Protein has become a mystery for most horse owners and people in general. Few have explained its importance in life so let me give you some facts to help. Proteins are a group of molecules in our body that make many things. Here are some points:

  • connective tissue (muscles, ligaments, tendons, teeth, bones, and all connections between cells), integumentary (hair, hooves),
  • enzymes (the molecules that help to build things),
  • immune factors (immunoglobulins and others preventing disease),
  • hormones (liquid signals throughout the body) and
  • neurotransmitters (electric signals between nerves). 
  • There are about 35,000 DIFFERENT proteins in every cell of our bodies.
  • There are about 1 to 3 BILLION total proteins in each cell.

Almost everything we are is mostly proteins, with fat adding to the structure of every cell wall, every nerve and the skin. Sugars have their role in the mucus of our digestive system and the fluid in our joints, but most of their use is for creating energy.  

Protein has the most content and importance in our function as a human or as our horses. So why do owners know the least about protein? I conclude that marketing plays a role, and the economics of feeding horses more grain and little protein makes more money. Let me suggest the reason for this.

The “Protein Leverage Hypothesis” states that humans and lab animals (there is little research on horses) will continue to eat until they meet their daily protein needs. In other words, protein intake causes us to keep eating or stop eating. The horse will continue to eat if the protein is low, selling more grain. But I have seen this hypothesis work on mini horses with grazing muzzles and obese ponies. With the addition of a high-quality protein source and the elimination of inflammatory feed ingredients, food aggression in these and other horses stops. Removing muzzles happens, and ponies sleep in piles of hay.  

Is this proof that the protein leverage hypothesis works in horses? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it indicates that it doesn’t hurt. Horses fed high-quality protein with inflammatory ingredients removed are experiencing a lost hay belly, a vibrant hair coat, significantly improved hoof growth and a return of the top line. These changes occur within two weeks of adding a minimum of 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight and improve over the next year to 2 years (longer times for hooves and top lines).  

In humans, studies show that there is no upper limit to the protein you can add to a diet other than you don’t want to eat more. People needing protein start at 1 gram per pound of body weight, and I am beginning to agree. You can find the calculations of protein in the nutrition course.

Chronic protein deficiency is something I started to talk about in 2016. I heard from many horse owners that their horses were resting with a suspension ligament strain. In 1984 when I graduated from vet school, suspensories were something we saw occurring in racehorses but not often in show horses. Now it seems like every type of horse has a suspensory ligament injury. And there are more diseases of horses that were not even in the textbooks in 1984: dropped fetlocks (DSLD), kissing spine, white line disease, fractured cheek teeth, EOTRH of the incisors and canines, head shakers, sleep disorders, and high incidence of Equine Metabolic Syndrome with insulin resistance, obesity and laminitis.

Some of the above diseases and conditions were around in 1973 when I started with horses but were not common. Most horses lived a full life with little veterinary intervention. As I reflect and understand cellular biology, it has become clear that chronic protein deficiency is at the root of it all. Feed more high-quality protein and stop the loss by eliminating all inflammatory ingredients (grains, treats, fruit, carrots, supplements).

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