Protein in Horse Feed & Hay

Newly born, Ella takes in her worldHorses of all ages require adequate amounts of protein for maintenance, growth, reproduction and work, with growth and reproduction being the most critical time periods.  Proteins are important building blocks for body cells.  Feed intake, growth, physical activity, physical endurance, condition, production of milk and fetal development can all be impaired if protein intake is inadequate.

Most every horse owner can name the protein level of the feed they are currently using.  “A 12% sweet feed” is a common answer when asked that question – but how important is that protein percentage?  While the total protein in the horses’ diet is important, horses actually require essential amino acids, even though crude protein is what is required by law to be listed in a guaranteed analysis.  Many feed manufacturers are moving towards listing the amino acids on the tag, which can help horse owners to see the quality of the protein sources being used.

Beyond the grain portion of the diet, a major factor to watch for regarding protein in an equine diet is the hay source.  After all, hay makes up the majority of the diet, and thus a lot of the protein in the diet comes from the hay. Horse owners need to figure in what their hay sources are providing, and balance it together with their grain source, to determine what their horses are consuming.

Listed below are protein percentages required by the major categories of horses – please note that these are for the TOTAL DIET, not just the grain portion.

  • Foals: 16-18%
  • Weanlings: 14-16%
  • Yearlings: 12-14%
  • Mature horses: 10-12%
  • Lactating mares: 12-14%

In order to figure out the total protein in your horses’ diet, follow this simple calculation:

( (Lbs Hay x Protein in Hay) + (Lbs Grain x Protein in Grain) ) / Total Lbs Fed = Protein in Total Diet

To have an accurate estimate of protein in your hay, it is best to have it tested.  Check with your local extension office or feed store for labs in your area that will do the testing.  Hay protein can vary dramatically from one cutting to the next, and from one field to the next.  Rainfall, stage of growth when harvested, and a variety of other factors can also influence the quality of the hay.  Alfalfa hays are typically considered to be higher protein that timothy or other grass hays, however if alfalfa is harvested late, perhaps due to weather concerns that make it tough to get in the field, it can have lower proteins than some grass hays that are harvested at the proper time.  Thus, it is always a good idea to know the facts behind your hay source rather than “guesstimating”.

A final point that must be made about protein:  Increased protein levels are not generally responsible for a “hot” horse.  Protein is a very inefficient source of energy, and its main use in a mature horse is the re-building of muscle and other body cells after exercise.  Instead, it is the starch and sugars in a horses diet, as well as the calorie intake to calories used (exercise level) ratio, that are primarily responsible for a “hot” horse.  But that’s a topic for another blog post!

Selecting the Right Feed

Browsing through the aisles of your local feed store, it’s likely you have noticed the variety of horse feeds available.  National brands, regional brands and local manufacturers all crowd the shelves, adding to the confusion.  Which feed is right for your horse?  Here is a quick guide of what to consider when you are contemplating your feed selection.  Start by assessing your:

  1. Horse’s life stage
  2. Horse’s activity level
  3. Any health issues your horse may have
  4. Feed budget

Most feeds are designed to meet the specific nutrient requirements of life stages and activity levels of horses, and generally will specify on the packaging what they are designed for.  When estimating your horse’s activity level, be reasonable in your classification since over feeding energy can make him ‘hot’ and he may gain unwanted weight.  Generally when people see this happening, they tend to reduce the amount fed below the recommended feeding rate instead of changing to a lower energy feed.  This is not advised, as dropping below the recommended feeding rate means your horse is not getting the essential micro-nutrients he needs.  Try switching to a lower energy feed such as a maintenance feed or balancer.  Most maintenance feeds are formulated to provide mid to low energy levels.

If your horse has a specific health issue that can be influenced by his feed, make sure to seek out the information from the bag, your veterinarian or directly from the manufactor.  For example, horses with a history of feed-related laminitis are often best suited to a diet feed or ration balancer which provide much needed minerals and vitamins while keeping starch levels under control.

Complete feeds such as this textured one, are balanced on all nutrients.

