Feeding Aged Horses
As horses age a number of changes can occur which affect how we may need to feed them. Not all old horses have all of these changes, but these are commonly seen and impact our approach to their diet.
- Dental disease. As horses age, they are more likely to develop dental disease such as periodontal disease. This can be secondary to feed getting trapped between teeth, and often causes dental pain. This may affect how your horse chews, and you may notice they start to ‘quid’, salivate, lose weight, or stop eating their hard feeds and hay. As horses age, teeth may also start to become mobile and fall out, and therefore horses start to have trouble chewing feed like hay.
- The intestine and hindgut starts to lose its ability to digest feed material. Reduction in fermentation in the hindgut affects how much of the feed the horse can utilise, and a reduction in the ability of the intestine to absorb nutrients may also affect their condition.
- Older horses with underlying liver or kidney disease may struggle with high protein diets as they cannot excrete waste products from protein metabolism as well as they used to be able to
- As horses age, arthritis is a common ailment and it can impact horses ability to move around and graze. It will also affect their muscle tone and ‘topline’ as they move less
- PPID (Cushing’s) is a disease of older horses so there is a proportion of this population with this endocrine disorder that impacts many body systems. Typically these horses ‘waste’ muscle quickly
- Geriatric horses are more prone to picking up gastrointestinal parasites which can further compound weight loss, so ensure that you develop a worming programme with your vet.
- High quality fibre is a key component of old horse diets to ensure maintenance of gut health. Keeping feeds soft so they are easily eaten, yet still high in fibre is key. Lucerne, good quality grasses and hay, as well as soaked sugar beet or soy hulls are good examples.
- As older horses tend to lose weight easily and lack muscle mass, provision of good sources of protein (but not in excess) is important. Lucerne and commercial senior horse feeds can provide good protein sources. If grains are fed, highly processed (e.g. mironized, extruded etc.) are recommended especially in the presence of severe dental change, as they are easier to chew and digest. Oils are also an excellent source of energy, and allow you to increase the calories of your feeds without increasing the volume. Feeding older horses smaller volumes more frequently is recommended to ensure adequate caloric intake.
- Ensure vitamins and minerals are fed, especially in horses that are not able to graze as effectively. Good quality bone and joint supplements may be useful, however cannot remove arthritic change once present. These work best to help maintain healthy joints and preserve the fluid within them (synovial fluid) that nourishes the joint.