Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
Last month we learned that meeting a mature idle horse’s protein requirements are surprisingly easy. If a horse is provided with good quality hay at 2% of its body weight it can easily consume enough protein even without eating concentrate. However, if forage quality is low, adding a supplemental designed to provide essential amino acids can easily make up the difference.
But my horse works hard!
But what about if your horse has more of a job to do than just stand in his pasture and eat? Many people automatically reach for a higher protein feed once their horse goes to work, but is that really the right thing to do? Of course protein requirements of a working horse do go up due to the increased tissue turnover and repair associated with exercise. Further, horses also lose nitrogen through sweating and increase muscle mass with training. However, the increase in protein required pales in comparison to the increase in calories needed. High protein diets increase the need for horses to excrete urea (the form in which excess nitrogen is removed from the body) and may alter their acid base balance. While horses seem to be able to handle the increased need to remove nitrogen from higher protein diets quite easily, it will result in more urine excretion. Thus more ammonia may build up in poorly ventilated buildings and bedding costs will go up. In fact, it may be beneficial to feed a lower total protein amount to the horse while providing key amino acids. In one study, horses fed a lower protein diet but supplemented with lysine and threonine had higher blood pH values after exercising compared to horses on a higher protein diet (Graham-Theirs et al., 2001). When horses exercise intensely they produce lactic acid. Lactic acid drops the pH in the blood and can contribute to the onset of fatigue. Therefore this lowered protein diet may protect against a drop in blood pH and therefore allow the horses to exercise longer or recover faster. However it should be noted that the lower protein group was also supplemented with fat as well, clouding interpretation of results.
So how much do they really need?
Table 3 shows the total amounts of protein needed, while Table 4 again expresses this on a % protein basis. You can see that most performance horses will do quite well if you select a feed between 10-12% crude protein. Remember that when selecting a feed, you must consider your forage source first! For example, if your performance horse was eating a primarily alfalfa hay with a value of 16% crude protein, his protein needs would already be met! Selecting a concentrate then would primarily serve to supply any additional energy needs the horse may have.
Table 3. Crude protein requirements for work (g of CP/d).
Wt of horse (lb)
Table 4. Percent total protein required in the diet on an as-fed basis depending on the total consumption of the horse per day.
% of Bwt consumed
Let’s do math!
Now let’s put this together in a practical problem. We will feed an 1100 lb horse 2% of his body weight in grass hay. Our grass hay has 9% crude protein value on a DM basis. We weigh out 22 lbs of hay for our horse per day but we weigh it on an as-fed basis (meaning what it weighs on a scale that day).
First we will convert our weight of hay to the weight of our hay on a dry matter basis. We will assume the hay is 85% dry matter.
22 lbs x .85(% dry matter) = 18.7 lbs of hay on a dry matter basis
Then we will convert our lbs to kilograms.
18.7 lbs /2.24 = 8.3 kg of hay
Multiply that by our percentage of protein.
8.3 kg x .09 = 747 g of CP.
Let’s check this horse’s lysine requirements as well. Remember that the only value for amino acids required by the horse is for lysine. The current available knowledge suggests that horses need 4.3% of their protein to come from lysine. Typically grass hays are fairly low in lysine compared to legume hays. An average grass hay harvested at a mature stage is 0.38 % lysine. Again we multiply the amount of hay fed 8.3 kg x .0038 = 31.5 grams of lysine. Our maintenance horse only needs 32 grams of lysine. We therefore have met his requirement by feeding this hay.
Even if our 1100 lb horse is in moderate work we are short by only 7 grams of CP. This can easily be met by any additional concentrate or by simply eating more hay. However, if we move him up in work, we become much more deficient in protein as well as lysine. Let’s assume he is now in heavy work and deficient by 100 g of protein. We want to add 3 lbs of concentrate (which isn’t very much) to his diet.
3 lbs /2.24 = 1.3 kg of feed
We need our 1.3 kg to supply 100 g of CP. So our feed needs to be 100g/1300 g of feed = 7.7 % CP on a dry matter basis. On an as fed basis, this would be 9% CP. Almost every commercial feed will contain this level of crude protein. Hopefully we have now illustrated that there is no need to feed a high protein feed designed for growing horses or broodmares to our exercising horses.
In summary, protein requirements for maintenance horses or even those at work are fairly easy to meet by a normal horse diet. If feeding a poor quality hay, you may have to supplement your horse’s diet. If so, then choose a feed that contains legumes (like alfalfa meal) or a concentrate that contains a high quality protein like soybean meal. While no clear amino acid recommendations are available for working horses, there appears to be some benefits of feeding lower total quantity of protein while supplementing with key amino acids. This certainly does appear to be the future of equine research concerning protein nutrition.
