Soy is a common ingredient in many equine feeds. Different parts of the soybean can be used to provide protein, energy, and fiber in your horse’s diet.

Soybeans are popular because of their versatility and affordability. Soy oil is a palatable fat source for horses who require additional calories.

Soybean meal and roasted soybeans also have a superior amino acid profile compared to other commonly fed protein sources. This makes soy a desirable addition to the high-protein diets required by lactating and growing horses.

However, there is a concern in the horse community about whether soy products are harmful. If you are concerned about your horse’s soy consumption, read on to learn more.

Soy Products in the Equine Diet

Soy can show up in your horse’s diet in many forms, including soybean meal, soy oil, and soy hulls.

These different forms vary in their nutritional profile and can be used to balance your feeding program based on your horse’s individual needs, including:

  • Physiological status of your horse
  • Forage quality
  • Composition of the rest of their diet
  • Health concerns

An equine nutritionist can help you determine if soy products would be suitable for your horse and how much to add to their diet.

Roasted Soybeans

Roasted soybeans are whole soybeans that are roasted to enhance their digestibility. This means the horse can absorb and use more of the nutrients in the soybean.

Roasting destroys endogenous trypsin inhibitors, which are anti-nutritional factors that can inhibit protein digestion. [1]

This form of soy is a great source of protein and fat. Feeding roasted soybeans is beneficial in diets where extra protein and energy are needed, such as for growing or lactating horses.

Soybean Meal

Soybean meal is a dense source of protein, and a particularly good source of the limiting amino acid Lysine.

Low protein or lysine intake can lead to several issues including loss of muscle mass, weak hooves, poor growth and poor performance.

Soybean meal is a by-product of soy oil production in which the oil is extracted, leaving the protein-rich meal.

Soybean meal is added to many commercial feeds, but can also be added to the diet as a concentrate to provide extra protein. It is well digested in the horses’ foregut. [2]

Compared to alfalfa, soybean meal is just as effective for supporting growth in yearling horses and results in better protein utilization. [3]

Nutritionists often recommend soybean meal for growing or lactating horses with high protein requirements. When weighing the use of soybean meal against other sources of protein, we consider some key nutrients:

Protein:

Soybean meal typically has a crude protein content of around 44 – 48%. This exceeds other protein sources including:

  • Alfalfa (17 – 25% crude protein)
  • Canola meal (36 – 41% crude protein)
  • Ground flax (26% crude protein)

The high concentration of protein makes it a good choice for horses with elevated protein needs, but limited feed intake such as in young, growing horses.

Calcium and Phosphorus:

Soybean meal has relatively low calcium to phosphorus ratio (approximately 0.45 : 1). This makes it a good choice to balance diets that contain alfalfa for growing horses.

Alfalfa is an energy and protein-rich forage with a calcium to phosphorous ratio of 5 : 1.

Feeding a diet that provides an optimal calcium to phosphorus ratio is extremely important for development in growing horses. Soybean meal balances the high levels of calcium in alfalfa to provide growing horses with a healthy ratio of these minerals.

Soy Oil

Soybean oil is a dense source of calories for horses that need more energy in their diets.

Soy-based oils are affordable, palatable and a good option for horses that are exercising or need to gain weight.

The oil does have a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. But since it is usually fed in small proportions out of the total diet, it is easy to balance with plenty of access to pasture.

In research studies, soy oil:

  • Was found to have similar digestibility compared to coconut oil [4]
  • Was found to have a similar effect to fish oil when fed to horses on a high starch diet [5]
  • May not be as beneficial as flax oil for stimulating antioxidant activity and maintaining circulating lipid profile [6]

Some soybean oil products contain added omega-3 sources to improve their fatty acid balance and support anti-inflammatory properties.

Mad Barn’s w-3 oil contain omega-3 fatty acids from flax oil and DHA-rich microalgae.

Oils that contain DHA or EPA provide superior anti-inflammatory benefits compared to plant-based oils such as flax or camelina oil, which only contain alpha-linolenic acid.

Feeding EPA and DHA can help horses with increased inflammation from exercise, respiratory issues, joint discomfort, or metabolic diseases.

Soy Hulls

Soybean hulls are low in non-structural carbohydrates (sugar and starch) but contain highly digestible fiber. [7] This makes them a gut-friendly source of calories for horses.

