10 Feb

Should You Use Whey Protein To Enhance Your Horse’s Topline?

I have found improving the topline of my horse to be quite challenging. He has an undersized loin in spite of the fact that he often participates in dressage training. A mate at the barn advised me to include whey protein in his feed. I am wondering if this is good advice and why whey protein may be beneficial.


A robust topline (back musculature) plays a critical role in the ability of your horse to sustain your weight while you are riding in a manner that protects his tissue and spine and also enables him to effectively satisfy athletic requirements.

Horses can have difficulties with how their topline develops because of various reasons. Whereas the feeding regime may play a part in this, it is crucial to rule out other probable causes. For instance training techniques and saddle fit can affect the ability of a horse to function correctly and hence grow strong muscles. Likewise joint-related pain or health problems like polysaccharide storage myopathy may also take their toll. In light of this, I strongly advise you to have your vet to examine your horse in order to eliminate any other probable causes before presuming that it is a nutritional problem.

In addition, I suggest that you undertake condition scoring for your horse to ensure that his overall condition is good. If you establish that he is largely underweight, you may be required to increase the amount of calories in his diet since this may possibly be responsible for the poor topline. Conversely, if you find that the horse has sufficient fat cover but his topline is still undersized, then this may be due to inadequate protein in his diet.

How much protein does your horse require?

The amount of protein needed by a horse is dependent on the horse and also the physiological condition. I seldom encounter deficiencies of crude proteins in the diets of mature horses-they normally need from 10 to 11 % of crude protein in their food, which can easily be provided by forage. But young horses need between 12% and 14%, and this may be more problematic to fulfill.

The majority of good quality grass hays give 10% or more crude protein and alfalfa even provides 18 % or higher. This is sufficient to meet the needs of a mature horse. Grain hays like oat hay only provide about 8%, which is clearly not enough.

In truth, though, horses require amino acids, not crude protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Of the twenty-one known amino acids, nine are essential among mammals. These are valine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, leucine, phenylalanine, histidine and threonine. The others are conditionally essential. An essential nutrient is one that cannot be made by an animal and must, therefore, be gotten from the diet. The amount of essential amino acids in a protein varies. Good quality proteins have a high content of amino acids.

In a perfect world, the composition of amino acid in the diet ought to match your horse’s amino acid needs.Regrettably, more research is required in this area before this level of precision can be attained in horse nutrition, even though other animals like poultry and pigs have feeds that can be assessed using such measures. The amino acid that is least in amount in comparison to the need of an animal is called the limiting amino acid. Lysine is usually the limiting amino acid in horse diets. Next lowest is methionine. The guaranteed levels of such amino acids are highlighted on labels of horse feed.

Tips for designing the diet for your horse

Grass hay is low to medium quality protein and it contains little lysine. This is especially a key issue if you ration the amount of hay that you feed your horse. Alfalfa gives more lysine and is therefore classified as high-quality feed. Most of the horse owners that I meet believe that an alfalfa diet is beneficial to the topline of a horse, and this may explain this.

An additional complication with hay protein is that mature hay has more protein that is linked to carbohydrate fractions. This is crucial since the absorption of amino acids and digestion of proteins is required to occur within the small intestines. But structural carbohydrates need fermentation by microbes so that protein inside can be released. Microbial fermentation takes place in the hind gut which is positioned after the small intestine. This means that any amino acids and proteins that get released at this stage have missed the chance for absorption and they are instead converted into ammonia by the bacteria in the gut. The implication of this is that whereas an analysis of the hay may suggest that a specific type of forage has sufficient amount of protein, it is probable that some of that protein is unavailable to the horse. This may be a greater problem for grain and grass hays since alfalfa has higher digestibility and significantly more protein content.

For proper protein synthesis in your horse, the amino acids must be present in the correct ratio. If the levels of a required amino acid are insufficient, this will have a negative effect on the synthesis of proteins. If you merge all these issues(protein availability, protein quality, the need to have the correct amounts for protein synthesis and the idea of limiting amino acids)it becomes crystal clear that all these elements affect the ability of your horse to produce anything that contains protein.

In case your horse’s poor topline development is because of dietary protein, the objective is to enhance the general protein quality of the horse’s ration such that larger amounts of the essential amino acids are given in a digestible form. Skeletal muscle contains a wide range of amino acids. Lysine makes up the largest proportion, with approximately 79 milligrams per gram of muscle tissue. Leucine is next at 77 milligrams for every gram. Others include valine and isoleucine.

You may be tempted to try supplementation of individual amino acids. But this is ill-advised since amino acids must be balanced. When you give your horse only one amino acid, you risk messing up this delicate balance. Instead, it is better to give a high-quality protein that contains a wide range of amino acids.

This explains why soybean is commonly use to make horse feed. Soybean meal has the highest proportion of high quality protein that is available as an ingredient of horse feed. Soybean meal gives over 60 milligrams of lysine for each protein gram. This is much more than moderately-matured grass hay which contains 35 milligrams of lysine for each protein gram. Even alfalfa contains 51 milligram of lysine for each protein gram. Giving your horse the right commercial feed will usually ensure he gets sufficient lysine, together with other essential amino acids.

So, where does whey protein come in?

Whey protein is derived from milk. It is left after cheese makers remove curds from the milk during the process of cheese making. After it is meticulously dried to a powder, an extremely concentrated protein source remains. This is high quality protein that contains 60% essential amino acids like isoleucine, valine and leucine. Skeletal muscle has a high proportion of these branch chain amino acids.They are also important for the process of post-exercise muscle repair. A whey supplement may help to improve the growth of lean muscle mass.

But research in this area is inconclusive and limited. It is vital to know that whey protein is made into various forms. Whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate are the most common .The whey remains intact after curd removal and it still comprises of fat, lactose and several minerals and vitamins. Protein content can differ widely and one must be careful since horses that are more than 3 years old have reduced capacity to digest lactose. This can cause digestive distress. The isolate format has greater consistency since most of the lactose and fat has been removed. This means it has most whey (over 90%) and it is therefore much more expensive. There are whey protein supplements for horses on the market and I prefer them rather than those made for people because these are usually used to make protein shakes and may contain other additives and ingredients that may be unsuitable for your horse.

The bottom line

If you are finding it challenging to improve your horse’s topline and you think that it may be a nutritional problem, analyze the diet of your horse. Look at the protein sources in the ration and check whether there are simple, inexpensive measures that you can implement to enhance the general digestibility and protein quality of the ration. In the end, it may or may not involve using whey protein supplement. 

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