It wasn’t too long ago that a horse was considered over the hill at age 10. But now, better health care and preventative medicine have greatly extended a horse’s useful life, and many horses work into their 20s, even longer. Not surprisingly, manufacturers have stepped up to the plate with products that target this growing population of older horses.
And it’s more than supplements and arthritis remedies. Now you’ll find specialized feeds for older horses right next to the bags for pregnant mares, performance horses and growing horses. The questions for you to decide are whether or not that feed is the best one for your seasoned senior and whether that feed is worth your cash.
As a horse ages, the ideal types of food don’t change drastically. The bigger changes are his ability to process those feeds - as in chew and digest them - and his ability to ward off parasites that compete for the food he takes in. Regular deworming and good dental care are absolute necessities for your older horse’s overall health and utilizing his feeds.
However, even if you have his teeth in as good a shape as possible, his saliva production may lessen as he ages and the output of his digestive enzymes may drop. These factors combine to decrease his ability to properly digest fat, protein and starches, meaning he’ll get less out of everything you feed him.
Fiber can be a problem, too. Even if he manages to chew the hay and get it into his stomach, his intestinal motility and the ability to absorb those nutrients drop off over the years. The aged horse also has a weakened population of intestinal microorganisms, the good bacteria responsible for digesting food. All this means is that he’s using what he’s eating less efficiently than he could.
Adding a probiotic, like Ration Plus (www.rationplus.com or 800-728-4667), to the horse’s diet can increase that nutritional efficiency, helping him manufacture and maintain the balance of microorganisms he needs for fiber digestion. With Ration Plus, we’ve found the horse gets more out of the food he eats - just what some struggling older horses need.
Your horse’s mineral, calorie and protein needs are basically the same as when he was younger, except for a little extra attention to a few particular nutrients.
Protein: Quality, not quantity, is the key with protein. Work for 10 to 12% crude protein overall, meaning the average protein in your hay and your concentrate combined. A level of 12 to 14% crude protein in the ’feed’ with supplemental lysine and methionine is suggested. This added protein is a good insurance against any changes in protein digestibility related to lower levels of digestive enzymes in the horse.
Essential Fatty Acids: Aging in other species interferes with the animal’s ability to utilize essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are important for skin and hoof health and for battling arthritis. These are called ’essential’ because they must be supplied directly through the horse’s diet since he can’t manufacture them himself. And, again since the older horse is less able to utilize what he takes in, he has a higher need for the supplemented EFAs in his diet (see sidebar below).
Vitamin C: Horses generally manufacture adequate, but not optimal, vitamin C on their own, especially if they have access to fresh grass. However, the older horse is less able to accomplish this in even adequate amounts and should get vitamin C supplemented at a rate of 7.5 grams per day. Vitamin C is important for immune function, and an older horse is already battling a weak immune system.
B Vitamins: Supporting a healthy population of intestinal bacteria will also improve your horse’s B-vitamin status. B vitamins are important for your horse’s immune system, his ability to withstand stress, maintaining optimal red blood cells, and even calming (thiamine or vitamin B1).
Phosphorus: Research in the past has shown poor phosphorus digestion in older horses, possibly due to cumulative damage from a lifetime of battling internal parasites. This information had made many nutritionists recommend the older horse receive higher levels of phosphorus. However, recent studies by Dr. Sarah Ralston show this may no longer be true, presumably because modern dewormers minimize parasite damage to the gut over a horse’s lifetime.You need to pay attention to the calcium:phosphorus ratio (Ca:P), in your horse’s feed. This ratio needs to be no lower than 1.2:1 to avoid problems with excess phosphorus intake.
Some manufacturers bumped up the phosphorus levels in their senior feeds because of the old study showing decreased phosphorus absorption in older horses, but they didn’t always increase the calcium amount to match, resulting in a bad ratio.
Copper: Copper is a trace mineral, meaning it’s required in small amounts compared to the major minerals of calcium and phosphorus. However, copper is essential for hair pigmentation, controlling inflammatory responses, resistance to intestinal parasites, bone/tendon/joint strength and resistance to infections. Your older horse needs at least 40 ppm copper in his grain or other concentrate.
