Does Your Horse Have Chronic Protein Deficiency?

About 10 months ago, I started giving my Belgian mare Audelina some alfalfa hay each day – because she was nursing a colt. Then it became too much hassle to segregate her and ignore the pleas of the others, so I just gave them all some daily alfalfa. I was amazed at the changes I witnessed in every horse over the next 10 months.

Dr. Geoff Tucker DVM offers us a hypothesis, “that a chronic protein deficiency is the root cause of many unexplained medical issues in horses.” And he shares an in-depth webinar on this topic presenting the background, his ideas, and detailed instructions for how you can assess your horse’s protein matrix (they need a mix of proteins, not just one type):

I became intrigued by this topic after adding alfalfa to my five horses’ daily intake. They have 10 acres of pasture to forage on and slow-feeders filled 24/7 with low-sugar orchard grass hay. Even though this year’s orchard grass hay tested out at 14% protein, since Audelina was nursing, I figured she needed a little extra.

The interesting thing is that the previous owner of my Andalusian horse Zorra, had told me to never give her alfalfa – had warned me that she couldn’t handle even the tiniest bit without getting fat. So initially I would separate Aude and baby Juno from the herd and only give her alfalfa. That lasted about 3 days and then I would toss the other 3 a small bit of alfalfa too – their pleas wore me down! Plus, as Jax is only 3 and Montaro 3.5 years, I figured growing boys could do with some extra protein too. Alfalfa generally contains between 16-20% crude protein.

After a few days of that (and Zorra my Andalusian seemed perfectly fine), I gave up segregating entirely and just gave them all about 60 pounds total of alfalfa loose (not in the slow feeders) per day. Since Aude and Montaro are the dominant horses I figured they would automatically consume more than Zorra, so I also gave them two flakes and the others only one – although Aude moves around the piles to make sure she gets the best bits!

More muscle, less fat

I kept a close watch on Zorra though, and so was very surprised when I noticed that she was actually slimming down! Over the next few months, she morphed into the best shape I’ve ever seen her in; sleek with muscle and noticeably less fat. Keep in mind though, that all of my horses were in pretty good shape before we started daily alfalfa feeding, so the differences may not be dramatic, but they are nonetheless interesting.

Zorra Before Daily Alfalfa
Zorra After Daily Alfalfa

Longer manes

The other thing I noticed was that the manes lengthened on every single horse:

Jax’s Mane Before Daily Alfalfa
Jax’s mane after alfalfa
Aude’s mane before daily alfalfa
Aude’s mane after daily alfalfa

Now keep in mind, in addition to the full feeders of low-sugar hay always available, I had also been feeding each horse this for a full year:

  • Half a cup ground flaxseed
  • 2 tbsp organic hemp oil
  • 1 tbsp mixed seaweed
  • HorseTech High Point vit/min pellets for Grass Diets
  • Equiflora probiotics

The ONLY thing I had changed (that could explain the manes and fat loss) was to add alfalfa to their diet. My hay seller also told me that they don’t even bother to test sugar levels on alfalfa anymore, because it’s always low. Apparently, this is because it’s a legume and according to Dr. Martinson, legumes always have lower NSC levels than cool-season grasses like timothy, brome grass and orchard grass.

What you do need to be careful of, with alfalfa, is that you don’t buy from a farmer who uses glyphosate to speed drying time and prevent mold. Glyphosate (remember Round Up?) wreaks serious havoc on both human and animal health. The alfalfa I give my horses comes from Alberta and my hay seller knows the farmer who grows it.

So this personal experience made me particularly fascinated to hear what Dr. Geoff Tucker had to say in his Chronic Protein Deficiency webinar (see above). I encourage you to listen to the whole thing and take notes.

Essential amino acids = complete proteins

My biggest take-away from the webinar is the point that horses need a complete spectrum of amino acids and this is why Dr. Tucker doesn’t advocate just feeding one type of hay. He also points out numerous other protein sources you can use, especially if your horse has marked health issues or muscle wasting.

When Kesia’s horses were boarding together with mine, they showed marked improvement from the low-sugar hay and supplement regimen we devised. But. When she moved them to 500 acres where they could free-forage a variety of plants, they improved even more and for the first time her mare Amalia’s coat didn’t blanch out in the summer sun, nor did she lose any muscle over the winter. Perhaps this is because her horses had enough fresh land (not already eaten down, or pooed on) to forage the variety needed to provide the complete spectrum of amino acids?

