Feeding Senior Horses

Gayle's 23 year old Arabian, Scooter

I recently visited a horse owner that wanted to know when it was time to start feeding senior feed to her horse. She currently had him on a 10% protein sweet feed mix. She said he was underweight and not sure why, as she was providing the horse about 20 pounds per day, but he was not eating it all.  I explained that we often begin to watch horses for signs of being a “senior horse” around age 15-18.  Some may go much later in to life before showing signs, but somewhere in this age range is when we watch for signs of decreased muscle mass, decreased quality of hair coat, and an inability to maintain weight on their “normal” diet.

With this horse, I found small clumps of chewed hay on the ground around his feeder, or “quids” as they are called. This happens due to dental deterioration or loss, which inhibits the horse’s ability to chew his hay. Upon examining the horses manure, we noticed a lot of undigested grain. I suggested that the owner have the horse’s teeth floated, as well as have blood work drawn to check for Cushing’s or other metabolic issues. Once the horse’s teeth were taken care of, and any metabolic issues ruled out, we could move toward a more suitable senior diet.

As horses grow older their ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients becomes less efficient. Senior horse feeds will generally have the following elements to make sure older horses are receiving all the nutrition they need:

  1. Increased protein level in order to provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  2. Elevated fat content to provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  3. Yeast cultures & direct-fed microbials (more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics, respectively) to support nutrient digestion.
  4. Organic trace minerals that are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  5. Enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against bone demineralization.
  6. Manufactured as a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed. In cases where dental loss is extreme, the feed can even be mixed with equal parts warm water to form a mash.

Also, with senior feeds, if the horse is unable to chew any hay, the diet can be adjusted to 4 or 5 feedings of senior feed per day, to meet caloric requirements.

32 thoughts on “Feeding Senior Horses

  1. My horse has cushing disease. He is 31 years old and is just this year losing weight and muscle tone. What and how much should I be feeding him. His teeth are detorating, which I think is normal for his age. Please advise. Thanks so much.

  2. My horse is 31 years old. He has cushings disease. He is starting to lose muscle tone and his teeth are detorating. What and how much should I be feeding him. I would appreciate any help you can provide. Thanks

    • Cushing’s syndrome horses require a hay or pasture source that is low in Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), so you might want to have your forage tested. They do well on senior feeds that are fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and organic trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support immune response. Feeding directions need to be followed to make certain enough Senior feed is being fed as these older horses may not be able to utilize forage very efficiently. If your horse is not maintaining weight, you may need to increase the feeding rate of the Senior feed or add a low starch, rice bran based high fat supplement.
      Thansk! ~Roy J.

  3. I have a 37 year old quarter horse…we feed him twice a day with one half a scoop of Senior Chow, one scoop of soaked alphafa cubes, one scoop of beat bulp, one scoop of grain, however now that he is off the summer grass he has lost weight.

    How should we be feeding him…more frequently? A scoop is a LARGE scoop…3 cups.

    • Good question! 37 years old is quite amazing – and at this age, it’s not surprising, unfortunately, to see him start to have a little more trouble keeping up. I would suggest a couple things – one would be to weigh your feed and know how much he is actually getting (and if you are within the recommended amounts on the feeds you are giving) and two would be to simplify your program.

      To weigh your feed, get your bathroom scale or a small fish scale or something along those lines, and weigh out exactly how much you are giving of each. Then, compare that to the feeding directions on the tag of the feeds you are giving. 3 cups really won’t likely weigh out to alot of each feed, and you may not be providing enough calories.

      To simplify, I would suggest you phase out the “grain” you are feeding and transition that to the Senior horse feed. The senior feed will provide more calories and nutrition per pound, and depending on the brand you are using, may also provide more roughage to help take the place of the grass he is no longer getting. Might suggest the same of the beet pulp – there are some hidden dangers of feeding beet pulp as a plain ingredient, and if you use a senior feed like the one made by Nutrena, our Life Design Senior, it’s actually already included in the feed and the mineral imbalances of plain beet pulp are accounted for and balanced out with other ingredients.

      Once you’ve made those adjustments, ensure again that you are feeding enough according to the feed tag directions, and then you may simply have to increase the amount you are giving him. That may be as simple as adding another 1/2 lb to 1 lb per feeding, or adding another feeding session in to the day. Please let us know if you have more questions or if we can help any other way! Thanks ~ Gina T.

  4. Ideas on teeth floating seems to be alot of theories on this even as early as two years of age jaw and teeth aren’t fully developed if power floated too young & too often seems this would be problem as horses age any thought on this? I see horses having digestive problems as you note But seems there teeth are worn down by power floating more than normal wear. Thanks J.R.

