What Makes a "Quality Protein" for Horses and Why This Should be Your Priority
Lately we've had a lot of questions about balancing vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates... It's clear that horse owners are working hard to understand how best to keep their equine partner healthy. A conversation at our Open House got me wondering how much horse owners actually understand about protein. I'm not a veterinarian or an equine nutritionist so I've had to read, re-read and re-re-read about proteins many times but I have come to the conclusion that this is the single most important thing for us to understand when it comes to equine nutrition.
Protein IS Life
There is a growing trend toward doing online analysis of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates etc. in a horse's diet. You can input all of the information from the back of your feed and supplement packages and click a button to see if your horse's diet is properly balanced. While this is all well and good, if you are feeding a protein source that does not provide a horse with adequate and diverse amino acids those vitamins, minerals and other nutrients cannot be properly synthesized in the body so your carefully constructed analysis is of very little help to you or your horse.
What Exactly Is a Protein?
Proteins are amino acids and amino acids are proteins. The easiest way for me to think about protein is to compare it to an alphabet where each letter is an amino acid that forms a chain to make a protein, must like the way letters are put together in a sequence to make words and words are strung together to create sentences. Letters make words and amino acids make proteins. Without all of the letters, especially vowels, words are impossible to make. Without amino acids, the proteins the body needs to function cannot be made.
There are two classes of amino acids: Essential and Non-Essentials
- Essential amino acids (EAA's) MUST be represented in the diet. In other words, we MUST feed these to our horses
- Non-essential amino acids (NEAA's) can be synthesized by the horses as long as there are adequate amounts of Essential Amino Acids. If you feed poor quality protein you are putting your horse at risk.
The 10 Essential Amino Acids for Horses
There are twenty-two commonly occurring amino acids and of these nine are considered to be essential. The individual amino acids have unique structures but every single one of them contain nitrogen. This means that a protein analysis is simply a test of the nitrogen content in the food. These amino acids form chains called peptides and polypeptides. Peptides chains are less than ten amino acids. Polypeptides are chains of more than ten amino acids.
The wall of the horse's digestive tract (stomach, fore and hindgut) cannot absorb polypeptide protein because the molecules of these proteins are too large. Your horse's body is designed to break these proteins down into the smaller peptide groups of amino acids so they can be absorbed through the intestinal wall. These peptides are transported to individual cells and the body reassembles them into whatever protein (amino acid) that cell needs.
If you do not feed a quality protein to your horse and your horse does not eat or synthesize the essential and non-essential amino acids, your horse cannot reassemble the peptides into the cells they need to maintain health. Since absorption of vitamins and minerals also depends on having adequate EAA's and NEAA's it starts to become crystal clear why understanding protein is so important for your horse.
I'll be adding to this as a part of a blog series so stay tuned for Part 2 where I will get into more detail about protein and why it is the single most important element you need to understand when building your horse's feed program.