Finally, consider your budget.  The features and benefits of feed typically drive up the cost; so ask yourself, can I afford to feed this product at the recommended feeding levels?   Note that feeding rates vary between products and this can influence the cost to feed your horse per head, per day; it is not enough to consider the price per bag alone.  If you are feeding an inexpensive feed but loading it with supplements, it may cost you more than purchasing a commercial complete feed and cutting out the supplements.

Complete feeds are formulated with all the necessary nutrients to meet your horse’s needs in the proper ratios.  When feeding a complete feed, be sure to follow feeding directions closely and monitor his weight through assessing his body condition score and calculating his weight periodically.

This is a very quick guide to help you navigate the increasingly complex decision of how to select the feed that is right for your horse. For more in-depth information, refer to a feed selector or ask a qualified equine nutritionist.

Warm Mashes for Senior Horses

Gayle's 32 Year Old Arabian, "Radar's Count"

I received an email from one of my clients asking for a recipe for a “Safe Warm Mash” for her senior horse.   She thought a bran mash would be a good choice, but was unsure as to ingredients or cooking instructions.  The particular horse is 23 years old and a body score of a solid 6. He is showing some early signs of Cushing’s disease. His current diet is grass hay and Nutrena’s SafeChoice Senior horse feed, as well as daily pasture turnout.

I have never understood why so many educated consumers, that take the time to transition a horse gradually from one feed to another over 5-7 day period would want to take this chance.  A one meal change in a horse’s diet may not cause colic or founder, but it can cause enough of a change in the microbial balance to cause diarrhea or gas, especially in a senior horse.   The fact that the calcium and phosphorus ratios in bran are also so out of balance for horses makes me uncomfortable, as we strive for a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, not 1:12 as is in bran.   This is important for proper metabolic function and to maintain bone integrity.

The good news is that there is a safe alternative to making a bran mash!  I contacted my client and told her that she already had the ingredients to make a mash for her horse – his senior horse feed – and the most important nutrient in a horse’s diet – water.  Senior feeds are high in fiber, as well as properly fortified with calcium and phosphorus.  By simply soaking a serving of her horse’s senior feed with warm water for 5-8 minutes until it reaches a consistency her horse will enjoy, she will have a nice warm mash for her senior horse.

When to Feed Ration Balancers

While recently reviewing farms feed program, the manager explained that some of her horses only received 1 pound of grain per day.  She felt their weight was good, but yet they appeared to be lacking something in their diet.  She was wondering what type of supplements she could add.

When we looked at the tag on her feed, the problem was obvious.  Her feed was designed for to be fed at a rate of 0.5 – 0.75 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.  This means that to provide proper fortification for a 1000 pound horse, she would need to feed 5 – 7.5 pounds per day.  By that standard, her horses that were only getting 1 lb per day were not receiving the nutrient fortification they needed for optimum health, and thus her feeling that  “they appeared to be lacking something”.  Her farm was feeding good quality hay at a rate of about 2% of each horse’s body weight, and the overall body condition of the horses was good, but we needed to balance the amino acid and vitamin/mineral fortification.

We reviewed the farms hay test results to establish our baseline.   I explained that she could easily improve her horse’s diet with the use of a ration balancer. Balancers have a low feeding rate, generally from 0.25 to 1 pound per head per day, but they contain a concentrated mix of the extra vitamins, minerals and protein required to help horses achieve their full potential.

She was a little unsure about feeding something with a 30% protein level, but I explained that if you do the math, feeding 1 lb of a 30% protein feed is actually providing the same to a little less than feeding a standard 12% feed at a higher rate.

Key features to look for in a ration balancer include:

  1. Probiotics and prebiotics to enhance fiber and protein digestion, as well as mineral absorption. 
  2. Organic complexed trace minerals to increase the bioavailability – an example of this on the tag would be “zinc methionine complex” in the ingredient list.
  3. Added biotin and methionine, which are important for hoof and hair coat.
  4. Guaranteed amino acids (lysine, methionine, etc), mineral, and vitamin levels.

A good quality ration balancer will provide your horse with dietary essentials, and often no additional supplementation is needed!