The Lowdown on Protein

Protein is one of my favorite nutrients! It is so important that our horses get sufficient amounts of quality protein everyday. We see the first hand effects of protein intake when our horses build muscle and become more athletic, but even more importantly, this nutrient feeds the cells in our horses to help them develop, maintain function, and heal. With this in mind, I have delighted in exploring the ins and outs of this nutrient and can’t wait to share the lowdown on protein!

How Much is Enough?

This is the golden question really; we see so many protein supplements on the shelves, and we love alfalfa because of its high protein reputation. If we look at the feed tag on a concentrate formula, most of the time there will be between 10 and 14% protein. So when do we have enough?

For an overview of nutritional content, I highly recommend the National Research Council’s “Nutrient Requirements for Horses”. It clearly breaks down a horse’s nutritional needs, overviews ingredients, and offers easy to understand charts for nutrient requirements. According to this publication, adult working horses should receive between 850- and 1300 grams of crude protein per day.

Speaking in averages and in feed, a 16 hand horse in medium to heavy work could meet his crude protein requirement with about 14 lbs (as fed) of mid maturity alfalfa mix hay. The key here is that many management programs don’t feed this quality of hay consistently. While this much legume-mix is wonderful and a great source of protein, it is expensive, and often too high in energy (Mega-calories) for an average horse.

Ergo, we supplement with concentrate. 1000 grams of protein can also be found in 20 lbs of a 12% crude protein concentrate formula. HOLD UP, that means 20 lbs of grain everyday. This is why good quality hay is so important to meet our horses’ protein needs. To meet the crude protein needs of a 1200 lb horse in medium to heavy work, the combination of good quality hay and a well balanced concentrate formula will usually do the trick!

It’s NOT All the Same

Crude protein value is a measurement of the overall protein content in a feed stuff. Crude protein value does not measure quality, but our horse’s digestive tracts certainly do! I like to think of quality as the test that the horse puts protein to. The test has two questions.

Can it be broken up into Amino Acids with Biological Enzymes?

For a horse to have access to the amino acids provided by nutritional protein, they must be digested (or broken down from protein to amino acids) in the stomach & small intestine. These sites are where biological enzymes actively support protein digestion. If the protein is not broken down at these sites, it moves to the large intestine, where microbes break down the protein. While this is not necessarily harmful to the horse, microbes will not produce bio-available amino acids but instead use the protein for their own nutrition.

Good quality protein is digested in the fore-gut

Is there a sufficient balance in the resulting amino acids so the horse can use them efficiently? 

Now that protein has been broken down to amino acids and absorbed in the blood, it needs to reach the cells and be restructured into proteins that are useful to the horse. The catch is that if the nutritional protein is not comprised of the amino acids that the horse needs, the amino acids cannot restructure to biological proteins. For instance, if a feed stuff is 12% crude protein but lacks in lysine, lysine will be the limiting factor that prevents efficient use of all the other available amino acids.

In order to get purple, you need 1 red & 1 blue, not 2 blues

Quality Protein Sources

  • Whole Soybeans
  • Whole Flax Seed
  • Alfalfa Meal
  • Legume based Forage
  • Supplemental Lysine, Threonine, & Methionine Source
  • Bio Active Whey


Published by

Madison Maavere

Hello, I am a young professional in the equine industry with a passion for improving horses' physical health and emotional wellness. I grew up riding horses in north Georgia and by the time I was 10, I decided I wanted to ride professionally. This dream grew into the mountain that I climbed every day, striving to reach the top. Until I was 16, I did not have my own horses, so I began diving whole-heartedly into any barn that would allow me to work off rides, training, and showing. While this path may not have gotten me the most blues in the show ring, it opened my eyes and my heart to the vastness of the horse world and how perception based it can be. When I was 16, my family moved out on 6 acres so I could have my horses at home (IE, so my family could see me on a daily basis), and for this, I am truly grateful. Running my own farm, albeit small, was liberating and humbling, and it revealed to me that my passion was not so much for riding sport, but for the love of the horse. Fast forward 6 years, and I am well into my final year as an undergraduate Equine Science/Management major at the University of Kentucky. I have been so fortunate in the opportunities I've received here and the relationships I've been able to build. The cutting edge research, quality horsemanship, and innovative businesses located around Lexington, KY have given me a strong sense of reality, and inspired me to really look at where I can make an impact in today's horse world. What I've realized is that while I like equestrian sports, I love the horse. Moreover, I love to help the horse. I want it to be happy and relaxed, to be sound and comfortable, to eat well and be healthy. I want the horse to have every defense against pathalogical disease, and I want it to have skill sets that people value so it can live a long, loved life. In this love, I feel called to advocate for the horse. I want to learn everything I can about how to improve horses' sustainable wellness, and I want to share what I learn so that horsemen of all experience, backgrounds, and goals can feel inspired and enabled to improve their horses' lives. It is my true desire to initiate and spread a dynamic in which horses are not for the industry, but the industry is for the horses.

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