BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER SEEDS (BOSS) for Horses

What Are Black Oil Sunflower Seeds?

There are different types of sunflower seeds but with horses you should only feed the Black oil sunflower seeds. The striped seeds have thicker, tougher hulls that cannot be broken down by your horse’s digestive system so you should never feed them to your horse.

Sunflower seed

What is the Nutritional Value of BOSS?        

When checking my copy of the National Research Council’s book Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007) I could not find the nutrient content for the seeds.   Sunflower meal is listed but not the whole seeds and the presence of the hull would change the nutrient levels so the nutrient content of the meal is not comparable.


However, I did find the following information from Feedipedia.org which is a great reference website with all types of feed ingredients.  Note: There was no reference to equine use with regards to these values.

Nutrient Value of Sunflower Seeds_Feedipedia.org

Black Oil Sunflower seeds are valued for their oil content, which accounts for about 50% of the seed dry weight.  Sunflower protein is less rich in the amino acid lysine than soybean protein but it does have a relatively high amount of the amino acids cystine and methionine.

Why Should I Feed BOSS to my Horse?

Beautiful horse in sunflowers

I would say the number one reason my clients feed BOSS is better coat condition.   The coat improves because of the high oil (fat) content.  It could also be because of the high level of omega-6 fatty acids in BOSS.

The second reason for feeding BOSS is price.  Pound for pound BOSS is usually less expensive than other supplements used for coat condition.

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds have also been known to be beneficial for weight gain. With a whopping 2500 calories per pound they can be fed to add some calories to your horse’s diet and assist with weight gain. They are preferred by many owners over oil due to the fact that they provide fat along with other nutrients.

However, if weight gain is not a goal in feeding BOSS, you can feed in smaller amounts and they will give your horse a nice shiny coat without the weight gain.

How Do You Feed BOSS?

BOSS can be fed as whole seeds right along with your horse’s other feeds. In my experience most horses love the seeds but for some picky eaters you may have to start with very small amounts and gradually increase to the amount you want to feed.

Usually, they are fed at a rate of 0.5-1.0 cup per day for shine without the weight gain. For weight gain, you usually want to feed at least 2 cups per day, if not more. Of course, you may have to adjust these amounts for individual horses. 

NOTE: Sunflower seeds should never be fed at a rate higher than 2 pounds per day because they are fairly high in the Omega 6 fatty acids, which is an EFA that you want in moderation. Plus, they are a bit higher in phosphorous than in calcium, so more than 2 lbs will mean you will have to adjust this ratio in your feeding regimen and always start slow with any feed change.

I am always preaching about weighing your feed and BOSS is no exception.  The volume of BOSS varies due to seed variation and a pound can vary from 5 cups per pound in one bag to as low as 2 cups per pound in others.  As with all your feed weight measuring it pays to purchase a food scale at Target (~$15.00) and actually measure what the feed stuff in your scoop or can really weighs.

Side Note: HYPP positive horses, or those that might be, should not have BOSS added to their daily ration.  These horses need to have very controlled amounts of potassium in their diets (less than 100 grams per day). In a horse’s diet it is already difficult to control for potassium intake so with 900 mg of potassium per cup, BOSS is something that should not be added to the HYPP horse’s diet.

What Should A Horse Owner Consider When Feeding BOSS?

The biggest concern I hear is the high in omega-6 fatty acids content. Especially since Omega-3 is almost non-existent in BOSS.  There are two fatty acids that cannot be produced within the equine body; omega-3 (linolenic) and omega-6 (linoleic).

When the two are in balance they can offer anti-inflammatory properties but no one knows the balance for horses.  Research in humans and dogs have shown when omega-6 is too high it can actually increase inflammation and the chance of osteoarthritis.  It can also decrease bone formation and decrease the allergy fighting properties omega-3 provides.

The equine diet does not require omega-6 fatty acids to be supplemented because is provided naturally in grains and most forage.  Therefore, adding more omega-6 fatty acid to the diet by feeding black oil sunflowers is probably not a great idea because it might cause the level of omega 6 to be too high.

Another concern is that Black Oil Sunflower Seeds  are prone to insect and mite infestations and proper storage methods must be used to prevent insect development. Also, the use of pesticides in the growing of sunflowers may result in residues in the seeds and sunflower seeds should also be monitored for mycotoxin contamination.

One final concern with feeding BOSS to horses is its digestibility.  There is no research to determine if the equine digestive system can utilize whole black sunflowers.  The BOSS shell is softer than the coating on an oat so it makes sense that any horse that can handle oats should have no problem with BOSS.

I have heard of colic incidents in horses when their diets contain BOSS. Some owners report having seed hulls show up in the impactions. However, as far as I know, none of them have been able to prove whether or not BOSS was the actual cause of the colic.  Its always possible that those horses would have had an impaction regardless of whether or not there was BOSS in their diets.

So in summary, when I do a benefit versus the risk analysis for BOSS I’m not sure if the short-term benefits of a healthy coat outweigh the possible long-term health risks.  Especially since there are supplements available for coat improvement and weight gain that have research to support their use.  

~Peace and Good Feed,

The Nerd

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