Protein, Amino Acid and BCAA

What is the difference between protein and branch chain amino acids when feeding horses? 

Protein and branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are both essential nutrients for horses, but they have different functions and roles in the horse’s diet. 

Protein is a macronutrient found in both plant and animal sources, consisting of amino acids that are essential for the horse’s health and wellbeing. Protein is necessary for building and repairing tissues and helps to support the horse’s immune system, muscle development, and overall growth and development. When protein is consumed, it is broken down into its constituent amino acids, which are then absorbed by the horse’s body. 

BCAAs, on the other hand, are a specific subset of essential amino acids that are important for muscle development and maintenance. The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and they are found in high concentrations in skeletal muscle tissue. BCAAs can help to prevent muscle breakdown, support muscle recovery after exercise, and improve overall athletic performance. 

When feeding horses, it is important to provide a balanced diet that includes sufficient protein to meet the horse’s daily requirements for amino acids. Horses that are in heavy work or have higher protein requirements may benefit from supplemental BCAAs to support muscle development and recovery. 

In summary, protein and BCAAs are both important nutrients for horses, but they play different roles in the horse’s diet. Protein is necessary for overall growth and development, while BCAAs are important for muscle development and maintenance, particularly in horses that are in heavier work. 


What is the difference between an amino acid and a branch chain amino acid? 

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They are organic compounds made up of an amine (-NH2) group, a carboxyl (-COOH) group, and a side chain (-R group). There are 20 different amino acids that are necessary to build the various proteins in the body. These amino acids can be categorised into three groups: essential, non-essential, and conditional. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body, so they must be obtained through the diet. 

Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a specific type of essential amino acid. They are named “branch chain” because their chemical structure has a side chain that “branches off”. The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They play a key role in protein synthesis and muscle building, making them popular supplements among athletes.  

The difference between amino acids and BCAAs is that BCAAs are a specific subset of amino acids that have unique properties. BCAAs have a higher affinity for muscle tissue and can be metabolised directly in the muscle, whereas other amino acids are first metabolised in the liver. This allows BCAAs to provide a readily available energy source for working muscles during exercise. Additionally, BCAAs have been shown to reduce muscle breakdown, improve muscle recovery and promote muscle growth. 


What are the most important amino acids for horses in work? 

Horses in work require more protein and energy to support muscle maintenance, repair, and growth than horses at rest. Additionally, work can increase the demand for specific amino acids. Here are some of the most important amino acids for horses in work: 

  1. Lysine: Lysine is essential for muscle development, connective tissue formation, and maintaining healthy skin and coat. Horses in work require more lysine to support muscle growth and maintenance.
  1. Methionine: Methionine is important for muscle growth and recovery. It also plays a key role in the production of hooves, skin, and hair.
  1. Threonine: Threonine is an essential amino acid that is crucial for building muscle tissues and maintaining a healthy immune system.
  1. Leucine: Leucine is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It is also involved in the maintenance of muscle mass during periods of stress or injury.
  1. Valine and Isoleucine: Valine and isoleucine are branched-chain amino acids that are important for muscle recovery and preventing muscle breakdown during intense exercise.
  1. Glutamine: Glutamine is an amino acid that plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut and immune system. It is also important for muscle repair and recovery.

It is important to note that all amino acids are important for overall protein synthesis and muscle health. However, these amino acids are of particular importance for horses in work and should be provided in adequate amounts in the horse’s diet through high-quality protein sources such as soybean meal, lucerne, or commercial supplements. 

Written by Dr Luke Wells-Smith BVSc GAICD of Motion Equine Centre  


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