Feeding the Older Horse

It’s inevitable that as our equine friends age, they begin to lose a bit of condition, but, as Penny Newbold writes, there’s plenty you can do to help your horse stay well nourished, and as comfortable as possible.

So your equine partner is getting on in years.

Perhaps their coat is losing its shine, it’s harder to keep their ribs covered and they don’t seem to have the same ‘spring’ in their step.

In the absence of a disaster, horses who have been correctly fed all their lives are far more likely to live to a ripe old age than those which have been starved or those which have struggled with obesity – and its frequent (and painful) partner, laminitis. This should come as no surprise because of course the same is true of humans!

Some common physical signs of aging that suggests something needs to be changed in an older horse’s diet, are:

· weight loss and decrease in body condition

· muscle loss over the top line

· sway backed appearance

· decrease in coat and hoof quality

· dental problems

Some senior horses also develop diseases such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s Disease. Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is an endocrinopathy affecting horses and ponies and is of primary concern due to its link to obesity, insulin resistance, and subsequent laminitis. Cushing’s Disease is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland, and is also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction or PPID. It is most common in older horses (18 – 23 years). Since it’s sometimes associated with Insulin Resistance, it can be sometimes be confused

Equine Metabolic Syndrome – both are treatable but without treatment they can cause extreme discomfort for the horse, and in the end, become fatal. Other ailments to afflict old horses can include degenerative joint disease (arthritis) and kidney or liver dysfunction.

As your horse ages, his system slows down a little. He begins to need more fuel to do the same tasks. His eyesight and hearing might become a little less acute, his legs move a little less swiftly. His gastrointestinal tract can become less efficient at extracting the nutrients he needs from his food.

At the same time, his body’s ability to thermoregulate (maintain an even body temperature) gradually decreases, so he might need extra dietary energy to help him stay warm in winter, and assist him in coping with heat and humidity in summer.

Don’t despair just yet, it’s just there are a few things that need a little more attention now than in his earlier years.

Benefits of Processed Feeds

Pelleted feeds are made with grains that are ground and held together with a binding agent, and they can be a good choice for the older horse.

They can be soaked in warm water, or a mix of water and molasses, to make it an easier option for the really “dentally challenged” animal. Some older horses thrive on extruded feeds, which are cooked under steam pressure to gelatinize the starches in the grains and make them more available for absorption in the gut.

What is important for older horses is that the feed – as well as being easy to chew – should be low in sugar – and there are quite a few on the market these days. (In fact there is a school of thought developing that the increase of laminitis in younger horses is due to excessive sugar in the diet of performance horses generally.)

An older horse with poor teeth should be offered small meals frequently if possible, or at two least two feeds morning and night (for those horse owners that work) and a single meal should not exceed 2.5kg.

Hay and Chaff

It is important to make sure your older horse is getting enough forage sources. If his teeth aren’t great he will find it difficult to chew and breakdown grasses, wetting his hay and chaff will make the chewing and swallowing process much easier for him. Lupin and soybean hulls can also be used as a good forage source.

Water intake is especially critical in senior horses in order to reduce constipation and impaction problems that are common in old horses.

And remember…

The main point to remember when developing feeding programs for senior horses is that these animals should be treated on an individual basis. Their program needs to be designed individually to keep them feeling well as they reach, and continue to thrive through, their twilight years.

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