Meeting Your Horse's Protein Needs

Meeting Your Horse's Protein Needs

Photo: Teri Erickson

By Kentucky Equine Research

Horse owners want to provide their horses with adequate nourishment, but they may be confused about the best way to meet the protein requirements of equines with varying workloads or those of different ages.

While each horse needs to be considered on an individual basis, these basic guidelines may help you ascertain your horse’s protein requirements.

How Much Protein?
A horse’s requirement for protein is determined by its age, overall condition, and workload. Some general recommendations are listed below (please note that intakes mentioned are merely for the purpose of illustrating what is needed to meet protein requirements alone, but will likely not meet requirements for other nutrients).

•    A mature horse (average weight of 500 kilograms or 1100 pounds) needs about 0.6 kilograms (1.4 pounds) of protein a day for maintenance, early pregnancy, or light work. The horse usually ingests at least this much protein by grazing or eating grass hay (dry matter intake of about 10 kilograms or 22 pounds).

•    A mature horse doing moderate to heavy work needs about 0.9 to 1 kilograms (2 to 2.15 pounds) of protein a day. An owner could feed 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of grass or hay and add 0.9 to 1.8 kilograms (2 to 4 pounds) of fortified feed to meet the protein requirement.

•    A broodmare in late pregnancy needs high quality protein to build placental and foetal tissue. Forage with a moderate percentage of alfalfa may provide this protein, but mares on marginal grazing benefit from the addition of 0.9 to 1.8 kilograms (2 to 4 pounds) of concentrate containing 13 to 16 percent protein.

•    A broodmare in the first three months of lactation requires about 1.3 kilograms (2.75) pounds of protein each day. Besides grass or hay, she might need up to 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds) of fortified feed to ensure this much protein in her diet.

•    Protein needs are lower for broodmares in late lactation (after three months). Grass or hay and 1.1 kilograms (2.5 pounds) of fortified feed would supply a requirement of about 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) of protein.

•    Weanlings weighing 250 kilograms (550 pounds) need about 0.7 kilograms (1.6 pounds) of protein daily. Because these younger horses eat less grass or hay, grain can be increased to 3.2 (7 pounds) a day.

•    Yearlings weighing 385 kilograms (850 pounds) eat more grass or hay and require about 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of concentrate to bring protein intake to 0.8 kilograms (1.75 pounds) a day.

•    To meet the protein demands of young horses in training, owners may need to feed as much as 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds) of concentrate along with 6.4 kilograms (14 pounds) of hay to provide the 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) of protein that is required.

Protein Needs Mature HorsePhoto: Greg McCabe (from our 2010 Photo Contest)

The protein needs of horses in heavy exercise are higher than those of animals at maintenance. If the hard working horse requires extra energy, both energy and protein can be increased by adding concentrated feed to the diet.

High Quality vs. Low Quality Protein
All horses need protein, but not all protein is the same. Protein is made up of different amino acids, some of which can be synthesized within the horse’s body. Amino acids that cannot be synthesized are called essential amino acids and must be supplied in the feed.

High quality protein is that which supplies the essential amino acids in the proper ratios. It is possible for a horse to eat enough low quality forage to meet its crude protein requirement and still not be properly nourished.

The Importance of Protein for Young Horses
Lysine, methionine, and threonine are the most important amino acids that must be provided in equine rations. Diets for young horses need to include sufficient lysine to support growth and development.

The protein in mare’s milk is a rich source of lysine, as is the soybean meal included in some concentrates.

Legumes such as alfalfa also provide significant amounts of lysine, while grasses and most cereal grains contain lower percentages of this important nutrient.

Protein Requirements for Older Horses
Adult horses need protein only for repair and maintenance of body tissues, so their total protein requirement is fairly low.

Many mature horses get all the protein they need (about ten percent of their diet, on average) from grass or hay. Owners can confirm that this need is met by having pastures and hay analyzed.

If analysis shows that the protein level is below ten percent, an easy way to boost protein consumption is to offer some alfalfa hay along with, or instead of, the low quality forage that has been provided.

Overweight Horse Protein Caloric Intake

It can be difficult to provide overweight horses or easy keepers with adequate protein while keeping caloric intake low. One solution is a low-calorie balancer pellet, which contains protein, vitamins, and miners.

Horses in heavy exercise have a somewhat higher need for protein than horses in maintenance, and the protein requirement is highest for late pregnant broodmares and those in the first three months of lactation.

If these horses also require extra energy, the addition of concentrated feed to the diet can increase the intake of both energy and protein.

Low-Calorie Protein for Overweight Horses
Many people are faced with the problem of trying to provide easy keepers with good nutrition while preventing excessive weight gain. Increasing the horse’s exercise is often helpful, but this method is not always practical.

For example, it might be difficult to apply this plan to an unridden broodmare that needs the nutrients in a concentrate but tends to gain weight easily. This dilemma can be solved with the use of a balancer pellet (often available directly from your feed manufacturer).

These products are designed to deliver protein, vitamins, and minerals without significantly increasing caloric intake. With protein percentages from 14 percent to over 30 percent, these supplements are fed in small quantities to fortify the horse’s diet without providing unnecessary calories.

Choosing the Right Feeding Program
There are multiple ways to meet a particular horse’s protein requirement by selecting from the various types of forage and the wide variety of available feed products. To ensure the proper amounts of protein and energy in your horse’s diet, begin with high quality forage and then supplement as needed with a balanced concentrate or protein supplement designed for the type of horse you are feeding.

Main Article Photo: Teri Erickson (from our 2011 Photo Contest) - Broodmares in the first three months of lactation require more protein than those in later lactation.

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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