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Advanced Topics In Horse Nutrition: Senior Horses

An older brown horse looking over a fence.
Remember: Every horse is an individual with their own dietary needs!

Start With The Basics!

We previously covered the basics of horse nutrition in our Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements For Horses resource. If you haven’t read it, we recommend taking a look at it before reading this resource as it creates a foundation for learning more about horse nutrition. This resource expands on the foundational resource, focusing on dietary factors that can come into play when considering diet changes for many senior horses.

In our last resource, we learned a bit about how a horse’s digestive system works and discussed the building blocks of the dietary needs of horses. Forage and concentrates, vitamins and minerals, and the appropriate ratios and percentages of each of these is also important! The types and amounts necessary of each of these additives will change for many horses as they age. It can be a lot to take in! Here, we will break it down into different areas of dietary consideration.

If you recall from our basic nutrition resource, on average, a healthy adult horse will consume 1.5%-2.5% of their weight each day. Forage quality and species will affect the nutritional value a horse consumes. Based on those levels, a horse may require some supplementation of concentrates or vitamins and minerals. It is recommended that the forage growing in the pasture and the hay purchased be tested for nutritional value to allow you and your veterinarian and/or equine nutritionist to develop the best diet plans for resident horses. 

To maintain a healthy horse’s weight and nutritional intake, it is important to know:

  1. How much they weigh (approximately)
  2. How much a horse consumes each day (1%-2.5% of their body weight), and
  3. The nutritional value of the forage provided

One Size Doesn’t Fit All!
This is not a “one size fits all” guideline. Every horse is an individual and requires individually designed diets, depending on a number of factors. However, different groups of horses tend to have different generalized needs based on those factors, and this resource seeks to provide you information on some of the general considerations given to senior horse diets.

Who Is A Senior?

If you are caring for senior horse residents at your sanctuary, there are several dietary changes that you might consider, depending on the health of each individual. Senior horse residents may be more likely to have conditions that require changes in the type and amount of food provided, as well as how those foods are prepared. But before we can discuss that, we need to define “senior”!

You may often hear a horse is generally considered a senior when they turn 20 years old. However, a number of factors, depending on genetics, health, and life history, can affect the physiologic and physical aging of each individual. This is where the term “geriatric” comes in. A horse may be considered geriatric when they are significantly younger than 20 if they are experiencing a number of age-related health issues. As a sanctuary, it is sadly too common that residents have experienced hardships and conditions that may affect how their bodies age, making some of them prone to age-related issues much earlier in their life than others. That being said, sometimes there are pleasant surprises and a horse resident can live well past 20 before these common signs of aging present a need for dietary changes.

Factors Affecting Dietary Needs For Senior Horses

Dental Health

One of the top factors that can come into play is poor dentition. As horses age, their teeth simply grow until they are gone, leaving some individuals without a way to properly chew their food. This can greatly affect digestion and can lead to impactions. There are a number of dental issues that can change the way a horse’s diet is consumed and may necessitate dietary changes. Teeth can fracture or have gaps, sharp points, or wear patterns that make it more difficult for a horse to effectively grab and grind their food. If a horse has trouble eating, they are likely to start losing weight to an unhealthy degree. In cases like these, identifying the resident’s nutritional needs and how those needs can be met through a change in diet is crucial.

Gut Absorption

A good deworming protocol is important because parasites compete for nutrients, limiting the amount of nutrients absorbed by the horse, while also potentially causing damage over the years with intestinal scarring that may make it harder for them to absorb all the nutrients they need. Research has documented that senior horses absorb vitamins, proteins, and phosphorus at a lower level. Without the ability to absorb as much protein, senior horses may present with muscle wasting as protein is needed to keep muscles in good shape. In this case, adding more protein to their diet is vital to keep them healthy and happy. A good percentage of protein in forage and food is around 14%. In addition to a decreased ability to absorb protein, a senior horse’s body may produce less of the important enzyme to break down starch, which would mean too much starch could get into their hindgut. This could make them more susceptible to colic and laminitis

As you can see, gut absorption can play a big role in the health of senior horses and affect the type and quantity of certain foods in their specialized diet plan.

