Protein: Not just for body builders

Protein is an essential part of any performance or exercising horse’s diet. It is required to build and maintain muscle mass, which is vital for athletic performance.

Why does my horse need protein?

An adult horse can be up to 55% muscle mass, and protein is the main component of muscle.Proteins are big molecules, made up of smaller compounds called amino acids. There are 21 aminoacids that can join together to build proteins and while some of them can be made by the body,others cannot. These are known as essential amino acids and must be obtained via the diet.

Proteins have functions in the body other than just building muscle though. They are found in
collagen, skin, hair, and hooves – in fact, every cell contains some protein. They are essential to all metabolic processes, transport of molecules around the body, cellular repair, and healing.

What is ‘crude protein’ in horse feed?

Most horse owners are familiar with the number or percentage of protein in their horse’s feed e.g.12%. This is actually the percentage of crude protein, which is a measure of all the sources of nitrogenin a feed and doesn’t necessarily represent the true protein content. It can act as a guide though.

The protein content of grass and hay can be very variable. Typically, lush spring grass is high inprotein, but this decreases as the grazing season progresses. The protein content of hay is lower than that of grass.

An equine specific daily protein supplement, like Muscle Prep, can help give peace of mind if you’re concerned about the protein content of your horse’s die

What matters when it comes to protein in my horse’s diet?

Proteins are not created equally, so the protein content alone should not be used to assess your horse’s diet. Protein quality and protein digestibility should also be considered, to ensure that your horse is receiving all that they need:

Protein Quality

As proteins are made up of amino acids linked together, the combination and concentration of these amino acids directly impacts quality. Some amino acids are found less often in the natural equine diet and others are essential amino acids which cannot be made by the horse. If these are in short supply they can become ‘limiting amino acids’ and will restrict overall protein production, even if other amino acids are available in sufficient quantity.

A protein source that is high in limiting amino acids for a horse is considered a high-quality protein source. The limiting amino acids for horses are lysine, threonine and methionine. A rich source of these proteins is soya bean meal.

Protein Digestibility

Crude protein percentage is the most common means of comparing protein content of feeds in the UK and Ireland. In continental Europe however, feed protein values are often expressed in digestible protein percentage. This is because not all proteins are easily digested. If the protein cannot be digested in the small intestine, it is not absorbed for use by the horse. Protein sources that can be digested before entering the large intestine are regarded as having good digestibility.

Muscle Prep contains high quality, readily available amino acids, as well as antioxidants and vitamins that are known to support muscle growth and function, and optimise protein utilisation.

Why does my young horse need protein?

The first limiting nutrient for horse growth is the energy content of the diet. If energy needs are not met by the diet, the animal cannot grow at optimum growth rates. However, even a modest straight grain feed can provide sufficient energy for growth in young horses.

The next limiting nutrient is protein. A diet low in protein content, or which has poor quality or poorly digestible protein, will significantly limit growth rates in young horses. Studies have demonstrated that supplementation of weanlings or yearlings’ diets with limiting amino acids can significantly improve growth rates.1

Why does my performance horse need protein?

It is no secret that exercise leads to muscle development, and this development requires protein.Most horses starting training require an increased intake of protein to meet the needs for musclegrowth. Once the muscle mass has increased, there is an on-going need for a higher protein intake tomaintain the musculature.

Read more about the importance of muscle in performance horses

Typically, the increased protein requirements of training and performance are met by increasing the volume of feed, in line with the increased energy needs of the horse. There are cases, however, which may benefit from protein supplementation such as:

• Horses that don’t eat well

• Horses that go off their feed during competition

• Horses that have a long competition season

• Horses returning to competition after illness

• Horses that were of an immature body type at commencement of training

How can I supplement protein in my horse’s diet?

When selecting a protein supplement it is important to consider the points discussed above on protein content, protein quality, and protein digestibility.

Muscle Prep is a daily liquid supplement that contains high-content, high-quality, hydrolysed plant protein, specially formulated to support muscle development in horses. Hydrolysed plant protein has been ‘pre-digested’, making it more readily available to the horse.

Read more about hydrolysed plant protein.

Muscle Prep also contains Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant to support muscle health and recovery,and B Vitamins which help maintain optimal protein utilisation.

Need help understanding your horse’s dietary needs? Get in touch with the Foran team for expert advice.

1. Mok CH, Urschel KL. Amino acid requirements in horses. Asian-Australas J Anim Sci. 2020
May;33(5):679-695. doi: 10.5713/ajas.20.0050. Epub 2020 Mar 12. PMID: 32164055; PMCID:PMC7206390.

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