And why did alfalfa make Zorra slim and muscular this time, whereas before it made her obese? Well, perhaps the difference is in the amount of movement available. In her previous home, she shared a large dry paddock area with her mother and sister and then in good weather had access to 3/4 of an acre. In her current home, she has free access to dry paddock areas plus 10 acres of field and forest at all times – and she lives with 4 young horses who wrestle and run around a lot!

My litmus test for, “Is my horse fat?” is to look at my horse square on from behind. If their belly sticks out further than their butt, then they’re packing some extra weight. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing (sometimes horses chunk up seasonally and there’s nothing wrong with that if they can move naturally) but it does provide me with one more bit of information…

Zorra’s Andalusian Butt
Audelina’s Belgian Butt

So here on the left we have the purebred Andalusian, Zorra. And on the right, big Belgian mama, Audelina. Both these breeds are known for being “easy keepers”, or, prone to putting on weight easily. But after receiving loose alfalfa daily for 10 months, I think they’re looking pretty darn good! Perhaps both of them were protein-deficient before. As Dr. Tucker points out, you can receive a lot of protein, but if it doesn’t contain the full spectrum of amino acids needed, then the body will still be deficient. Note the long, thick tails on them. Speaking of which, during my recent trip to Arizona, I have to say that I never seen so many stringy-tailed horses in one place! I must have seen about 15 horses and every single one of them (regardless of breed) had a thin, stringy tail.

I wondered if perhaps this was due to the hay they feed and the lack of natural forage? I believe Teff hay is popular in Arizona and it has a similar protein content to Timothy. But again, does it provide all the essential amino acids needed? Dr. Tucker suggests we don’t feed just one type of hay, but rather feed two or more types to provide a broader spectrum of amino acids.

In the human world, we sometimes see this with vegans who don’t know how to combine vegetarian-source proteins to receive all the essential amino acids. The reason they’re called “essential” is because the body cannot be healthy without them.

Perhaps all the negative stories about alfalfa are from horses confined to a stall or paddock? Or also fed daily grain? Or horses who for one reason or another, simply don’t experience natural movement?

Perhaps my horse’s manes have thickened and lengthened because their bodies now have enough protein left over (from vital bodily processes) to splurge a little protein on their hair?

I will also be interested to see how Zorra’s ability to carry a rider changes with this new protein intake. The last time I dialogued with Zorra about this issue, she said that she doesn’t have the musculature to carry me. But she is happy to carry a lighter person:

Zorra perfectly happy with a 7-yr-old on her back – Before Alfalfa

Zorra suggested we begin conditioning her by starting with kids and gradually building up the weight. That’s our project for this summer. But you can see from this photo that having me on her back – I even tested sitting on different parts of her back to see if that changed anything – causes her significant pain:

My weight ANYWHERE on Zorra’s back causes her pain – Before Alfalfa

Perhaps Zorra is also now receiving the protein required to build that musculature… it will be interesting to see what happens with this issue as the summer progresses.

Well, I thought I’d throw this out there and see what y’all have discovered. Any experiments or experiential knowledge – I’d love to hear about it!

Jini Patel Thompson is a natural health writer and Freedomite. She began riding at age 2 in Kenya, and got her first horse at age 8 in Alberta, and so continues a life-long journey and love affair with these amazing creatures.
Does Your Horse Have Chronic Protein Deficiency?

13 thoughts on “Does Your Horse Have Chronic Protein Deficiency?

