Natural Protein Sources for Horses

split peas

I have a confession to make.  Are you ready for it?  Here it is. . .  I eat like a horse.  No, really. . . I only eat plants.  Yes, for just over a year now, I’ve eaten ‘plant-based’, otherwise known as vegan.  I won’t go off on a tangent here, but I will say that I hear one question quite frequently now–“How do you get enough protein?”  It gets rather annoying, but I know people are really just curious.

Well, how do horses get enough protein to fuel their large, well-muscled bodies that often perform extraordinary feats?  Plants, of course!  Grasses, legumes, grains, etc.–they all contain protein, and plenty of it.

Protein in the horse’s diet is digested into single amino acids, which are then reconstructed in the body to build proteins such as skeletal muscles, internal organs, bones, skin, hair, hooves, and much more.

The average 1000 pound horse needs about 600 grams of crude protein per day.  Most likely, your horse is getting plenty of protein from his grass or hay. For example, according to my hay analysis this year, each pound of hay provides 40.7 grams of protein.  If my gelding, Hershey, eats a normal amount of hay (to maintain his body weight), he’ll get over 900 grams of protein, which is 200+ grams more than he actually needs.  And remember, that’s from his hay alone.

You really don’t want to overdo it with protein since excess protein will be stored as fat and can lead to health problems (this happens with people, too.)  But there are some horses who do actually need more protein than others.  Growing horses, pregnant/ lactating mares, horses in hard work, or horses recovering from an illness or injury have higher protein requirements that grass hay alone may not cover.

I try to feed a 100% forage diet to my horses to stay as close to their natural diet as possible.  Of course, I also want their diet to be balanced in vitamins and minerals, so I get my forage analyzed in order to know what I may need to supplement.  In the four years I’ve been having my forage analyzed, my hay (which we bale on our own place) has only come up a tad short on protein twice–and that was because of an awful drought we experienced in 2011-2012.  So during the winters of those two years, I was left looking for a supplemental protein source.

Of course, you can buy commercial feeds that are high in protein, but you’ll usually end up getting a lot of extra starch and other things you may not want (like iron.)  The good news is that there are some natural protein sources for horses that you can feed as part of a natural, forage-based diet.  Here are a few:

  • Dried split peas (23-25% protein)
  • Alfalfa–hay, cubes, or pellets (19-23%)
  • Flaxseed meal (31-35%)
  • Hemp seeds (33%)
  • Chia seed (19-23%)
  • Soybean meal (44-52%)
  • Sunflower meal (26-30%)
  • Wheat Bran (15-20%)

Providing protein from several different sources is a good way to ensure your horse is getting a variety of essential amino acids so you may want to mix two or more different protein sources.

You can find some of these natural protein sources for horses at your local feed mill, but others, you may have to order online.





Horse Protein Needs and Sources

Good Natural Sources of Protein for Horses

Protein: What are the Best Sources?


Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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5 Responses

  1. angela says:

    Nice article and I always strive to feed “natural” alternatives to grain when I can. I do alot of horse rescue, so often I get very skinny horses that need protein but not the other stuff that comes in grain. I’ve fed all of the mentioned stuff before, with exception of the split peas, which has me very interested. When looking for split peas, I noticed that there are a couple varieties. yellow and green. So which is best? also, what about lentils? when looking at the split peas, saw this and was curious as to that as well.


    • Casie says:

      Thanks, Angela! Green and yellow peas are pretty much the same nutritionally, but I hear green peas are usually easier to find. As far as the lentils go, I’ve not heard of anyone feeding those to horses. But that’s an interesting question. I’ll try to find out some information on those. 🙂

      • Margot says:

        I feed my horses lentils, twice a day. They are higher in protein than peas, and lower on the glycemic scale. I soak and sprout the lentils before feeding them so horses are better able to absorb the nutrients. Otherwise I believe I would need to get split lentils. One of my horses is in his 30’s and has PPID (cushings). I’ve been feeding lentils for over 6 months now. Old guy’s weight has never been so good.

        • Casie says:

          Thanks for sharing, Margot. The first time I ordered split peas (from an online store), they sent lentils instead. I sent them back, but it sounds like they would have worked just fine!

  1. November 20, 2013

    […] also high in protein (19-23%) and would be considered a whole food.  You might want to check out this post on protein sources for horses, […]

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