Tony the cat here, checking in again to bring you another post about the importance of nutrition.

This week I’d like to talk about protein in the equine diet. Protein. YUM! Fish and chicken and steak and… oh sorry, I got a bit carried away.  Many people don’t recognize how important protein is in a horse’s diet, despite many feeds being labeled specifically by the protein content. That’s right, those bags of feed that are known by “10% or 12%”, that number is the crude protein content. By now I’m sure you’re wondering why protein is important, where it is sourced from, and what all of this means to your horse, so let me tell you a few things about protein and your horse.

If you took science classes in high school, then you probably already know that muscles and skin are made from different proteins, and that proteins are made from amino acids. Now, when horses take in protein, it is not because they need the protein itself, rather they need the amino acids that are acquired when the body breaks down the proteins. Proteins are broken down in the small intestine, and the amino acids are then absorbed to be used to build proteins within the body. The amino acids account for 80% of equine structure, and are rebuilt into the needed proteins in the body. Proteins are responsible for muscle and bone growth and development, repairs, and blood transport, making them a vital component of the equine diet.

Most horses only need a protein level of 10-12% in their diet. However, higher protein levels will not lead to hyper behavior.  This is an old wives tale!  High carbohydrates will make a horse hyper not elevated protein. The horses that will need a bit more protein are babies less than 18 months old, pregnant and lactating mares, and horses in high levels of training. The most common protein sources in a horse’s diet are soybean meal, canola meal, and in green leafy roughage such as alfalfa. Most adult age horses who are not in heavy performance training will receive all of their protein needs between roughage and their daily feed rations, and it is possible to over-feed protein, so owners should be aware of the protein needs of their individual horses. If protein is over fed, it is dispelled as urea in the urine. This means the horse will urinate more, which could lead to dehydration if they are urinating too much and or sweating more than usual when this happens. Foals have the highest protein requirement at 15-16%. Horses between the age of 6 months to one year will need 14-15%. Pregnant and lactating mares generally need between 12-13% as well.

Horses that don’t receive the minimum protein needs in their diet can suffer from many negative effects including reduced appetite, body wasting, decreased growth and development in early life, poor coat quality, and decreased performance. The hardest horses to maintain are the hard working athletes and the pregnant mare with a foal by her side.  Both these guys need massive quantities of protein for the turnovers occurring in the body.  This is where a professional nutrition consult can come in very handy.  Our older horses can also require higher protein levels.  This is different than senior dog, cat, and even human diets.  This is because our diets tend to have around 30-35% protein instead of 10-16% like equine diets.  Don’t be afraid to add protein and fat to your senior horse who is having trouble maintaining condition!

Always remember to check your feed bag’s tag for the crude protein percentage and to feed high quality roughage sources to ensure your horse is getting the correct amount of protein in his or her diet. Now that we’ve talked all about protein, this cat is going to go find some tuna. May your litter box always be clean, and your food bowl full.


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