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Feeding Older Horses

EQUUS magazine's experts answer a reader's question regarding feeding older horses.

Question: I have an Arabian/Quarter Horse gelding who is 15.3 hands and 1,000 pounds. He's between 23- and 25-years old and I've owned him for the past 17 years. He isn't ridden much anymore, but I'd like to make sure I'm feeding him the best possible rations. He receives alfalfa and special senior horse feed twice a day with oil. He also has a salt mineral block. Is this enough or should I be doing something more for him considering his age?

Answer: Many people have an understandable tendency to want to feed older horses "better," meaning more energy (calories) per pound or feed and richer, more digestible hays. But older, retired horses need less, not more, than younger horses. I do not think your horse's diet needs any enrichment. In fact, I am afraid his current diet may be too rich for his health.

While it is true that older horses may chew and digest somewhat less efficiently, whole-ration pellets of modest nutrition (10-percent protein, one Megacalorie per pound) are the answer to that problem, not the 16-percent protein in alfalfa or fat added to already high-fat senior feeds. Although it is getting harder to find, oat hay is the most practical answer for older horses' forage needs. If made in the early stages of grain formation, oat hay alone is an excellent total ration for maintaining older horses while avoiding the imbalances and excesses that can come with alfalfa. Additionally, the twice-a-day feeding routine you follow is quite unnatural and requires internal adjustments that stress the digestive and metabolic systems. When the intermittent "meals" offer high-protein, high-calcium alfalfa and energy-rich concentrates, the potential for problems is greater still.

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If he can chew and swallow without difficulty, an older horse will do best if he has light (10 to 12 percent protein, one Megacalorie per pound) hay available at all times, and this is what I would recommend for your horse. Water and salt complete the healthy diet.

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