  • May 13, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Jini…here I go again…I feel like this is hitting home for me. As you know I live on 12 acres and my 3 boys have access to all of it. But since my ol guy Big Acea passed last August I have not fed any alfalfa. I use to use it as a winter food and a treat, to get forage in him because he loved it. He had a bad teeth situation and he loved to pick the soft flowery parts out & I would help him get all the best bits & then my other two would clean up the rest. After he passed I guess, I, just like you said, thought alfalfa was a bad thing for horses for a lot of reasons. Mostly because of all the talk about making them fat and that it was suppose to be for cattle. I had read many things that said it was not a good choice for horses. I’m sure for all the reasons you mentioned…lack of movement & being confined and or alone. I have just recently started to feed alfalfa cubes (soaked and separated) as a treat to try and cut back on there carrot consumption so I am not feeding all that extra sugar that carrots have. In just a short amount of time I have noticed my lane paint Banner moving a bit better? He has been a huge inigma to me. Just when I feel I making progress with him he will start moving badly again, or get some infliction. As I have wrote before he is the horse that all things go wrong for. Pigeon fever, summer sores, super lame, loss of tail and mane hair & seasonal welts. He use to have a really gooey eye also but I have recently started feeding Spurlina (for the welts) and all of my horses eyes are clear as a bell now. It has been a huge added bonus and the welts are gone too. I also have not been able to get the sheath swelling we talked about to go down (from what I still think is related to the pigeon fever) ..but about a week ago I started to feed the oregano oil to him and now his sheath swelling is going down a bit…is this the alfalfa or the oil or the chia seeds I started to feed a few days ago also, IDK? I try not to change things(feeding) all at once so I can have a reference to how things are affecting my guys but this situation just kind of happened. After this article I will definitely continue with the alfalfa cubes and see if mane& tail improve for him. The people who had him before me fed him only alfalfa and he did have a beautiful tail & mane, but he was stalled and blanketed & had metal shoes and plates, so I have always contributed a lot of it to the fact he couldn’t rub on all the trees and things like he does now. I also fed it periodically for my first few years of having horses and I’m not sure but can almost say that when I stopped that’s when his mane & tail deteriorated? Very interesting, I never made that corilation until now! One of the other reasons I quit feeding it is the quality I was able to get at the feed stores was awful. My farmer friend from where I use to live had a source that was good and that’s another reason I use to feed it more frequently. I will definitely watch the above video and keep you posted on any good or bad affects I witness. I also will search for a better source. I’m sure the alfalfa cubes are not the best source. I just need a treat that doesn’t have a lot of sugar and hopefully is healthy at the same time? I have tried flax cookies but my new Arabian Dreamer gets welty from them. If you have any good snacks you feed I would love to hear about them ?
    And as always thanks for the great article gives me all new things to think and ponder on.

    • May 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      Very interesting Michelle. Zorra tends to get the goopy eye thing from time to time (I have yet to figure out the triggers) so I will give her spirulina and see if that makes a difference. How much do you give and any particular brand?

      I don’t use treats for training (only scratches) so I give them 1 carrot each and sometimes half an apple in their feed dish with the supplements listed in the post. I also save pretty much ALL fruit rinds (orange, watermelon, canteloupe, mango, banana) from our kitchen and share them out between the 5 (horse compost!) – but all the fruit we buy is organic. So the total fruit/veg they get is one – two handfuls (depending on the day), four times a week. And then I also rotate on and off with various dried herb blends (I’ve written a couple of posts on that). And that’s it. The problem with making any kind of treat is you either need to add a flour (grain) and bake it, or you need to add molosses or some type of sugar to make it sticky so it holds together. Not to mention the labor! Maybe experiment with the different fruit rinds – a lot of the vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients are in the skin.

      p.s. I think we live in a parallel universe!

  • May 13, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Wow , this is a great article. My super trainer Jess Fobert suggested I put my hard keeper OTTB on alfalfa hay cubes. What a dramatic change in his overall health appearance and vitality. He went from needing to wear a blanket 24/7 in cool to cold weather. He has 4 different weights of blankets that he no longer needs . Now to address his dislike of any flying nuisance .

    • May 13, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      Very nice Sherry – How soon after feeding the alfalfa cubes did you notice the change in his cold tolerance?

  • May 14, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Jini…Happy Mothers Day to you….I feed about 1-2 Tablespoons of Spirulina…the brand is MicroIngredients and I purchased it on Amazon. It’s usda certified organic. I started with only about a teaspoon because most of what I read said horses need time to build up a taste for it. It smells awful but I have not tasted it…I really should though!!. So Like with most things I started with a very small dose in there nightly herb/vitamin/mineral wet bucket and have worked my way up. My Arab Dreamer is very suspicious of new tastes and smells and he was skeptical but he is gobbling it down now with no hesitation. But like I said it is added to there array of different things, I feed in there wet bucket. I’m still a bit shocked at the 100% difference in all of there eyes, especially because the may face flies are now upon us…and even though I did start using fly masks a portion of the day about a week ago some of there eyes were very yucky even in the winter. My routine is to put them on when the day heats up and the flies get extreme, then I take them off at dusk…because I feel that no one wants to wear something foreign 24/7… I know I personally can’t wait to get my bra off at the end of the day…Lol. Please let me know if you end up having the same results? I also listened to the webinar above and took a lot of good info from it… So thanks again.

