Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC), a Greek physician and known as the “father of medicine”, talked extensively about how “food should be our medicine” and “our medicine should be our food”. He was, of course, speaking of humans as he exemplified how proper nourishment can go a long way in healing. The same is nonetheless true of animals. You might say that this only pertains to “disease” conditions. But it is no less important in the face of physical injury; the body needs the proper building blocks to repair the injured tissues. All nutrients are important, but in this abbreviated article we will look primarily at protein and its importance during the healing process.
The central dogma of modern conventional biology states that the life processes are genetically controlled – called genetic determinism. In other words, the dogma says that the health and the fate of the organism are determined by the genetic inheritance. However, recent advances in cellular science are showing us otherwise: Environmental influences can affect the behavior of genes and thus the environment affects cellular behavior. This “environment” includes not just the external physicality but also the internal physiology, with the internal physiology being dependent upon the proper “fuel” to operate and repair itself. That “fuel” for the horse is biologically appropriate nutrition.
Cells are comprised of proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and lipids; proteins are one of the major components (along with lipids) of all plant and animal cells, being involved in the growth and development – including repair – of all body tissues as well as reproduction and immunity. Proteins are actually chains of amino acids; when a horse ingests protein as a whole, his body breaks it down (called de-hydration synthesis) into the amino acid components, re-arranging them (sequencing & folding) as needed for any particular function. Some amino acids are synthesized within the body (called non-essential) and some have to be derived from diet (called essential). Proteins are labile; meaning they wear out with use and must be replenished. If a particular amino acid is in limited supply or is missing (or has been “used up”), its particular action will cease.
Stress and injury can increase the body’s need for various amino acids (aka protein), including creating a dietary need for even those that are theoretically non-essential. Research has demonstrated that insufficient protein can delay or even stop wound healing. Keep in mind that wounds can be external as well as internal. With regard to horses (especially those in the performance sector), many “wounds” manifest as tears in tendons and ligaments.
There are currently 20 amino acids that are referred to as “standard” and most plants contain all of these and thus are complete proteins. Therefore, a biologically appropriate foraging diet for a non-stressed horse should be completely sufficient. The caveat is that much of the Earth’s soil is depleted of the minerals necessary to allow the plants to make complete protein. And so it may become necessary to supplement a complete protein: bee pollen is one of the complete proteins found in nature; legume forages are another good source of proteins. In the injured horse, this kind of protein supplementation can become a nutritional requirement. Used along with other modalities (such as magnet therapy, etc), it can greatly speed healing time.
Care should be taken, however, to not feed protein in major excess of the horse’s physiological need. High protein feed and supplements (such as those listed as 20% crude protein or more) are at best a waste of money, and if fed in the form of grain/concentrates can be devastating metabolically. We are beginning to see some studies done with high quality forages – specifically haylage in at least one study – used in place of concentrates as protein/energy boosters especially in performance horses. It has been my personal experience that a quality product such as an alfalfa haylage (which has a perfectly acceptable crude protein allowance of about 9%) is a completely biologically appropriate way to supplement a foraging diet.