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Understanding Horse Protein

Good levels of protein in the horse’s diet will maintain and support health and well being, but how much protein does a horse actually need?

Will a horse get enough protein in the daily diet and why is protein for horses important?

The health of your horse is affected by many things. The healthy horse is created when the environment where a horse lives and eats provides adequate social interaction, correct movement and correct training – if ridden. Perhaps most importantly, as the structural building block of all that your horse is, the food and nutrition your horse is exposed to on a daily basis are crucial.

horse in the pasture
Understanding Horse Protein

What does protein in a horse diet do?

Without good quality nutrients, each day, your horse will not maintain the structural strength in cells, nerves, hooves, vital organs, tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones to have a long, sound and active life.

Without nutrients supplied at the right levels and in the right ratios with each other, your horse will not be able to function efficiently on a whole system level.

The elements of nutrition that are important for life are calories (referred to as DE when discussing horses) minerals, vitamins and protein. Out of all these horse protein at the right level and quality is the most important, but least understood and usually least measured in the total diet of the horse. Yet protein is vital, essential, crucial for the healthy horse and just assuming it is sufficient on a daily basis is not enough.

Here are five main reasons for making sure that you understand the role horse protein has for health.

Five reasons horse protein is vital

  1. Protein is quite literally life! It is fundamental to every process in the body. Protein provides the structure that makes connective tissue of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscle. Protein also makes a lot of other things in the body; defence mechanisms for strong immune systems, sensors, healthy hair, healthy skin and strong sturdy well functioning hooves.
  2. Without a certain level of protein your horse cannot maintain and support health. A deficiency each day or each week means that a cumulative shortage of protein will result in structural weakness where the body struggles to maintain health due to a lack of building blocks to create strong sturdy structures. Obviously as time marches on more and more structural integrity is lost and failures in body structures are seen. If you see weakness in hooves, tendons, skin, immune system, digestive system, bones, ligaments and tendons then you may well be looking at protein deficiency.
  3. Protein, in forage levels here in the UK and Europe, is usually too low to provide what is needed for adult horses on a daily basis (figures from NRC 2007). From our experience most horses have access to poor quality, over grazed pasture and hay or haylage that might look good but when tested, scientifically, reveals poor protein levels and quality commonly at 5 – 6% per kg of forage fed.
  4. Your horse’s health starts with forage.  Since grass, hay or haylage is the greatest proportion of your horse’s diet this is the most sensible and cost effective place to start.  An average 500 kg horse will consume around 10kg of hay per day if allowed ad-lib access, on green and growing pasture this will convert to around 50 kg of grass, assuming a dry matter content of 20%. So a year of hay consumption will equate to a staggering 3.6 tonnes a year,  grass consumption will equate to 18.25 tonnes! Ignoring the forage component of a horse’s diet and concentrating solely on the bucket feed each day is not sensible or cheap! Since the forage proportion of the diet is going to be the primary source of protein it is critically important to know whether your hay or pasture is a reserve of poor or high quality protein.  If you can this should be the best and greatest source of protein, ideally it should supply all the protein needs for an adult horse in maintenance to light work.
  5. Young horses, breeding mares, horses in medium to heavy work and horses which are good doers or prone to laminitis are particularly at risk from protein deficiency .  Young horses and breeding mares need large amounts of protein in the diet to support growth and development of the foetus or production of milk. Where protein is under supplied then growth and development of the foetus or foal will be affected. Horses in medium to heavy work needed enhanced levels of protein which may not be supplied even when fed a substantial bucket feed.  This is because on average Forageplus scientific analysis of forage shows protein levels to be commonly around 5-6% where horses in substantial exercise need 8% plus. Horses and ponies prone to laminitis are often fed restricted hay and grass and fed either no bucket feed or a token bucket feed just to carry vitamins and minerals. Where protein is low in forage then this can have a significant impact on the total amount of protein consumed and thus the ability to support recovery and healing.

If you have any questions about the protein levels in your horse’s diet just contact Forageplus with your questions.  We are always happy to share our knowledge and experience.  

As horse owners, riders and trainers we know that the most important thing is to build health and resilience in the whole horse so that we can share a lifetime of fun with our equine partners.

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