    • Hello J.R. – Excellent question. Dental care for horses has changed greatly in recent years. There is greater awareness that young horses can develop problems with their deciduous teeth that may require attention before the permanent teeth start coming in at age 2-2.5. These “baby teeth” can develop sharp points or have malocclusion problems (improper alignment) or fail to shed properly. Once all the permanent teeth are in, generally by age 5, abnormal alignment or wear creating sharp points on the outside of the upper molars and inside edge of the lower molars are the most common problems and may be accompanied by hooks at the front or rear edge of the cheek teeth.

      The use of power floats has made it possible to do a more thorough job of taking care of the edges or hooks. Unless there is a problem with a “wavy mouth”, the actual grinding surface is normally NOT altered during the dental procedure as only the improperly worn edges or hooks are smoothed out. This is one of the cases where if a little is good, more may NOT be better.

      A good recommendation is to check a foals mouth carefully at birth, then check every 6 months. If a horse shows abnormal eating/drinking behavior or demonstrates resistance in bitting or training, a thorough dental exam may be useful.

      Floating or other dental procedures should be done by a qualified veterinarian or equine dentist to avoid excessive or improper use. State regulations may govern who can perform dental work.

      Roy J.

  5. In are area Idaho we have a lot of problems with sand colic ..I always have people do a stool sample 8 balls put into zip lock add half full water let soak and feel for sand in corner of bag any thing over 1/2 teaspoon then we use sand clear to flush sand out ..horses coats look dull and have problems gaining weight low energy

    • Hello Candice, You are correct, the procedure described is useful in determining if the horses are ingesting sand and are at potential risk of sand colic. Ingesting sand could cause some reduction in digestive efficiency, but I would be more likely to look at nutrition level to address problems of gaining weight, low energy and dull hair coat. If they have problems gaining weight, I would be checking to make certain teeth are OK, deworming is in current and Calorie intake is adequate. (As an aside, horses that are grazing and ingesting sand may also show a little more dental wear.) Dull hair coat may reflect inadequate amino acid and trace mineral intake. Balanced diet with added oil can be useful.

      Hope this helps! ~ Roy J.

  6. I have a 24 year old Tenn Walker. He’s always been an easy keeper and is pasture kept. Every winter, he puts on a very, very thick coat. (thicker than any I’ve ever seen) This past winter he lost quite a bit of weight, and then coming off of winter he choked. After this, he didn’t eat or drink for a few days, adding to the weight loss. I’ve spent a couple of months trying to “fatten” him back up. He was at about a 2.0 on the Henneke score. He’s been on Senior feed for a few years now, but only once a day. Since this happened, I’ve been feeding him twice a day. 2 cups of alfalfa cubes, (shredded), 1 scoop of Legacy pellets, 2 large scoops of Senior pelleted feed, 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. I then fill the bucket up with water, pour it into his feeder and add 1 1/2 cups of calf manna. Needless to say, he’s put a nice amount of weight on. He’s probably between a 3.0 and a 4.0 on that same scale now. (and has a beautiful, shiny coat). Do you think that I’m over reacting? Is this a balanced amount of protein and fat calories ? Now that he’s gained a good bit of his weight back, at what kind of rate do I need to start backing off of this stuff at ?

    • I’ve always been told that calf manna can be hard on their kidneys so use caution on the calf manna or ask your vet. But it sounds like you are doing everything that you can possibly do.

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  10. I started my two 17 y/o horses on Nutrina Life Design Senior feed with wonderful results. As feed prices started to increase, I switched to a local manufacturer’s senior feed and within one month noticed a decrease in body condition and weight. Needless to say the $4.00 I was saving per bag was not worth risking my senior’s health. Went back to Life Design Senior and have seen such a difference…actually had to cut back on some the concentrate because they were getting a little chubby. Thanks Nutrina for a great product with consistant milling qualities.

  11. I just wanted to say how Thankful I am for Nutrena Senior! I discovered it many years ago when my little riding pony was 36 and turning into a skeleton. He regained his weight and coat and remained in beautiful form till he passed at 42. It has since been my ‘go to’ for all seniors and rescues. I am currently feeding a 32 yr old toothless wonder pony that doesn’t look a day over 20. He nickers and runs bucking to his feed dish for his Nutrena Senior mash. He can’t wait to jump into the trailer to go give pony rides and I KNOW I owe that to Nutrena. Thank You for making such a nutritious low sugar, healthy feed that I can depend on to keep my horses in prime conditon, and most importantly thank you for the extra years I get to spend with them! (ps. I just switched my dog over from a very expensive ‘natural’ high end dog food to your Loyall brand and my dog is doing even better than before on it)

  12. Our 25 year old arabian & 27 morgan have not looked this healthy going into our Michigan winters in many years. They have beautiful shiny thick coats & have flourished since being on Nutrena Lifestyle Senior feed! How fortunate to have found such a great feed. Thank you!