Lower Tolerance To Stress

You may find that your senior residents don’t adapt to change as easily as they used to. Transport, changes in routines, moving to new living areas, big temperature changes, and changes to social groupings can all have an affect on the health of senior horses. Events such as these may affect their appetite, putting them off their food, causing even more issues. Whenever possible, try to make changes gradually (including changes to diet!) and use calming techniques when applying these changes. Some calming techniques for horse residents include:

  • Taking lightly soiled straw from their current living area and putting it in their new area, or moving them next to the herd they will eventually be a part of, easing them into this transition.
  • Providing lavender scent during transport can lower heart rate.
  • In cases where you have little control, such as weather, be sure to tend to the extra needs an older horse may have during cold and hot weather by providing blankets when necessary, and designing proper living spaces that combat the effects of temperature stress.

Aging is not a disease. However, there are health issues that are more prevalent within an aging population of horses. Some of these issues include an increased risk of Cushing’s disease, kidney, intestinal, and liver issues, a decrease in the production of saliva important for digestion, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and tumors. Regular health checkups will help ensure you catch these issues early. Depending on the health issues, diet can play a big part in helping or harming. This is why it is vital to consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

Not A Substitute For Expert Advice!
This is not meant to replace veterinary advice for individual diet plans for senior horse residents. Doing so could result in serious health complications for residents as the details of each individual’s health is specific to them and requires specialized plans made with the assistance of experienced equine veterinarians and equine nutritionists. The information provided below and throughout this resource are meant to familiarize caregivers with general considerations for senior resident populations, giving them a foundation on which to further seek guidance and discuss diet plans with their veterinarians and nutritionists.

  • Poor Dentition: Provide food that is easily chewable and digestible, such as soaked beet pulp or hay cubes, or making a thick “soup” with complete pellets of extruded foods. Offer soaked, chopped hay. Choose softer hays when possible.
  • Pituitary And/Or Thyroid Tumors: These are not uncommon within senior horse populations and diets can be modified to better support the individual. Generally speaking, a vet may recommend reducing the starch in their diet while providing sources of fiber that are easily digestible, and even the addition of vitamin C supplements if they experience chronic infections. Food choices for these individuals may include a diet with low molasses content but high fat and fiber content, quality forage (so long as the individual does not have laminitis), and supplements to promote healing in the case of secondary infections.
  • Weight Loss And Muscle Loss: This addresses weight loss that is not associated with specific health issues, such as liver or kidney dysfunction, as these diseases require specialized diets and treatments different from those that follow. For an older, otherwise healthy horse who has trouble keeping on weight, or if you have noticed muscle loss, the general recommendations for improving healthy weight gain or maintenance include increasing the protein and fat content of their diet and ensuring forage and concentrates are easily chewed and digestible. In addition, offering grass or hay mixed with grass, providing access to quality pasture, and possibly supplementing their diet with brewer’s yeast, vegetable oil, soybean meal, and/or beet pulp, along with complete or extruded feeds, can help put and keep weight on older horses with weight loss.
    • Beet pulp is often used because it is a source of easily digestible fiber. It can be purchased and is sometimes incorporated into commercial feed, or can be bought separately and soaked and fed in addition to grain.
    • When selecting commercial foods for digestibility, look for foods that contain grains that have been through a process of rolling or steam flaking, or crimping or cracking. These processes improve the digestibility of the grains by breaking the seed coat. 
    • Supplementing a diet with fat can be accomplished in two ways: though feeding commercial products with added fat contents, or by adding high fat supplements, generally vegetable oil, on top of the horse’s food. When adding fat to the diet by adding vegetable oil, it is really important to be aware that this will result in less food being required. Therefore, focus should be given to ensure that protein, vitamin, and minerals are also increased to prevent an imbalance in their diet. If choosing to supplement fat with vegetable oil, it is imperative to do this under the supervision of a veterinarian or nutritionist, as they can recommend the correct amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals that the individual will need. Health checks will also prevent situations where a change in diet causes harm. In the case of high fat diets, if a horse is experiencing liver dysfunction, a high fat diet is not appropriate for them.
  • Kidney Failure: In cases where a senior horse is experiencing kidney dysfunction, it is often recommended that care be taken to restrict intake of protein, phosphorus, and calcium. As you can imagine, the recommendations are different for a senior horse with non-disease related weight loss and weight loss related to kidney dysfunction. This is an excellent example of why health checks are so necessary before changing a senior horse’s diet and further highlights the need for expert guidance. Providing a diet higher in protein for a horse with kidney disease could cause much more harm. In these cases, complete feeds that are designed for seniors are NOT recommended due to the increased protein content. Instead, a complete feed maintenance diet for adults is generally considered safer. 
    • Because legumes (clover and alfalfa), beet pulp, and wheat bran contain higher levels of either calcium or phosphorus or protein, they should generally be avoided as well. Grass hay, milo, and corn may be better alternatives for their diet.
  • Liver Failure: Liver failure also generally requires a diet of restricted protein intake. An increase of starch may be recommended, as may an increase of Vitamin C and B-Vitamins. 
    • An avoidance of legumes (alfalfa and clover) may be advised, while grass hay, corn, and 10% protein maintenance sweet feeds may be recommended. 
  • Metabolic Disorders: Some senior horses may develop metabolic conditions as they age. Conditions such as Cushing’s disease, metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance can require a number of treatment strategies, including feeding a specialized diet. Diets for individuals with metabolic disorders generally focus on keeping insulin levels stabilized. In terms of diet, this means providing diets with low starch and sugar content, but high easily-digestible fats and fibers. To accomplish stable insulin levels, it is often recommended to offer quality forage and digestible fibers such as soy hulls or beet pulp (without molasses!), and fat supplementation when necessary. Excess weight can be an issue for individuals with metabolic conditions and will need to be taken into consideration for many individuals.  A veterinarian may recommend a ration balancer to ensure the individual’s protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements are met. A common tip for removing extra sugar from their diet is soaking their hay for a few hours, then draining the water off to reduce sugar intake.
  • Respiratory Conditions: Senior horses may develop Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) also known as “Heaves”. Senior horses who have a genetic predisposition of RAO may show clinical signs of the disease when triggered by mold and dust, usually from hay. This disease is sometimes referred to as Equine Asthma. There are two types of RAO: Pasture-related RAO and Barn-related RAO. Both require specialized diets. For horses with BRAO, horses may need their hay soaked to prevent particles from reaching their respiratory tract. Some may do better with soaked cubes or “mash”. Horses with PRAO generally need to be kept off pasture unless it is winter. 
  • Other Age-Related Issues: Arthritis is common as horses age, and while there may be supplements that are recommended for an afflicted resident, the focus on diet-related care will be primarily on ensuring horses maintain a healthy weight, avoiding extra weight that can put more pressure on stiff, achy joints. There are supplements a veterinarian may recommend to improve joint health

