One of main reasons that horses are able to live into their thirties and forties these days is improvements in senior horse nutrition. As horses age, their abilities to chew and digest feed materials decline. Nutrient requirements also begin to change. Commercially available complete feeds and feed supplements have been designed to meet these new requirements of your aging horse. Simple changes in feeding management can also improve the health of your long-time equine friend.
Since older horses are more prone to dental abnormalities, causing dropping of grain while trying to chew, inadequate chewing leading to inefficient digestion of food, and choke, routine dental care
is an important aspect of equine nutrition. For horses that are missing teeth and dropping their grain, water can be added to make a mash that they can swallow and digest more easily. The addition of water to the grain can also benefit a horse with heaves that coughs when eating dry, dusty feeds. Horses with chewing problems can also be fed chopped forage instead of hay because its smaller, softer stems are easier to chew than the long, thick stems of baled hay.
Several feed manufacturers have added a senior formulation to their line of feeds. The features of a quality senior formulation are that they contain a higher percentage of easily digestible proteins and fiber, a higher fat percentage, balanced levels of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, are highly palatable for the finicky eater, and can be mixed with water to create a mash. These feeds are often advertised as being a “complete feed,” meaning that they meet the roughage requirements for horses without access to grass or hay, or who cannot properly chew and/or digest grass and hay.
Supplements can also be added to the diet when necessary to address specific problems. Weight gain can be achieved by adding fat such as corn oil, rice bran or rice bran oil, commercial products such as Weight Builder, or feeds that are especially high in fat. Fiber can be added with beet pulp- a dry, flakey feed material that must be soaked in water for several hours before feeding it so that it can “plump up” like rice does when it is cooked. For horses with poor hoof growth or quality, supplements containing biotin are available to improve the quality of the new hoof that is produced. Supplements containing chondroitin sulfate, MSM, hyaluronic acid, and glucosamine are available to aid in treating joint health problems such as arthritis. For horses that are prone to sand impactions, or for general prevention of sand impactions, supplements containing psyllium are available to use regularly. Feed stores and mail-order catalogs offer a variety of supplements for all types of problems- check with your veterinarian to see which products might benefit your horse.
Another management decision that your veterinarian can assist you with is frequency of feeding. Since older horses may have digestive problems, an increased risk of colic, and metabolic problems such as those affecting blood sugar regulation, feeding smaller meals more frequently during the day may be better than feeding one or even two meals per day. More frequent meals are also necessary if your horse cannot eat grass or hay since the horse’s digestive system operates most efficiently when there is access to roughage continually throughout the day.
One final, and arguably the most important, aspect of equine nutrition is unlimited access to fresh, clean water at all times. Water buckets and troughs should be cleaned and rinsed frequently to avoid algae growth, especially during the summer months. During the winter, horses are more prone to becoming dehydrated because of ice and decreased interest in drinking. Ice in buckets and troughs must be broken at least two to three times daily to allow the horses to drink. Warm water can be offered if possible. Horses seem to like the warm water during the winter and it will take longer to freeze. Heaters for buckets and troughs are also available. Automatic waterers are another available item, however, this makes water consumption difficult to assess. If your horse needs to be encouraged to drink more, access to a salt or mineral lick will increase his thirst, and adding water to the grain and hay can increase water consumption.
Please remember that each horse is an individual. Specific feeds and supplements that work wonders for one horse are not necessarily the best choices for every horse. Amounts, optimal ingredients and feeding frequency will vary according to metabolic and digestive tract health. To determine what may work best for your equine elder, consult closely with your veterinarian, then remember to make dietary changes gradually.