Protein for your horse is the building block of their organs, muscles, skin, and hormones. It’s as vital to your horse as is water! Protein is made up of 21 amino acids.  Twelve of these are made by the horse’s body and the other 9, which are the essential ones, need to come from the horse’s diet.

All types of grasses and alfalfa will contain different amounts of protein. Horses, depending on their type of work and the amount of work they do, will require different amounts of protein in their diets.

Now, the standard over the last fifty years has been 14% protein for a horse in light to moderate work.  When you went to the feed store and bought your horse’s grass or legumes, you were able to see a test of the proteins and mineral amounts in the feed.

I know you are now wondering why all this talk about protein for your horse? Here is why!

About four months ago, my Friesian Sporthorse starting showing signs of energy loss.  When I hitched him up to drive all he wanted to do is walk.  When I asked him to trot, I would get about six to eight strides and he would go back to walking. It was like he had no energy!

After a couple of weeks of this, I found when I harnessed him up that I had to cinch the girth up one more hole than normal.  I removed the harness and immediately taped him for his weight.  This is a horse who has had a consistent weight of about 1300 pounds since he reached maturity.  Even when we traveled across the country to compete, he always maintained his weight. His weight was down to 1075 pounds!

I had my veterinarian out to check him and she did a physical and bloodwork to try and figure out the problem. At this point, we upped his normal sixteen pounds of feed to twenty. All tests came back normal, so now I went into a research mode to try and figure out what was going on, as he was still feeling tired and had put on no weight after two weeks!

This is where all this talk about protein comes into the story!

I found after looking at many bags of horse pellets, cubes, and baled feed that the protein content for these types of feed range from eight to twelve percent. Then, I went back to the bulk cubes that I had been feeding my horses until about mid-2020, and its protein was 14-16 percent.

This resulted in my horse getting anywhere from 2 to 6 percent less protein in each of his meals for six months. I conversed with my veterinarian about what I found and we changed his diet to eight pounds of cubes at 10 percent and two pounds of alfalfa pellets at 15 percent protein (yes I did find pellets that were over 14 percent) for each meal.

What happened to 14% protein?

By the end of the first month on his new rations he had gained back approximately 40-50 pounds, and his body started to fill back out in places that were looking piqued.  During this first month, I did not drive him so that everything he ate went into building his body, not pulling this carriage.

We are now about another three weeks on the higher protein diet for him and he has added approximately another 20-25 pounds.  I have now started to drive him again, and he has enough energy to trot several times around the arena without wanting to go back to a walk. Also, when I put his harness on and went to buckle the girth, we were down one hole instead of two.  So we are making steady progress to getting Sailor back to his normal self!

In my research of the major feed companies, it seems they have set up a new outline of what they feel our horses’ protein intake should be:

  •           Non Working horses 10%
  •           Light to medium 14%
  •           Performance 10-20%

We all need to be aware of the changes that the feed companies have made in the packaged feed, as well as the baled.  Always check the protein content of these items so that your horse gets all the protein that he needs. My other three horses are doing just fine on the ten percent protein cubes, but two are ponies, so their protein does not have to be that high and the other is my trail horse, whose energy requirement is less than my Friesian Sporthorse.

One can always add more protein when needed by using one of the many new “ration balancing” feeds that have come onto the market. These can be very expensive, so save the cost and just keep checking your horses’ current feed for any changes in the protein content.