Maintaining strong bones in young horses, particularly horses in training at an early age, can be a demanding task. There’s a virtual tug-of-war between growing tissues and remodeling bone for precious supplies of minerals and high-quality protein. What works for a horse developing slowly at nature’s pace may not be adequate for young horses under heavy physical stress.
We all know that milk’s mineral and high-quality protein content make it particularly good bone food, but there’s more. Several years ago researchers found that there is a component in the basic protein fraction of whey (milk) protein that improves bone density and reduces bone breakdown. This was studied both in laboratory animals and later in humans.
A Japanese study reported in the Equine Veterinary Journal looked at the effect of feeding just 1 gram per day of isolated milk basic protein to two-year-old Thoroughbreds in training for 90 days. Blood levels of osteocalcin, a marker of bone deposition, were compared in supplemented and unsupplemented horses. They also looked at bone-mineral density, calcium levels and levels of a metabolite of type I collagen (a marker of bone resorption).They found significantly higher levels of osteocalcin and increased bone density in the supplemented horses after 90 days.
Although further research is needed, whey shows promise as a simple, safe way to encourage strong bones in horses of all ages. Studies using whole whey protein found a similar effect feeding whey at a rate of 0.1% of the diet. This would amount to approximately 100 grams per day of whey protein for a 1,100-pound horse.