  • May 14, 2017 at 10:28 am

    JIni, Do you mean 60 lbs of alfalfa per day for 5 horses, so an average of 12 lbs. per day per horse (with the dominant ones getting more and the others less). If an average horse eats 20 lbs. of forage a day (maybe more for your bigger breads) then that’s 50% of the diet in alfalfa? Is that correct? I completely support the amino acid issue. My concern about too much alfalfa has been the calcium / phosphorus balance. My understanding is that alfalfa is higher in calcium and would therefore need to be balanced with the phosphorus. Have you run into this? A holistic vet I once had said that horses can handle up to 20% of their diet in a legume. If they can handle more, I’m all for that, I’m just wondering about the calcium issue. Thank you.

    • May 14, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      Yes, Mary that is correct – 60 lbs split between 5. Keep in mind Juno has been a foal during this time so maybe split between 4.5 horses! They free-feed their low sugar hay as well. They average about 40 lbs/day each of their low sugar orchard grass hay. On rainy days they eat more, on sunny days, less. Keep in mind my smallest horse is 15.2hh and all but one of them is still growing. I haven’t seen any phosphorous issues, but I’ve also only been feeding the daily alfalfa for 10 months.

      To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with the avg 20 lbs/day of forage per horse. That has always seemed very low to me. Personally I’d use it more as a minimum and then see what each horse actually eats, depending on breed, movement, weather, etc. What’s your view on it?

      • May 16, 2017 at 11:02 pm

        It’s unusual for me to have a discussion with someone who is as detailed as I am. Thank you. Let me give a more accurate measurement of the amount of forage per day. 1 1/2-2% of the horse’s body weight as a starting point, then up or down from there based on the individual and what they need to maintain their weight. The horses I have had have been in the 1000-1200 lb. range and are able-bodied seniors in retirement. So they aren’t burning a lot of extra calories, nor are they growing. So that’s where my 20 lbs. a day comes from. If you don’t mind me asking, how much do each of your horses weigh? It looks like they average a total of roughly 50 lbs. per day per horse. If that’s the case then the alfalfa roughly comes out at 20% of the hay diet (not counting the pasture). I think I’m thankful to have low-key seniors eating about 20 lbs. a day. I can’t imagine going through double that per horse. Thank you for the perspective.

        • May 17, 2017 at 9:04 am

          Yes I think mine eat so much because they’re still growing, plus they’re quite active, plus they’re big horses. They range from 1200 – 1900 lbs. And yes, my monthly hay bill is substantial! So yours are eating about 20 lbs a day from slow feeders that are always filled? Or is that just how much you give them per day?

          • May 17, 2017 at 3:10 pm

            Ok. 1900 lbs. and 40-50 lbs. a day. That makes sense. I think I’ll stick to my little retired guys. The 1150 lb. retired senior horse I have maintains his weight on an average of 20-24 lbs. of hay per day in the winter when there’s not much pasture grass. In the summer it drops to about 10 lbs. per day. (I had a 1000 lb. 14 hand senior that maintained his wegith very well on 15 lbs. through the winter and 10 in the summer with pasture) Since the 1150 lb horse tends to be a hard keeper, I don’t limit his hay. I tried the porta grazer for a short time, but slowing down how fast he ate was never an issue for him, so when he got his leg stuck that one day and I saw that he would chew with his head high, I figured whatever benefit he may have been getting from it wasn’t measurable enough for me to continue using it when I could clearly see the downside. This year I started feeding his hay free choice (along with pasture), and I just note approx. how much he eats each day. I let him balance the hay and pasture himself, and if he starts to get into trouble with too much grass, I will limit it. What I have noticed this year is that he handles grass much better when he has free choice hay at all times, i.e. fiber in the diet.

          • May 17, 2017 at 8:36 pm

            Very interesting info Mary – thanks for giving us the details. And your experience confirms Dr. Getty’s position that putting a horse on a “diet” only serves to slow their metabolism; the same way it does ours if we try to diet. The message over and over seems to be: Control the sugar, not the quantity. I also think it’s pretty normal for horses to chub up during whatever season is more abundant (in some regions that is winter, in others spring/summer) and I don’t think we should control that either. Unless of course, it causes a clear health issue. My horses and ponies in Alberta chubbed right up every summer and not one of them had a health issue in 10 years.

  • May 14, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Just looking at your slow feeder grate is it metal?I made two with s/ feeder hay nets but they chew through them, have difficulty getting anything else in we Zealand, do ‘ nt want to damage there teeth. Suggestions would. be helpful.

    • May 17, 2017 at 8:58 am

      Yes it’s metal. All 5 of mine have no damage to their teeth from it – the openings are 2 inches wide. If you don’t want to use metal you could try plastic – one of the videos above uses a plastic sheet with round holes in it.


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