General Diet Considerations For Senior Horses

  • It’s Not For Everyone! Just because a resident just had their 20th birthday, it doesn’t mean they necessarily need a special diet. A healthy older horse with good body condition and teeth may not need big, or any, dietary changes.
  • Health checks come first! If you feel a senior horse resident might benefit from a new diet, always discuss these changes with an experienced veterinarian or nutritionist and, if you haven’t already, ask your vet about checking their pituitary, kidney, and liver function. While many senior horses benefit from a modified diet, those with liver, kidney, or pituitary dysfunction could actually be harmed by certain diets that would be great for another senior horse without those issues! Additionally, if a horse resident has other health issues, a modified diet could help treat those conditions.
  • Water Intake! Seniors, especially those with dental issues, have an increased risk of impaction colic, making adequate water intake especially important. Water should be easily accessible at all times. During freezing weather, unfrozen, preferably warmer water should be available to ensure adequate intake. Living spaces should be designed so that horses living within a herd all have access to water and are not being displaced by other horses. One way to increase water intake is to soak either hay, hay cubes, or concentrated grains before feeding!
  • Dental health! As mentioned above, older horses may experience a number of dental issues. If this is the case with a horse resident, avoid feeding them poor-quality coarse and long stemmed hay. They may have trouble grinding these fibers down, and this can lead to an increased risk of impactions. Feed softer hays, and chop and soak long-stemmed hays for a more easily digestible diet.
  • Forage is first! Diets should be high in forage and fiber. Free access to forage is recommended for most horses, unless a health issue requires a different approach. Forage can be offered in a number of ways to cater to individuals with health considerations. Grass, hays, chopped hay, and hay cubes are all various ways to ensure senior horses get the fiber they need. (Don’t feed grass clippings, as this can cause colic!)
  • Take it slow! Any change in diet should be done slowly to avoid health complications such as colic.
  • Bit by bit! It is better to distribute food in smaller portions multiple times a day rather than offering a couple large feedings.
  • Feed separately! Depending on their health and disposition, some senior horse residents may eat more slowly than other residents. It can be a good idea to feed them separately so you know they received all their food and other residents aren’t helping themselves.

