Is it safe to feed sunflower seeds to horses? If so, what nutritional benefits do the seeds provide?
Yes, whole sunflower seeds are safe for horses and ponies when doled out in moderation, but the type of seeds fed should be chosen carefully. In North America, sunflower seed varieties fall into one of two categories, confectionery or oilseed. Confectionery sunflower seeds are primarily harvested and processed for human consumption, either as a shelled, roasted snack food or as dehulled seeds for the baking industry. Oilseed varieties, on the other hand, are grown to fill the demand for birdfeed and sunflower oil, a high-quality vegetable oil.
Characterized by black hulls, oilseed sunflower seeds are appropriate for horses; confectionery varieties usually have striped hulls and are slightly larger than oilseed varieties.
The hulls of the oilseed varieties are typically thinner and thus more digestible by horses. Oilseed varieties typically weigh more than confectionery types, likely due to the density of innate oil. This oil is a great source of dietary fat and is the primary reason most horsemen divvy out sunflower seeds to their charges.
The amount of fat in sunflower seeds ranges from 26 to 45%; this disparity is due to differences in sunflower varieties. Therefore, sunflower seeds contain slightly more fat than rice bran (20%) but significantly less than plant or vegetable oils (100%). If a horse has developed an aversion to other fat supplements, which is often the case with vegetable oils, whole sunflower seeds may be an appropriate alternative.
No hard-and-fast guidelines for feeding sunflower seeds have been established. From anecdotal accounts, feeding one pound (about two cups depending on seed type) per day seems to improve coat condition, one benefit of sunflower seeds. Giving more than this may present palatability issues, and horses, with their incredibly mobile lips, will be able to separate the seeds from other elements of the grain mix should they develop a distaste for them. As with the introduction of any new feedstuff to the ration, gradually increase the amount of sunflowers seeds offered over a period of several days.