In fact, soy hulls provide a similar amount of energy as oats when fed with average-quality hay. [8]

They can be a good alternative energy source to high NSC feeds for horses with increased calorie demands. [8][9]

Nutritional Profile of Soy Products

The following values are on a dry-matter basis.

Roasted Soybeans Soybean meal Soy oil Soy hulls
Digestible energy (mcal / kg) 4.36 3.74 9.5 1.49
Crude protein (%) 41.7 51.5 0 12.1
Lysine (%) 2.56 3.15 0 0.76
Crude fat (%) 18.8 2.8 100 2.96
Calcium (%) 0.27 0.29 0 0.64
Phosphorus (%) 0.65 0.71 0 0.18
Alpha linolenic acid (% total fatty acids) 6.99 8.43 8.23 13.1
Linoleic acid (% total fatty acids) 52.4 54.2 53.7 42.7

Common Concerns with Soy

Critics of feeding soy to horses list many reasons to avoid it, such as concerns over genetic modification, phytoestrogens, and inflammation.

While some of these aspects have been investigated in humans and other animal models, there has been very little research on these effects in horses.

Overall, research suggests that soy is safe and even beneficial for horses.

Given the high percentage of horses that have soy in their diet, if soy were problematic to feed to horses we would expect to see more evidence of this in research and clinical reports.

Genetically Modified Soy

In a recent review, it was estimated that 77% of the soybeans produced globally are genetically modified.

The most common genetic change is to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (Round-Up). This modification was first developed in 1985 and approved for use in 1996. [23]

Since then, several studies have been conducted to evaluate its health and environmental impacts. The main concerns regarding any GM crops are:

  • Cross-pollination: The transfer of a new gene to wild relatives. To mitigate this, fields of GM soybeans and conventional soybeans must be at least 10 metres apart.
  • Horizontal gene transfer: The transfer of a new gene to other species (i.e. from plant to animal). This would require a series of biological processes resulting in DNA incorporation into the host genome. The probability of this occurring from plant to animal and impacting health is extremely low and therefore not considered a risk.
  • Allergenicity and toxicity: An allergic reaction to the new protein needs to be investigated for each new GM crop. The specific protein that is altered in glyphosate-resistant soybeans was found to be readily degraded by digestive fluids, non-toxic to mice when consumed at 1000x the normal amount and not similar to proteins that are known to induce allergies or be toxic. [24]

While there are no studies comparing genetically modified (GM) feeds against non-GM feeds in horses, research in other species and humans have shown that they are safe. [10][11]

According to the FDA, “There is no difference in how GMO and non-GMO foods affect the health and safety of animals.” [25]

Further, some GM feeds may have additional benefits such as decreasing the presence of mycotoxins in feeds. [12]

Ongoing research is being conducted to ensure the safety and nutritional equivalence of GM and non-GM crops. However, an abundance of contemporary research shows no adverse effects of GM soybeans on animal health. [13][24]

Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are compounds found in plants including soy, alfalfa and clover. These compounds may mimic the activity of estrogen in the body.

Phytoestrogen content is relatively high in soy, and these compounds have been linked to both health risks and benefits. [14]

In horses, the effect of phytoestrogen intake has been studied in pregnant mares, where very high intakes of phytoestrogen-rich plants such as clover were shown to impair fertility. [15]

However, the amount of soy products consumed by horses is unlikely to cause similar issues. They are typically fed at lower rates. In a study of pregnant mares, there were no adverse effects from adding soy oil to the diet. [16]

Inflammation

There are concerns that soy consumption could result in inflammatory effects due to the relatively high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

Soy oil has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of roughly 6:1. In comparison, pasture grasses that are often referenced as having the ideal ratio are 1:4 omega-6 to omega-3s.

However, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s in soy oil is much lower than that of corn oil (50:1) and cereal grains (22:1), which are also commonly fed to horses.

Soy may in fact have anti-inflammatory properties. In other species, soy intake has been shown to improve systemic inflammation [17] and intestinal inflammation, [18] and reduce the negative effects of inflammation on bone and cardiovascular health. [19]

Extracts from soy and other plants have been shown to decrease inflammation [20] and improve cartilage health in horses with osteoarthritis. [21]

Soy Allergy in Horses

Food allergies are thought to be uncommon in horses, [22] but with the growing availability of allergy testing, many horse owners are challenged with new dietary restrictions.

To confirm the diagnosis of a food allergy by blood or intradermal testing, an elimination diet must be fed to determine what component of the diet is causing your horse’s sensitivity. [22]

Following confirmation of an allergy, your vet may recommend treatment or avoidance to prevent further reactions.

