Protein is an essential nutrient in an equine diet – but it is often misunderstood. The roles that protein plays in a horse’s diet include muscle development and function, tendon function, and ligament development and repair.
Protein is made up of amino acids, so yes, we know that protein is important, but the question here is whether protein needs change in performance horses.
How does protein effect energy?
A horse’s energy requirements change depending on his/her activity levels. Horses get most of their energy from carbohydrates and fats however, as protein is a less effective form of energy. Energy received from carbs and fats, in the form of grains, forage, or concentrates, is easily digestible and therefore doesn’t require extra energy to digest. A horse’s body needs to use extra energy to break down proteins which produces a large amount of heat. It is advisable to rather avoid a high-protein diet for performance horses, especially in warmer weather, as it uses more of the horse’s energy.
How does heat affect my horse?
Horses produce heat (raising their body temperature) when they use energy – be it for exercise or to break down foods such as protein. Horses sweat in order to reduce their body temperature and cool down. However, it is believed that although sweat contains water, sodium, chloride, potassium, and proteins, there are not enough proteins lost through sweat to require additional proteins in the horse’s diet.
Does the horse need proteins for muscle function and muscle repair?
Protein is necessary for muscle repair and muscle building, but here it is important that a balanced protein diet is fed before exercise. Muscle repair after exercise will depend on the horse’s protein levels prior to exercise. Without enough protein damaged muscles will not fully heal – but remember that protein should be fed in the diet before exercise and not increased specifically for an endurance race or other performance.
Muscle building supplements can also be given, instead of too much protein, to ensure correct muscle function during exercise.