Feeding Older and Younger Horses

Feeding Older and Younger Horses - differences in their nutritional needs.
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Feeding Older and Younger Horses - differences in their nutritional needs.

My own horse, Annapolis, is now over 20 years old and as a concerned horse owner, I have done some extensive research regarding his changing nutritional needs. As with humans, equines age at different rates, and Annapolis certainly doesn't act like an old horse, however, keeping a careful eye on his condition will alert me to signs that an adjustment may be needed in his diet.

Tell-Tale Signs

  • Loss of condition in the winter months, when the grass stops growing or is sparse.
  • Loss of weight around the hips and withers.
  • Difficulty eating hay.
  • "Quidding" of feed (dropping it out of the mouth).
  • Poor, worn or missing teeth.
  • Stiffness when coming out of his stable in the mornings.
  • General stiffness.

Keeping Condition On
One of the most important ways to ensure your older horse does not lose condition is to keep to a rigorous worming schedule, as well as having regular checks done by your veterinarian. Many older horses have worm damage which has accumulated over the years and this can affect the efficiency of their digestives systems.

Have his teeth checked regularly - at least once a year but twice is even better. As horses age, the angle of growth of their teeth changes, causing uneven wear. They can develop sharp points which can, at best, compromise their ability to chew effectively and at worst, cause sores on the inside of their mouths.

Different Nutritional Needs
Dr. Sarah Ralsten, of Cornell University did some research into the differences in digestive ability between young horses (specifically under ten years of age) and old horses (over twenty years of age) and found that older horses had an increased need for protein and phosphorus. Also, they were more likely to need those nutrients in a more easily digestible form, due to a possible lessening in the efficiency of their digestive system.

There are several feeds available now which are especially formulated for the senior equine. These feeds are high in digestible fiber and aim to increase or maintain weight, rather than to provide instant energy for work.

Feeding Young Horses
When feeding young horses, it is important to formulate a diet that will provide his body with the good quality protein, vitamins and minerals it needs to grow healthily. There are, of course, feeds especially formulated for foals and youngstock to make things easier for the horse owner.

Things to Remember When Feeding Young Horses

  • Unlike mature horses, foals eat a much higher ratio of concentrates to forage. This is because the foal's hind gut takes time to develop, so you will notice that a foal will eat little forage before he is three months old.
  • Ideally, you should be able to see the ribs of a healthy young horse until he is about two years old. Excessive weight may cause bone development problems.
  • If you cut back on feed because your foal is getting overweight, be sure that you still provide the level of proteins, vitamins and minerals required for healthy growth.
  • Aim for a slow, steady growth rate. Make a chart and measure your foal's weight and height at regular intervals.
  • Turn out 24 hours a day if possible. Young horses need positive stress on their bones to help them mature properly.

Getting the Facts
If you want to know more about the specifics of equine nutrition, many of the major feed manufacturers now have "hotlines" to their nutritionists where you can call in and ask specific questions - check on the bag your feed comes in for details. Of course, your local veterinarian is always a good source of information, especially since he or she has a direct knowledge of your horse's history. And don't forget the Internet! Check the Feeding and Nutrition pages on this site for links to various articles about equine nutrition.