When designing a feeding program for your horse to avoid soy or other allergens, consider the allergenicity of different components of feeds.

Allergens are generally contained in the protein fraction of feeds. If your horse has a soy allergy, it may be advisable to avoid products that contain soybean meal.

However, the protein content of other products such as soy oil and soy hulls is much lower, decreasing the likelihood that they will result in a reaction.

Summary

Some horse owners make the choice to avoid soy in their horse’s diet. However, soy components can add beneficial nutrients to the diet and can help to balance protein, fat and mineral requirements.

Additionally, the available research in equines shows that soy is safe and in many cases beneficial to feed.

If your horse has a soy allergy or if you are concerned about the soy content of your diet, you can submit your diet to be evaluated by one of our professional equine nutritionists.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Rackis, JJ, et al. Protease inhibitors in plant foods: Content and inactivation. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. 1986.
  2. Farley, MS, et al. Digestion of soybean meal proteinin the equine small and large intestine at various levels of intake. JEVS. 1995.
  3. Wall, LH, et al. Growth of yearling fillies fed alfalfa or soybean meal. JEVS. 1998.
  4. Meyer, H, et al. Preileal digestibility of coconut fat and soybean oil in horses and their influence on metabolites of microbial origin of the proximal digestive tract. Archives of Animal Nutrition. 1995.
  5. Vervuert, I, et al. Short-term effects of a moderate fish oil or soybean oil supplementation on postprandial glucose and insulin responses in healthy horses. Vet J. 2010.
  6. Sembratowicz, I, et al. Effect of Dietary Flaxseed Oil Supplementation on the Redox Status, Haematological and Biochemical Parameters of Horses’ Blood. Animals. 2020.
  7. Silva, RHP, et al. Pectin-rich by-products in feeding horses- A review. Cogent Food & Agriculture. 2016.
  8. Ott, EA and J Kivivpelto. Soybean Hulls as an Energy Source for Weanling Horses. Prof Anim Sci. 2002.
  9. Borghi, RT, et al. Digestibility of Nutrients and Digestive Health in Horses Submitted to Moderate Exercise and Supplemented With Diets Formulated With Soybean Hulls. JEVS. 2017.
  10. Yang, YT and B Chen. Governing GMOs in the USA: science, law and public health. J Sci Food Ag. 2015.
  11. Blair, R and JM Regenstein. GM food and human health. Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food. 2020.
  12. de Santis, B, et al. Case studies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs): Potential risk scenarios and associated health indicators. Food and Chem Tox. 2018.
  13. Rodriguez, AV, et al. Myths and Realities about Genetically Modified Food: A Risk-Benefit Analysis. Appl Sci. 2022.
  14. Patisaul, HB and W JeffersonThe pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2010.
  15. Ferreira-Dias, G, et al. Coumestrol and its metabolite in mares’ plasma after ingestion of phytoestrogen-rich plants: Potent endocrine disruptors inducing infertility. Theriogenology. 2013.
  16. Crain, CM. Influence of dietary fat source on reproductive parameters in mares. MTSU Thesis. 2013.
  17. Fanti, P, et al. Positive effect of dietary soy in ESRD patients with systemic inflammation—correlation between blood levels of the soy isoflavones and the acute-phase reactants. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation. 2006.
  18. Basson, AR, et al. Regulation of Intestinal Inflammation by Soybean and Soy-Derived Compounds. Foods. 2021.
  19. Droke, EA, et al. Soy isoflavones avert chronic inflammation-induced bone loss and vascular disease. J Inflamm. 2007.
  20. Ownby, SL, et al. Expression of pro-inflammatory mediators is inhibited by an avocado/soybean unsaponifiables and epigallocatechin gallate combination. J Inflamm. 2014.
  21. Kawcak, CE, et al. Evaluation of avocado and soybean unsaponifiable extracts for treatment of horses with experimentally induced osteoarthritis. Am J Vet Res. 1998.
  22. Logas, D.Food Allergy in the Horse: A Dermatologist’s View. Advances in Equine Nutrition. 2009.
  23. Stalker, D.M. et al. A single amino acid substitution in the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase confers resistance to the herbicide glyphosate. J Biol Chem. 1985.
  24. Cerdeira, A.L. and Duke, S.O. The current status and environmental impacts of glyphosate-resistant crops: a review. J Environ Qual. 2006.
  25. GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond. FDA. 2022.