid (25%) to Omega 3 linoleic acid (55%) which is an anti-inflammatory compound. which is considered a perfectly balanced ratio. 

Hemp also contains the Omega 6 fatty acid gama linolenic acid (GLA), a compound not frequently found in food. Even though it is type of Omega 6, it has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, as well as cancer fighting immune support and help for insulin resistance. 

Hemp protein is highly bioavailable, a complete protein but may be a low in lysine. One ounce of seed contains 9.2 gm of protein. Hemp seeds will not replace your entire concentrate feed but can be a an excellent supplement to your horse’s diet. 

Hemp oil makes an excellent addition to your horses’ diet for its Omega 3 and 6’s. It must be refrigerated in the hot weather, so may not be convenient to feed depending on your barn. It may be easier to feed the seeds, though even those should be kept cool. You could keep a few days’ worth at the barn and the rest at home in the air-conditioning in the warm weather.

The hemp leaf has been less analyzed for its nutritional value, and more for its medicinal value. However, the leaves are an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. They also contain polyphenols that are anti-oxidants to help protect the cells from free radical damage. CBD’s are also antioxidants, along with their other helpful properties. The leaf also contains many more beneficial chemical compounds such as flavonoids that have excellent nutritional benefits.

Separating the nutritional properties of hemp from its more medical uses ones can be complex since many nutritional compounds are good for horses because they enhance health. Hippocrates, many years ago stated: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And in the case of hemp, it's very true. Just be sure to understand which part of the plant you need for your goals. 

Joyce Harman DVM



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