Nutrition for the Older Horse

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Written By Kris Hiney 


With proper care, today’s horse owner can expect to have their equine companion for 20 to 30 years. Advances in veterinary care, parasite management and nutrition, allow us to sustain horses much longer than what would be observed in the wild. With proper attention to their nutritional needs, even the body weight and the condition of the horse can be maintained in a very good state. So what types of changes in the diet of the older horse should you address?
First of all, when should you begin treating your horse as an “old horse”? Typically horses older than 20 years are considered to be aged, but this may vary from horse to horse. Visual signs of aging include a loss of body weight, a loss of muscle mass over the top line of the horse, graying around the eyes and muzzle, and stiffening of the joints.
However, one of the most fundamental changes in the older horse is an alteration in its teeth and its ability to masticate its feed properly.  Horses’ permanent teeth begin quite long, (4-5 inches), with only a portion of the crown visible in the oral cavity. The teeth continue to erupt throughout the horse’s life as the crown of the tooth is wore down by grinding against the opposing teeth and the forage the horse consumes.   As a horse ages, continual grinding of its feed wears down the surface of the horse’s tooth. Eventually as this process of tooth eruption and wearing away of the crown continues, an old horse will essentially “run out” of teeth. Examination of the molars and premolars of elderly horses may show a very short molar in comparison to a younger horse. The root of the tooth may become less stable, resulting in a loss of teeth. Teeth remaining in the jaw which are unopposed grow into the remaining space and can press directly against the gums.
An older horse’s mouth may not only be less functional but quite painful as well. Attention by a veterinarian or equine dentist is imperative to insure that any such problems are addressed. However, no veterinarian or dentist will be able replace a horse’s lost teeth. In that case, the diet of the horse must be altered.
 Proper chewing is imperative to allow a horse to digest its feed. Because the base of the horse’s diet is forage, mastication is necessary to disrupt the tough cell wall of the plants. Without proper chewing, enzymatic digestion of the feed in the small intestine will also be limited.   With the horse unable to digest its feed to the same extent, the amount of feed that used to be able to support a horses’ energy needs is no longer enough — much of the energy content of the feed is actually lost in the feces.   The type of feed offered to the horse must now be much more digestible with less work by the horse!
Most major feed companies manufacture diets designed for aged horses. These feeds are typically pelleted or extruded, which eliminates the need of the horse to perform much chewing. Horse owners can make their senior citizens’ job even easier by wetting the feed to create a meal of mash-like consistency. Often these feeds can represent the sole component of the horse’s diet as they contain forage/ roughage, but in a form that is ground or finely chopped. They also contain feedstuffs that are highly digestible and calorically dense.
Fats provide a great deal of energy (2.25 x more so than carbohydrates), are highly digestible and are palatable to the horse.  You may also see different types of fiber sources added that are also easily digestible such as beet pulp, citrus pulp, rice bran, etc. These fiber sources are rapidly fermented by the horse and are safer to feed than providing your horse a large amount of starches and sugars.    Molasses added to feed does serve the purpose of increasing palatability and, thus, intake in horses.  If your older horse has a history of insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, avoid feeds which contain a substantial amount of molasses.  It may be necessary to try several feeds to determine which your horse finds most acceptable and will readily eat.
Hay cubes can also provide a form of forage that an older horse can readily consume. Again, if your horse has trouble chewing the hay cubes, they can be moistened for easier consumption. If you are feeding horses this way in the winter, be sure to not offer the horse more feed than he can consume before it freezes. In addition, broken teeth may be more sensitive to cold and make him further reluctant to consume his feed!
Beyond an older horse’s lack of teeth, there may be some evidence that they simply do not digest feed in their intestines as efficiently as younger horses. It is even more important that these horses receive a balanced diet that can meet their energy, amino acid, mineral and vitamin requirements.  However, don’t go overboard and begin to randomly supplement your horse indiscriminately.
If he is housed with other horses, he may lose status in the social hierarchy as he ages. This could greatly affect his access to feed and should be carefully monitored.
Older horses frequently suffer from arthritis as well. Certainly, if your horse is uncomfortable or in pain he will be less likely to have a good appetite. While long term administration of NSAIDs may help to eliminate your horse’s pain, it may also cause an increased risk of ulcer formation. This will only further discourage the horse from eating. Alternatively, omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to decrease lameness scores and inflammation. Thus, feeding a source of n-3 fatty acids may keep your older horse more pain free with less gastric disturbances.
Finally older horses may be at an increased risk of disease transmission due to an age-related decrease in their immune system. It is important to provide an environment that is as stress free as possible for your horse to maintain good health.
Following these tips, as well as regular vaccinations and deworming schedules will help your horse have a good chance of reaching its 30s!