A horse needs protein in their diet for strength, training, and power. But protein is necessary for other important reasons apart from just building muscle. It is an essential component of many body tissues, plus enzymes, antibodies, and hormones.
The Nature of Protein
After water, protein is the second largest component of body tissues. All proteins are synthesized from amino acids. Amino acids can be likened to 'letters' that form the 'word' protein. There are 22 amino acids that are the building blocks of a variety of proteins all with different functions, shapes and sizes. A horse is able to use 21 of these amino acids to make proteins. Amino acids are comprised of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. After a horse digests food containing proteins, it is broken down into amino acids that are then utilized by the body for growth and tissue repair.
Of the 21 different amino acids that make proteins in a horse’s body, nine of them must be acquired from their diet. The nine amino acids are called essential (or indispensable) amino acids. Examples of essential amino acids include methionine, threonine and lysine. The horse can synthesize the rest of the amino acids from food sources containing nitrogen and carbon. Good examples of proteins include hemoglobin (which transports oxygen in the blood), immunoglobulins (antibodies that help to destroy antigens such as viruses and bacteria) and myosin (which enables muscles to contract). A good quality protein source is one that provides an adequate amount of essential amino acids, especially lysine. Lysine is known as the first limiting amino acid since if it is insufficient, the horse will find it hard to use other available amino acids.
The Importance of Protein in a Horse’s Diet
In the absence of essential amino acids, some proteins cannot be synthesized, denying the body some crucial resources. A complete protein is comprised of all essential amino acids. A deficiency in amino acids hampers the growth and repair of tissues, which are vital for athletic and growing horses. Furthermore, amino acids are involved in other important metabolic processes such as the formation of niacin (an important mineral that is crucial in many of a horse’s body processes) and neurotransmitters. Common amino acids that are added to horse feed and supplements include tryptophan, lysine, and leucine.
The Required Dietary Protein
A horse’s protein requirement depends on the age, stage in life, workload, and availability of food. Some proteins like those in cereal grains such as barley and oats contain protein that is highly digestible, while the protein in mature forage has lower digestibility. For most adult horses, about 10 percent of the total diet should be protein. The protein requirements are much higher for growing horses and lactating or pregnant mares. Horses that are convalescing may also benefit from additional protein.
The Bottom Line
Protein is critical for all aspects of a horse’s bodily processes and functions. However, the protein needs of a horse depend on a number of factors. Feeding high quality forage and supplementary grain concentrates (whenever it is necessary) is normally enough to provide a solid nutritional foundation for healthy living.
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