Feeding the Senior Horse
One of our core beliefs is that good nutrition starts in utero for a long, healthy life for our equine friends. Starting with balanced nutrition in the womb, through development and maturity, our horses are living longer, healthier lives. But even with enhanced management, age begins to take a toll on digestive health. Read on to learn about the signs to watch for in your aging horse and when it may be time to switch to a senior diet.
What Makes a Senior? Look for the Signs
While 18 years or older has typically been the norm for a “senior” horse, now there are horses still competing in their top form at this age and beyond. With better preventative management, senior horses can now stay active longer, commonly reaching their late 20s or older in their respective jobs. This is why we like to determine if a horse is senior based not on chronological age, but rather individual physiological age. A horse becomes a senior when his system begins to change, whether he is 15 or 25.
Here are some of the signs to look for:
- Body condition can no longer be maintained on the horse’s regular diet without noticeable weight loss, poor hair coat, and hoof quality;
- Lost topline, muscle wasting or swayback;
- Shaggier hair cost that takes longer to shed out;
- Teeth loss, food dropping, less efficient digestion, joint issues, or metabolic concerns;
- Changes in behaviour such as changes in the horse’s pecking order within the herd; more time spent in the shade, napping.
Senior Feed Requirements and Issues
Photo: iStock/Jacqueline Nix
As the senior horse ages, chewing and digesting of feed is compromised. Teeth start to wear down or fall out and the digestive tract has a harder time absorbing nutrients as the effectiveness of the digestive system declines. Nutrient absorption can also be affected by tooth health; if teeth are worn or falling out, particles of feed are much more likely to go through the system undigested. Not only does this mean the senior is not getting proper protein and nutrients, it also means that too much starch may enter the hindgut, increasing risk of colic, laminitis, or founder.
One of the most common issues facing geriatric horses is pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) popularly recognized as Cushing’s disease, in which excessive levels of various hormones produced by the pituitary gland can negatively affect multiple bodily functions. The early signs of Cushing’s disease are well known and include abnormal sweating, excessive hair growth or delayed shedding, muscle wasting, and lethargy. The good news is that even though Cushing’s disease is common in the senior horse, with medication and good nutrition it can be managed to give the horse many happy, healthy golden years.
How to Feed the Senior Horse
Now that we’ve looked at some of the challenges and common ailments of the senior horse, how do we go about making sure the senior is getting everything needed to maintain and enjoy their golden years with a happy digestive tract? Sufficient fibre intake is of utmost importance to the senior, just as it is for horses of any age, and seniors still need to have small, frequent meals to reduce the incidence of ulcers and not upset the balance of the gut. If your senior is chewing up and spitting out wads of hay, chances are he is no longer able to grind down the tough stalks properly. A common solution to ensure he is getting enough intake is to soak or steam hay to make it easier to masticate, and fibre can be supplemented with a hay replacer pellet or cube. Some geriatric horses require fully soaked fibre as their teeth are worn down or lost. Due to the reduced fibre intake from hay, a diet composed of fat and nutrient dense ingredients is required. Remember, reduced ability to absorb nutrients means too much feed could go through to the hindgut undigested. Therefore, smaller amounts of highly bioavailable, nutrient dense feeds with low starch are recommended for the senior. The addition of prebiotics and probiotics helps to maintain a balanced gut. Look for feeds that are highly digestible and well-rounded for the senior’s system, with pellets or cubes designed specifically for this type of horse. And for that muscle wasting and top line degeneration, we can’t fight age and genetics, but good quality protein and collected exercise can help keep your senior strong for years to come!
Masterfeeds provides equine nutrition solutions for all stages of your horse’s life. Growth and development, breeding, lifestyle and easy keepers, training and performance, plus senior and special needs feeding are all available with proven, effective equine nutrition solutions.
Main Photo: iStock/Wolfavni