Senior Horse Care: Your Older Horse’s Changing Diet

By Cynthia McFarland
Courtesy of Farnam’s Stable Talk

Life for senior horses — and their owners — has greatly improved from what it was in years past, thanks to advances in veterinary technology and equine nutrition.

Just like people, horses are individuals; they don’t all age at the same pace and in the same exact way. You’ll find some horses competing into their early twenties, while others are already retired in their teens. Certain horses maintain condition and muscle mass better than others.

But even though appearances differ among senior horses, they can all benefit from careful attention to their nutritional needs in their golden years.

There is no set age when a horse becomes “old.” Generally speaking, horses in their mid to late teens are considered “seniors.” Once he hits this age range, your horse may start having trouble maintaining his normal weight on the diet he’s been eating for years. You may notice gradual loss of muscle mass and his coat condition may not be as good as it used to be. These are signs he needs a change and would likely benefit from a commercial ration made especially for aged horses.

Before changing his diet, have your horse’s teeth checked by an equine dentist.

“Regular dental care is a must. As the horse ages, his teeth wear and it is important to maintain the teeth so that the horse can start the process of digestion by chewing the feed and breaking it down into appropriate particle sizes,” notes Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky.

If your horse has lost weight, condition and his coat isn’t as good as it should be, this could also be a sign of a metabolic concern. It’s a good idea to have your veterinarian draw blood and check for any additional concerns.

After ruling these out, you may want to consider switching your horse over to a senior feed, which is specifically designed to meet the needs of older horses.

“Senior feeds were developed to provide a nutrient source for horses that may have issues eating long-stem forage and have reduced digestive function due to age. They provide nutrients in an easily digested form for the older horse,” notes Coleman. “Senior feeds generally contain 12 to 14 percent crude protein and have a fat content that ranges from 5 to 10 percent, depending on how the feed is to be used. In addition, the fiber content is going to range from 16 to 18 percent.

”The digestive system in older horses tends to be less efficient at processing and absorbing nutrients. Equine nutritionists take this into consideration when formulating senior feeds. That’s why these rations usually have increased protein and fat content to provide more calories and the amino acids needed for normal function. Senior feeds are also usually high in fiber and come in a pelleted form that is easy for older horses to chew.

To help support digestion and nutrient absorption, you may want to add a prebiotic/probiotic supplement to your horse’s daily ration.

Older horses often have difficulty eating hay because their teeth are either worn down or missing. The high fiber content in senior feed is of value when you have to reduce or eliminate hay (long-stem forage) from the horse’s diet. Coleman has found that in some feeding situations, senior feed may be used as a horse’s sole source of nutrition. (In such cases, you’ll want to feed several small meals throughout the day.) But if a horse is still able to eat forage — either hay or pasture — it’s usually best to offer this forage and then balance his nutritional requirements with a senior feed.

If you’re still feeding hay to your senior horse, you’ll want to be especially picky about quality.

The horse needs to be able to chew and break down the hay, so select good-quality, soft hay that isn’t overly mature; it shouldn’t have thick, fibrous stalks. Coleman has found that mixed grass-legume hay, such as orchard-alfalfa or timothy-alfalfa, is often a good choice. “The only concern is if the older horse has any medical concerns that have been diagnosed and would limit the use of legume-based forage,” Coleman adds.

In situations where a horse has dental loss and can no longer properly chew hay, you may need to offer soaked hay cubes or even add some warm water to a senior feed to make a mash.

“Soaking a feed, such as alfalfa cubes, does make feed consumption easier on the horse. The cubes, when well made, can be hard to break down, depending on the horse’s teeth. The older horse with normal tooth wear may find breaking the cubes apart difficult,” says Coleman.

“Soaking also helps add water into the daily feeding program, and that can benefit the horse as well. In certain cases, soaking the pelleted feed can also not only add more water helping to reduce digestive upsets, but also increase hydration in the gut.”

Be aware that any time you add water to hay cubes or pelleted feed to make a mash, it needs to be fed and eaten within a fairly short time, especially when the weather is warm. Otherwise, you run the risk of spoilage and bacteria, which can be very harmful. To be on the safe side, toss out any uneaten mash within an hour or two.

If your older horse has any health issues, you’ll want to have a detailed discussion with your veterinarian as to what will be the best feeding plan for his specific needs. Obese horses are often prone to more problems, so you’ll also want to watch his weight and make sure he’s neither too heavy nor too thin.