  13. I have an old quarter mare, unsure of her exact age but pretty sure its mid to late 20s. She lost weight over the winter so I have put her on a mash diet of senior feed, beet pulp and alfalfa pellets. I was told to give her 2 scoops (with a 1 pound coffee can) of the beet pulp and one of the senior feed and 1 of the alfalfa pellets and enough water to make it mushy. i also add 1/2 cup corn oil to this mash. She seems to have put on a small amount of weight but not as much as i would like. She has access to hay at all times but doesnt seem to eat much of it. Only once in a while do i notice any wads of unchewed hay around her feeder and her manure doesnt really have any undigested grains in it. I feed her this diet twice a day and usually a small amount of grain mid day cuz she begs when the calves get fed. (more of a treat than anything) My question is this… How much of each of the beet pulp, senior feed and alfalfa pellets should I be giving her. She has always been a begger and whinies everytime we are outside so I am unsure if she is just asking for more or if she needs more to eat. Someone please advise me :)

    • Hi!
      You have some very good questions about your horses diet and you are on the right track, we just need to get a few facts to help establish a baseline. First, I would strongly encourage you to weigh your horse.

      Once you know your horses weight we need to also determine if any hay is being consumed. A horse should eat at least 1.5 % of its body weight per day in forage. The hay clumps or quid’s you are finding in the stall, tell me forage consumption is not reaching the desired amount.

      You are on the correct path, with high fat and fiber for your horse. However, it is done for you in a much more balanced method, if you go with a complete or senior feed. The key in complete or senior feeds is that the vitamins and minerals are balanced for the horse. You will need to feed the suggest feed rate of the product for your horses weight, and you need to weigh the feed. A small food or fishing scale works well, or you can also purchase one on Nutrena World estore.

      Also, make sure to read this article that will help you determine how much senior feed your horse needs.

      Please feel free to contact me if you have any additonal questions.
      Thank you for contacting Nutrena~ Gayle R.

  14. Nutrena offered a wonderful lecture at J & R Feed in Hampshire Illinois on September 11, 2013. What a lovely way to inform the equine community of their new product. I own a 18 year old OTTB who is in beautiful condition, but always has a little difficulty holding weight in the winter. Dickens had colic surgery in February 2013 so I am aways looking to keep him happy and healthy. Fully back in work and jumping, continuing with the best of care is important to me. He has been on Safe Choice, but I see an extra bloom in his coat with the Safe Choice Senior. Another horse at our barn is the proverbial hard keeper OTTB. He was down about 150-200 pounds because of injuries. First fractured withers, now lymphangitis in the left hind. Since about September 14, he has been receiving great quality hay, some alfalfa and Safe Choice Senior and has slowly but surely started put his weight on. He coat is looking shiny and copper. He is also feeling so much better and healing quickly. I strongly suggest that if you have a difficult keeper or your horse is older and in moderate work, this is a great product.

  15. Hi Everyone,
    I have had senior horses for years now and have been able to maintain their weight despite Cushings, heavy hair coats and deteriorating teeth. I want to emphasize a couple things mentioned in other’s responses.
    Teeth condition is critical. This goes beyond floating. Most everyone knows that a horse’s teeth continue to erupt during their lifetime until there is no more tooth left. One of 3 things (for the most part) then happens. #1, the teeth will no longer have an effective grinding surface. They will actually become as smooth as glass (ask to feel during floats if a speculum is used). #2, teeth may crack or become infected resulting in pain because the tooth is so weak once it is worn down to very little, #3 teeth become loose or fall out. Every Sr. horse owner needs to understand the condition of teeth still in the mouth as hay may no longer be a means of getting forage into your animal and can potentially cause a choke or impaction risk (I have had both issues!).
    At this point, you need to be feeding hay cubes and/or pellets – fully soaked. You need to understand the amount you are feeding by DRY weight. I use my kitchen digital scale as it is very accurate and I can zero out the weight of the container I use for measuring. I heavily soak my cubes and pellets as they soak up a lot which results in better hydration of my horses and lowers my risk of choke. If you use beet pulp for part of their fiber needs, the same reasoning applies. I have found that my guys will maintain weight with 1.5% of their normal body weight as they are not doing any work. I feed Nutrena Empower Balance ration. I don’t want any extra carbs due to the cushings (for which they are on Pergolide) and they really don’t need any grain with the amount of cubes/pellets they get.
    Untreated Cushings will likely result eventually in laminitis, a heavy hair coat and muscle wasting. Have your horse checked in their late teens at the latest and then monitor for symptoms.
    Has your horse been checked for worms? Horses maintained in small lots or where they graze over “pottie” areas are more likely to become infected and reinfected.
    If you are doing all these things and still having problems, you should have your vet do blood tests to check organ functioning – kidneys, liver in particular.


