Natural Protein Sources for Horses
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.