The number of acres dedicated to growing hemp in the U.S. is increasing rapidly. In many places, farmers are growing hemp in place of cotton because it requires less water and still yields a crop that can be used for fiber production for the clothing industry, as well as 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 hemp 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 because 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
One of the most interesting new herbal supplements to come on the market is medicinal hemp with a high Cannabinoid (CBD) content. Hemp is one of the most useful plants in the world, since over 7000 products can be made from it– everything from fuel oil to paper to food, clothing and medicine.
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.
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 flaxseeds, 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 flaxseed 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.
Meanwhile, hemp meal contains protein, fiber, and varying amounts of fat, depending on whether the fat has been extracted for oil. The protein content can be as high as 30%, with fat anywhere from 5 to 45%. As mentioned, hemp meal’s amino acid profile is good; hemp provides slightly less lysine than soybean meal but slightly more methionine. Hemp also provides leucine (a branch chain amino acid) at levels higher than whey protein. These meals can be fed as a top-dress to provide more protein or fat to the ration, depending on the nutrient profile, making them a good option for horses needing to gain weight or develop more topline.
The nutritional value of hemp seeds is well known; just go into a health store and you will see hemp oil and hemp seeds to eat. This form of hemp provides high Omega 3 fatty acids, with many health benefits, such as immune enhancement, healthy skin and more. Horses benefit from 1-2 oz. of the oil or 3-4 oz. of the seeds or meal twice a day.
The medicinal properties of hemp with high CBD levels are just beginning to be explored. There is often confusion about hemp and marijuana. Marijuana contains THC, which is the psychoactive part that makes people high. Hemp does not contain any THC at all, and has no psychoactive properties. Hemp is being sold around the country, though only grown in the USA in a few states, Colorado and California particularly.
Medicinal hemp contains cannabinoids along with many other compounds (called Terpenes) found in many healing herbs. Plants like hops, flax and echinacea share some of these compounds. Mammals have receptors in most internal organs for the Cannabinoids found in hemp. So, when an animal eats plant material containing CBDs, the health of an internal organ can be improved. For example, the gut, the liver and the brain all contain receptors for CBD, so can be helped by feeding hemp.
Hemp can be fed as a supplement in a variety of ways. The most common form seen on the internet is an oil extract. It can become quite costly for horses, but works great for small animals. Hemp can also be fed as a powdered extract, which is more economical. The hemp industry is not regulated and there are many small companies with questionable quality control. Hemp is a weed and can grow anywhere, but for health purposes, you only want organically grown plants. Concentrations of CBD can be variable also, so, to get proper dosing you want a company that can provide accurate information.
Hemp is an exciting herb for horses. Its uses are still being gathered, but it has strong pain-relieving qualities. Anecdotal data suggests it is useful for normalizing joint function, helping with laminitis cases, diabetes, and bone healing. In humans and small animals, it is frequently used for cancer patients. The CBDs cross into the brain and it is helpful for horses that have had trauma, mental and physical, and has human research to show it is useful for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In dogs, it has been helpful with seizures.
As hemp production ramps up in the coming years, we can expect to see an ever-increasing number of hemp-based horse products on the market. It’s important to remember that hemp production currently is an unregulated industry, so there is some cause for “buyer beware.”
Read labels carefully to ensure that you’re not purchasing products that include THC or CBD if you don’t want them—hemp products containing these compounds must disclose this. I’d also recommend buying products from well-established companies that conduct good quality control on their products.
If you compete at recognized horse shows or competitions (and in some states, at any level) make sure the products you’re using won’t lead to a positive result on a banned substance test.
Hemp products for horses are set to grow rapidly outside the supplement market, as well. Look for hemp bedding and even hemp-based baling twine on your hay, because bioplastics is a major market for hemp.
Hemp seeds are the most nutritious part of the plant used as food. They contain about 20 percent protein, six percent carbohydrates and about 73 percent healthy fats. They also have significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and vitamins A and E. Most diets contain an excess of omega-6, which are inflammatory. Hemp contains a healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 linoleic acid, an anti-inflammatory compound. Feeding hemp oil is a great way to get these benefits (be sure to keep it refrigerated in warm weather).
Hemp oil from seeds also contains the omega-6 fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), a compound not frequently found in food. It has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, cancer-fighting immune support and support for insulin resistance (IR).
Hemp protein is highly bioavailable, although it is not a complete protein to replace all other sources. One ounce of seed contains 9.2 grams of protein. Hemp seeds and the protein that comes from the processing of them are available now and are a fabulous way to feed your horses protein without feeding genetically modified corn and soybean.
The hemp leaf is an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. It also contains antioxidant polyphenols to help protect the cells from free radical damage as well as more beneficial chemical compounds, such as flavonoids.
Separating the nutritional properties of hemp from its medicinal ones can be complex, since many nutritional compounds are good for the horses because they enhance health.
The buds and flowers of hemp have a high content of CBDs, and it is one of the most interesting new herbal medicines to come on the market, including in the horse industry. The medicinal properties of CBDs in animals are just beginning to be explored. Several years of clinical observations and data indicate that horses are very responsive to CBD in similar ways to other species, including humans.
The endocannabinoid system of vertebrate animals is thought to have existed for over 500 million years. All mammals have receptors in most internal organs for the cannabinoids found in hemp. These are important in regulation of many body functions.
Endocannabinoids are compounds released internallly in the nervous system to bind to receptors and transmit information. There are two main types of receptors that occur in different tissues, CB1 and CB2. The CB1s are primary in the central nervous system with some in the external organs, while the CB2s are mostly in the immune system B cells and natural killer cells, with some in the spleen and tonsils. The complexity of the interactions between the cannabinoids, the immune system, and the inflammatory pathways create a vast array of biochemical functions affected by those cannabinoids.
Endocannabinoid research is limited for domestic animals, including horses. Because the endocannabinoid system is present in all mammals, phytocannabinoids have the potential to affect the health of any internal organ with endocannabinoid receptors. For example, the gut, the liver and the brain all contain receptors for CBDs.