Feeding the Senior Horse

Feeding the Senior Horse

We are lucky enough to be living in an age where there are continual advances in veterinary medicine and health care along with improved nutrition and increased understanding of management practices. All these factors have significantly contributed to the increasing lifespan of nearly all of our domestic pets, from small furries right through to our equine friends!

The wild horse rarely lives beyond the age of 15 with the average lifespan being around 8 years, today our domesticated horses are, on average, reaching 25-30 years of age with more and more reaching into the 30’s Of course, as our horses are living longer they are starting to present owners with new challenges as they age, none more so than feeding! It was only a few years ago that a horse aged over nine would be classified as a “senior “ however this is now regarded as a peak age for serious competition horses where they often reach the level of experience and ability to maintain fitness that achieves great results. Today we would not consider the horse a true “senior” until mid to late teens, with Veteran classes in the show arena starting at 15 years of age but with some 20 year old horse’s still eventing at a high level, it is clear that every horse is an individual .

Nutrition is a vital part of keeping your senior horse healthy, the dietary and energy requirements of a horse changes throughout their lives with a need for higher energy levels and increased digestible protein as the digestive system becomes less efficient. Without the correct balance of nutrients and provision of sufficient energy, the horse can quickly lose condition more quickly than his younger counterparts but with careful dietary management and continued care you can help your horse maintain his vitality for many years to come.

Will I notice the signs of ageing?

The simple answer is yes! Although these may be subtle at first, there will inevitably be changes in your horse’s appearance and condition. Some of the signs that are noticed by owners can be:

  • A change in the colour of hairs around the eyes, muzzle and ears – this can go grey in darker horses and can look discoloured in grey and coloured horses.
  • Muscle tone alters – topline can decline, withers become more prominent, the back is prone to dipping and the muscle around the hindquarters can slacken.
  • Teeth become elongated and incisors start to face forward, some teeth may even be lost and the horse may struggle to chew
  • Along with muscle deterioration throughout the body, joints will have been subject to wear and tear and signs of arthritis and joint discomfort are common in the older horse
  • Digestive issues can occur – you may start to see undigested food passing out in the droppings where the horse has been unable to chew or digest the feed, changes in gut motility and a decline in the efficiency of the bacteria in the hind gut to digest fibres can result in loose droppings

The majority of the signs of ageing are irreversible but with the correct nutrition and a well-planned diet it is possible to minimise and even slow down certain changes.

What are the top tips for feeding my senior horse?

  • The type of food you offer your senior horse is very important; in the older horse the digestive system becomes far less efficient at digesting forage, whereas your younger horse would once thrive on a low energy, high fibre diet, this can be very difficult for the older horse to digest and extract the vital nutrients from. The risk is that this will lead to weight loss and deficiency if the horse is not receiving all the nutrients he needs in the right ratios.
  • The recommended diet for an older horse will contain a highly digestible protein source, to compensate for the reduction in the ability to break down complex proteins during digestion, along with energy supplied in the form of a mixture of forage and fats. Oils and fats can be more easily and readily digested than forage and are not associated with the “heating” effects of starch and carbohydrates but should be fed alongside a forage base which provides a balance of slow release energy at the same time.
  • Don’t be afraid to phone feed companies and ask for their advice on feeding your individual horse. Investing in a good quality senior feed from a reputable manufacturer will ensure not only that he receives the correct balance of nutrients but it will be supplied in a form which is easily digested.
  • If you find your horse is dropping weight and condition, to increase the energy where a horse is struggling to eat a bulky feed, try the addition of soya or linseed oil to the feed. This will also create sheen to the coat and can help with joint issues.
  • Even though forage digestion may be compromised, it is still the most important element of the horse’s diet and should make up the basis of the daily intake of food. When your horse is stabled always provide ad lib forage of whichever source you select to feed. If the horse is suffering from dental issues try soaking or steaming hay overnight before feeding which will soften the forage although be aware this will remove a significant proportion of the nutrients. Other options can include using a hay replacement such as short chopped chaff or to supplement the diet with dried grass. Alfalfa is an excellent source of nutrition as it offers a source of protein and a higher level of nutrients than hay and for horses suffering with dental problems wet, bulk feeds such as unmolassed sugar beet can provide a useful fibre source.
  • Allowing your horse as much access to turnout and fresh grass is highly recommended , not only does this help keep the digestive system mobile and ensure passage of food through his body, preventing colic, choke and other digestive issues but is great for the horse in terms of wellbeing and socialisation with other horses. Grass. .particularly thorough the Spring, is nutrient dense and can be easily eaten by even horses with poor teeth.
  • Consider adding a probiotic and prebiotic to the diet – these are concentrated beneficial bacteria which can be supplemented to the diet and will help reduce harmful bacteria in the GI tract. This can also help improve fibre digestion where the horse’s own bacteria population has reduced.
  • Do not feed large meals – if your horse is having trouble digesting feed, try to split this over a number of smaller meals rather than overload the stomach. The maximum capacity of the stomach is less than 2kg of feed , therefore splitting the feed down throughout the day will help ensure the horse absorbs as much of the nutrients available as possible. If the horse needs substantial hard feed consider using oils to make up some of the calorific requirements or look at feed balancers which are concentrated and fed in small quantities yet providing excellent nutrition.
  • As many older horses lose or damage teeth, it is important to watch how your horse eats, spilling feed as he chews (known as “quidding”) can indicate dental pain so regular checks from the dentist are vital. For horses that are missing teeth and struggle to chew, soaking their feed in hot water to form a mash or addition of heavily soaked and saturated sugar beet can encourage a horse who struggles to chew.
  • Always feed your horse is a clean bowl and ensure there is no dust, mould or rodent droppings in the feed. The horse’s immune system weakens as they age and thus reducing exposure to bacteria and mould can help prevent illnesses.
  • The senses decline as the horse ages and you may notice your once hungry horse has become a fussy feeder - this could be down to how the feed smells and tastes which is now perceived differently. If you are struggling with palatability, you could try samples of different types of feed to see what is readily eaten by your horse or to make the current feed more palatable you could add a coating of molasses, apple juice or cider vinegar Remember just as with younger horses, any dietary changes should be made slowly over a period of 5 -7 days to ensure the intestinal bacteria can adjust and prevent gastric upset.

All horses are unique and will show signs of ageing at different rates according to breed, lifestyle and numerous factors which have yet to be understood. Throughout your horses life nutrition is vital to wellbeing, maintaining health and supplying the energy needs for both cellular and bodily processes through to performance. As the horse ages his energy needs and nutritional needs change but keeping alert and on top of a feeding regime and any changes in condition or health, you can keep your companion happy and healthy through the senior years!



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