Hay Considerations For Senior Horses

If you and your veterinarian and/or equine nutritionist has determined that a senior resident would do well with some modifications, there are some general recommendations for senior horses when it comes to hay. We covered types of forage in the basics resource. This is useful, as there are specific types of forage that should generally either be avoided or given as the main source of a horse’s diet.

As previously stated, it is important to verify whether individual horses would benefit from these changes with your veterinarian. 

  • The softer the better! Generally speaking, aging horse populations experience worn teeth or other dental issues at a greater rate. Consider offering orchard grass, brome, or timothy, as these tend to be softer than other hay.
  • For horses with low kidney function, avoid legumes like alfalfa and clover! Many seniors can fare quite well with a 50/50 mix, as legumes tend to be softer. However, legumes are high in calcium which can be hard on the kidneys if kidney function is down, an issue some seniors have.
  • When appropriate, avoid low-quality, long stemmed hay! Long-stemmed hay can still be fed to some seniors, but those with dental problems may find it difficult to chew, potentially resulting in impactions. Chopped hay is available commercially, but you may find it easier (and less expensive) to chop the hay yourself. Do NOT feed grass clippings from mowing. They start to break down quickly and release gas that can cause colic!
  • Avoid feeding from round bales! Round bales are easily weathered after a time, lowering the nutritional value of the hay. The hay is often longer stemmed and some studies have indicated there is higher likelihood of colic when using round bales.
  • Soak hay for easier chewing! Soaking hay can help horses with poor dentition chew their hay and avoid impaction issues. Thirty minutes is a good amount of soaking time. It also helps with water intake.You can also use soaked hay cubes as a nutritious option that provides easier consumption for some older horses.

Considering Concentrates

While forage should always be at the top of the list when it comes to horse diets, concentrates can be used in varying degrees to help senior horses and horses with certain health issues get the nutrients they need. This is just a brief introduction to familiarize you with some of the concentrates a veterinarian or nutritionist may recommend:

Pelleted Concentrates

I bet you can guess what this is! Yep, pelleted concentrates (or feed) is food concentrated and processed into uniform pellets. This is a common commercial food and widely used. Pelleted concentrates, like all concentrates, can be soaked to prevent dust particles, improve digestibility, and make it easier to chew. This comes in handy when you have residents with respiratory or dental issues. It can also help them eat more slowly as pellets are quickly gobbled up!

You can find commercial pelleted feed formulated especially for seniors. Keep in mind that not every older horse will need senior feed!

Extruded Concentrates

Extrusion is a special process meant to make nutrients more easily available and digestible by breaking down protein and starch structures. This makes it less likely for starches to reach a horse’s hindgut. While extruded food is also uniform like pelleted food, it is softer, making it easier for seniors with dental issues to chew.

Textured Concentrates

Textured feeds refer to sweet feeds which contain molasses in a greater level than pellets that may contain it. They usually consist of oats, barley, and corn in addition to other protein, vitamin, and mineral supplements. This isn’t usually the best choice for individuals with dental issues, as it can be difficult to chew. However, it can help hide medication or supplements and encourage horses when necessary.

Beet Pulp

Beet pulp is the by-product of processing sugar from beets, leaving a fibrous substance often used in horse diets. Like hay, it is a fiber, but it’s more easily digestible, making it a good option for senior horses with certain conditions. 

Soybean Meal

Soybean meal is sometimes used to supplement protein in the diets of older horses. 

Other Grains

Grains such as corn, barley, and oats (common ingredients in sweet feed) are sometimes fed on their own. They may have been steamed, cracked or rolled. Generally these are less likely to be recommended for senior horses as they are more difficult to chew. 

Senior Supplements
Because each senior horse is different, talking to your veterinarian or equine nutritionist is best when considering supplementing their diet with vitamins or minerals. Different health conditions require different diets, including supplementation guidelines. What is good for one senior may not be appropriate for the next senior!

While this is not an exhaustive list of the dietary needs of senior horses residents, hopefully it has given you an idea of what factors to consider when designing diet plans (with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist) for your senior horse residents.

SOURCES:

Senior Horse Nutrition | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

Taking Care of the Senior Horse | Kentucky Equine Research (Non-Compassionate Source)

Care For The Older Horse: Diet And Health | Recent Advances In Equine Nutrition  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Caring For The Older Horse: Common Problems And Solutions | University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Equine Applied And Clinical Nutrition E-Book: Health, Welfare And Performance | Google Books (Non-Compassionate Source)

Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) In The Horse | American Association Of Equine Practitioners (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 22, 2020

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