Feeding frequency one key to senior horse care.
A horse’s nutritional needs change as they age. Consuming, digesting and absorbing enough calories and nutrients becomes more difficult for the senior horse.
Loss of the ability to graze, chew and swallow effectively:
As a horse ages their teeth no longer function as well as they did when they were younger. The angle of the incisors (front teeth) becomes more acute so the horse can’t grasp and cut grass as efficiently as they once could. Older teeth become narrower at the base than they are at the top. This creates the perfect pocket in which feedstuffs can accumulate between the teeth and irritate the gums. Older horses can develop waves (uneven surfaces) on the molars, as well as broken, rotting and even missing teeth. These changes make chewing less effective and sometimes painful. Older teeth can be more sensitive to cold, causing some older horses to drink less water.
Saliva output can also decline with age. Saliva helps the horse breakdown feedstuffs, aids in swallowing and buffers stomach acids. Lack of quality or quantity of saliva can leave the older horse at risk for choke and ulcers.
Even horses who have had excellent care their entire lives are less efficient at grazing and chewing as they age.
Decline in digestive function:
A modern horse’s gut is under stress from the day the horse is born. Parasite damage, medications, living in stalls, training, shipping, competing, too much grain, too little forage and even simply aging all stress the digestive tissues and microbiome. The older digestive tract is less resilient when faced with a challenge and less efficient at breaking down and absorbing nutrients. This leaves the horse more susceptible to decreased appetite, nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, hindgut imbalances, diarrhea and colic.
How can you help your old horse thrive? Feed adequate forage balanced for required nutrients, and increase your feeding rate.
The foundation of any equine diet is forage. Pasture and long hay should always be made available to senior horses, if not for nutrition then to ensure good mental health. (The exception are horses that have underlying conditions such as metabolic syndrome. Their diets will be a different.) In many cases, as the horse ages alternate fiber sources are often necessary to maintain weight and provide nutrients. There are a variety of long hay alternatives available; fiber pellets, fiber cubes and chopped hay. These replacements need to be fed at levels high enough to fulfill the horse’s fiber requirements. These requirements are based on the horse’s healthy weight and will range from 1.5% to 2% of a horse’s body weight per day. Hay alternatives often need to be soaked, which makes them easier for older horses to chew and swallow . Depending on the fiber replacement you use, your horse may still need additional sources of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. These can be offered in the form of a fortified concentrate, balancer pellet or vitamin and mineral pellet (such as Micro-Phase™). What you choose depends on the nutritional gaps you need to fill.
Senior feeds can be a great all-in-one solution. They are formulated to provide fiber, energy, protein and a compete complement of vitamins and minerals (aka complete feeds). Feeding rates of 8 to 12 pounds per day are not unusual. In some cases, a horse has never been fed such high levels of a concentrate and owners are concerned. It is important to remember that complete senior feeds were formulated to be safe when fed at higher levels because they contain so much fiber.
When more energy is needed than can be provided by fiber and concentrates, high fat supplements such as Equi-Jewel® and EndurExtra® can be added to soaked diets to provide extra calories. Fat is an excellent source of calories for older horses and can mean the difference between maintaining a healthy weight or being too skinny.
Regardless of the specifics of your senior’s diet, increasing their feeding rate is very beneficial. More frequent, smaller meals are easier to digest and absorb because they aren’t rushed through the digestive tract. They support a healthier digestive environment by constantly providing fiber to the gut. Horses with poor appetites can be overwhelmed by a couple of large meals a day, whereas several smaller meals will improve their appetite.
When planning your feeding schedule, spread meals out as much as possible thought out the day. Four feedings per day may look something like this: breakfast at 7 am, lunch at noon, dinner at 6 pm and a late-night snack at 10 or 11.
If older horses are out in a herd, provide them with a place where they can eat without being harassed or pressured by other horses. Even horses who were once “the boss” can move down in the pecking order as they get older, slower and more prone to arthritis. Seniors who live primarily outside will benefit from coming into a stall to eat. An added benefit of bringing your senior horse in for a period of time is it gives them an opportunity to take a nap on a soft bed of shavings or straw. Horse do better when they have an opportunity to lie down to sleep. Hard ground, rowdy pasture mates and difficulty getting up and down can lead to sleep deprivation in older horses that live outside full time. Bringing them in also gives the caregiver a chance to look for lamenesses or symptoms of illness that might be otherwise missed. Catching problems early leads to faster treatment and a better prognosis overall in older individuals.
Two old horses standing under a tree in a big grass pasture, swishing their tails as they nod off for a short nap is what most of us envision when we think about retirement for our horses. While that is a lovely image, it doesn’t reflect reality. When seniors retire, many of them in their early to mid- twenties, they can’t just be turned out in a grass pasture to finish out their days. Seniors need more care, not less, than middle-aged adult horses.