Next month we will address the protein needs of the groups of horses which need the most attention: the growing horses and the broodmares.
Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
In the last two articles we discussed the importance of protein quality, not only in terms of site of digestion in the horse, but also the amino acid composition of that feed. Now we will try to simplify these concepts into selecting appropriate feeds for horses.
The first task in developing a feeding program for your horse is to identify what class of horse you have. (For a review revisit: Equine Energy Requirements and Energy Requirements for the Working Class) The horses with the lowest protein requirements relative to their body size are the mature horses not in work, or maintenance horses. This does not include geriatric horses which may have altered protein needs due to the lowered efficiency of their digestive system. We also must assume that the horse is receiving enough calories in the diet. A horse fed a diet sufficient in protein, but low in calories will lose weight (makes sense right?) but a horse which has adequate calories but not enough protein can also lose weight. We also make some consideration for the activity level of the horse as well. Remember the difference in energy requirements between the couch potato Quarter Horse and the active Thoroughbred mare (Equine Energy Requirements)? Well a similar relationship exists with protein requirements. Essentially the more active horse would have more lean tissue/muscle to support than the lazy horse. Table 1 lists the actual protein requirements for a maintenance horse depending on activity level and their body weight. Remember that this does assume a quality protein source. Lower quality protein (less digestible or poor amino acid profile) can adjust these figures upwards.
Table 1. Crude Protein requirements for maintenance (grams of CP/d) based on average activity level.
Wt of horse (lb)
What percent protein do you need?
But let’s put these numbers into something more people are familiar with, percent of the diet. Table 2 provides the percent protein of the total diet a horse would need to consume to meet their protein requirements. Looking at Table 2 shows how easy it is to meet a maintenance horse’s protein requirement. You can also see that as total consumption goes up, the percent of the protein needed in the diet goes down. Conversely, if you fed less you would need to increase the percent protein in the diet. Horses will usually consume between 1.5 and 2.8% of their body weight per day on a dry matter basis. Typically you will see horses lower their consumption of less palatable hay which often equals poor quality. However, this can largely be based on the individual, as some horses compensate by lowered feed quality by increasing intake (Edouard et al., 2008). It turns out that horses are much more variable in their voluntary intake than other domestic species are! Just like a horse to always want to be unpredictable. If you notice your horse picking through its hay and leaving a good proportion of the hay untouched it may be wise to select a supplement designed to provide amino acids but not to greatly increase the calorie consumption by the horse. Alternatively it may be time to find a new hay supplier (see Selecting Forages).
Table 2a. Percent total protein required in the diet on a dry matter basis depending on the total consumption of the horse per day.
% of Bwt consumed
Table 2b. Percent total protein required in the diet expressed on an as fed basis assuming an average dry matter content of 85%. Note: this can change with the feed fed and is only representative of harvested feeds, not pasture or grasses.
% of Bwt consumed
Protein content of common horse feeds
Now let’s look at some typical protein values for feeds. To be sure of your own feed ideally have your forage tested as well as examine your feed tag. Corn ranges between 8-9 % CP on a DM basis, oats 12-13%, soybean meal – 43-49%, grass hays – 10-18%, and legumes between 18-25%. With the range of protein content in forages, one can see how important it is to have knowledge of your nutrient content prior to selecting your concentrate. Even with these ranges, most maintenance horses will easily meet their protein requirements by forage alone. If you look at the range of percent protein needed by the maintenance horse in their total diet, it compares quite well with grass hays. If you are feeding your horse and he is maintaining weight, he should easily be meeting his protein requirements at the same time. Remember, we assume the horse is receiving good quality hay. If you are worried about the horse meeting its amino acid needs, many feed companies make supplements specifically designed to be fed with a strictly forage diet, rather than greatly increasing the concentrate intake. For example, many feed companies offer protein supplements in the range of 30-35% crude protein. These are designed to be fed at a minimal rate (only 1-2 lbs per day) in order to simply balance out any deficiencies from an all forage diet. Clearly not all horses need the extra calories that come from feeding higher levels of concentrates. This provides a convenient, easy way to ensure that your horse’s nutritional needs are being met.
Next month we continue with protein nutrition in the exercising horse.
Edouard et al.2008. Animal:An international journal of animal biosciences. 102:10:1526-1533.