  17. hi all,

    I have a 22 year old Chestnut Stock Horse X Quarter Horse gelding and i am just wondering what he should be eating and what i should be feeding him. Unfortunately i don’t live on a property so i have to bag the feed and give it to the agistment – this means no food that has to be soaked in water. If anyone could give some suggestions that would be great!

    thanks in advance,

  18. Hi!
    I have a 30ish senior horse who has had a difficult past year. He had a mild colic one year ago this past March. We nursed him back to health, and he has been doing just fine. Over the past few weeks the winter here in the northeast has been brutal. Cold temperatures and wind chills below zero. My horse has been intermittently refusing to finish his grain. He acts good, makes manure, has gut sounds. He drinks water. He is on senior feed and alfalfa. I feed him 4-5x a day. Probiotics twice a day. He eats hay all the time. His teeth were floated in late December. I am frustrated and wonder if anyone else has had trouble with senior horses refusing grain in the dead of winter. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Hi Jenn! It sounds like you are doing all the right things for your senior horse. I appreciate that you are watching your horse’s diet so closely in this extreme cold weather.
      Are you feeding a senior feed? I would suggest trying a warm mash with the senior feed. I was also curious if you are offering any salt to your horse. You might consider adding 2 tablespoons of salt to the warm senior mash.
      Warm water also is a help, if the water source for your horse is at least 55-60 degrees, they will drink more and may stimulate his appetite.
      Having a horse live to the age of 30 reflects great care. If your horse continues to have a suppressed appetite, I would suggest contacting your veterinarian for an examination and blood work just to make sure there is nothing else going on at this time.
      Kind Regards,
      Gayle M. Reveron, PAS

  19. It has been a cold & snowy Winter in Ut. I have a 28 yr old PF mare! She has lost her top line! (no experienced help avail to feed during illness). I love this mare, and hope to get her back to her old self!
    I am back to feeding and have started back to using the Senior Safe Choice, (2 cups about 1 lb) daily. I had forgotten about Beet Pulp as 2013 was the first time I had used that feed. I will be sure to add it in her feeding regime. Not sure how much to feed?
    I think that I should increase Sr Safe Choice to 2# 2 x day. I would like to know if that would be adequate to help her improve? Any other suggestions would be helpful!
    Happy Trails,
    Gayle C.

    • Hello Gayle, You are on the right track for your mare, but we just need to dig a little deeper. Do you know what her weight is? You will need to increase her daily calories and amino acids to replenish her topline. If you review the feed tag on the Safe Choice Senior it will give you the recommended feed rate for your mare’s weight. I also encourage you to actually weigh out 1 pound of feed with a small scale, and use that as your reference. Keep in mind that you need to feed by weight not volume, and two cups may not reflect a full pound. You want to increase your mare’s diet slowly, no more than 1/2 pound increase every other day, until you are at the desired feed rate per the tag.

      I was also curious if your mare is able to consume hay? If so a good rule of thumb is 2% of her body weight per day in forage. That is the consumption rate, so you may want to allow for some waste, depending on the quality of your hay. If she cannot consume the appropriate amount of hay, you will need to balance the diet with additional Senior feed as recommended on the tag for a complete diet.

      Once at the proper feed rate your mare will be receiving the proper balance of vitamin, minerals, pre and probiotic and amino acids needed to help her recover from this harsh winter.
      Thank you ~ Gayle R.

  20. My 29 year old Han. G eats 7 pounds of Safe Choice Perform daily (divided into 2 feedings) and, aside from losing topline muscles, is maintaining his weight and form. He also eats a high quality orchardgrass/alfalfa hay. Given the protein, fat, starch complement of the Perform, is there any reason why Senior would be a better feed for him? I feed Perform to 9 other horses so would prefer not to switch if there is not compelling reason to do so.

    • Hi Susan,

      Thank you for your question regarding your 29 year old Hanoverian. Congratulations on taking care of your horse to this age! The key concern I would have is how well your horse is able to chew and digest the orchardgrass/alfalfa hay and extract the nutrients. I am assuming that you have an excellent dental care and veterinarian program.

      The advantage to SafeChoice Senior is that it can be fed at higher rates (up to and including being used as a complete feed with limited forage) due to lower starch and higher fiber level and highly digestible fiber sources. If your veterinarian is comfortable with the ability of your horse to chew forage, you could continue to use the SafeChoice Perform and adjust feeding rate to maintain body condition.

      The loss of topline muscle may indicate lower amino acid absorption/utilization by the aging digestive tract. If you want to continue with your current program, you might wish to consider adding a product such as Progressive Top-Line Advanced Support Supplement to help maintain topline muscle mass.

      If your horse experiences dental issues and cannot chew effectively, then the switch to SafeChoice Senior would be highly recommended.

      Best wishes for continued success,

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