Selenium: Selenium is another trace mineral that is deficient in most horse’s diets. It protects the horse’s muscle and is essential for proper thyroid hormone conversions. It is also an immune-system stimulant and beneficial antioxidant. Your horse needs at least 0.3 ppm in his grain/concentrate.
Feeding The Senior
Maintaining good dental care, regular deworming and supporting fiber digestive processes with probiotics may be all your older horse needs to stay on the same diet he had when younger. If he’s still chewing fine and holding his weight on that diet, don’t change a thing.
The horse should get most, if not all, of his calories from pasture and hay for as long as he holds his weight. As with any horse, we recommend you also feed a mineral supplement with a formula that complements your hay (see September 2001).
When older horses begin to have trouble holding condition, the most common cause is poor chewing. If he’s dropping weight on a hay-only diet, increase the calorie density of the diet by adding some grain. We’d start by adding a regular grain, rather than first trying a pricier ’senior’ feed, to see if a few pounds a day can stop the weight loss.
If he’s having trouble chewing, try a different form, such as pellets or an extruded feed, both of which can be soaked if necessary. This is where the senior feeds begin to come into play, as they are designed to be easier to chew. In addition, hay cubes, pellets and chopped forage (see December 2002) can be soaked to make them easier to chew.
When hay, chopped forage or pellets/cubes an d regular grains aren’t getting the job done, add or replace part of the hay with beet pulp. Soaked beet pulp is easier to chew than regular hays and delivers more calories per pound than hay but still less than grain. Adding some rice bran or wheat bran to keep the major minerals balanced (see ’Comfort Food,’ October 2002) also boosts the calories.
If the horse still can’t hold his weight, shows signs like quidding (not fully chewing his hay and dropping out partially chewed sections of hay), and you find whole grains - meaning more than just the hull - in the manure, you’ve got real chewing problems.
At this point, it’s unquestionably time to try either a concentrated but easy-to-digest supplemental feed, like Seniorglo, or move to a complete or senior feed, while still providing at least five pounds per day of hay, chopped forage or soaked hay cubes for the important nondigestible fiber (see sidebar below).
A complete feed is designed to provide fiber for your horse’s digestive health when he can’t eat hay. However, you can also feed hay with a complete feed, if your horse can eat it, so don’t be afraid to feed it as well.
Regular complete feeds that aren’t labeled as being for senior horses - and therefore often carry a higher price tag - are incredibly similar in ingredients and nutrition to those feeds that are designated as for senior horses. Therefore, if the regular complete feed is a better buy, we’d try it before purchasing the senior.
When fed as directed, both types of feed meet your horse’s mineral needs. If your horse still can’t maintain his condition, you may find the higher-fat and/or more highly processed senior feed is necessary.
If your older horse is doing fine on his hay-only diet, there’s no reason to change a thing. We’d just add a good mineral supplement and a source of essential fatty acids.
If your older horse is only able to eat about 1% of his body weight in hay each day - meaning a 1,000-pound horse eats 10 pounds of hay per day - you definitely need to add a concentrate. Go to your local feed store and tell them you need a feed that provides good supplemental trace-mineral levels, at least 12% protein, guaranteed essential amino acid levels and a high reliance on soluble fiber rather than grains as a calorie source, for intestinal tract health. Our favorites in this category are Vintage Senior, Triple Crown Senior and Legends 12 P Maturity (see chart).
If your horse can only take in 0.5% of his weight (5 lbs./1,000-lb. horse) in even soaked hay cubes or chopped forage, you definitely need a concentrate that also provides a solid level of fiber. We still like those three feeds above, but we’d also recommend you consider the calorie-dense TDI Senior, which is a good first step for horses moving from hay diets.
Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Senior Feeds Guaranteed Analysis and Our Comments.”
Click here to view ”EFAs for the Older Horse.”
Click here to view ”Feeding Seniors.”
Click here to view ”Long Fiber and Seniors.”