Senior Horse Care Tips

These days, horses are living longer, more productive lives than ever before.  Thanks to advances in care, medicine, nutrition and veterinary practices, it’s not unusual to find a horse active into their thirties.  But with more active years comes the need to provide accommodations which meet the special needs of the aging equine.

Turn-out and Exercise

Senior Horse in PastureMoving is a key factor in keeping your senior comfortable.  Not only does moving about help with preserving muscle mass, motion also aids in digestion, reducing inflammation and increasing circulation.  Daily turnout is a great way to provide this opportunity, as is regular exercise.  Some ideas to exercise include light schooling, trail rides, driving or hand walking.  Whether in a pasture or dry lot, daily turnout and frequent exercise of your senior horse will go a long way in providing a happy, healthy retirement. Plus it’s more time to spend with your aging friend.



As horses age, their teeth change due to wear.  Hopefully your senior horse has had the advantage of regular dental care in their earlier years, setting them up for success later in life.  Regular dental checks and floats not only help to maintain good dental health, it also provides your senior with the best chance at chewing and digesting their feed and forage.

Forage and alternative options

With the change in teeth comes some accommodation to forage.  Though aged, the equine senior still requires fiber as the main source of energy. Changes in dental efficacy as well as digestive system changes means the importance of good quality fiber is even higher.  If high quality hay (more leafy, less stems) is not readily available, hay cubes are a good alternate source of easy to chew fiber.  If needed, hay cubes can be soaked, providing an easy to chew fiber source.

Feed and Mashes

Changes in the digestive efficiency of the senior horses requires some specific nutritional needs.  As the digestive system ages, the ability to digest and absorb nutrients is more of a challenge than in earlier years.  In addition, nutrients are needed in different ratios to support the aging body.  For example, higher levels of quality amino acids are required to maintenance muscle mass in the senior horse.  Feeds that are specially formulated for senior horses provide these higher levels of nutrients in the proper ratio.  Many varieties of senior feeds are considered ‘complete’, in that they contain higher levels of fiber, providing an alternative to forage, thereby making it easier for the senior horse to get the nutrients needed.


You may notice a difference in your horse’s ability to stay warm during cold or wet weather.  Blanketing may be needed to help keep your senior horse warm during inclement weather.  Not only does blanketing help with warmth, your senior horse isn’t spending valuable calories trying to stay warm, burning off energy and their weight.  Blanketing in extreme cold or dampness may help your horse in maintaining a desired body condition.

Senior horse care may require some extra steps and more attention to details, but with the right adjustments, your senior can enjoy productive, happy and healthy golden years.

Does My Senior Horse Need Calories or Protein?

hand feeding red sizeThere are some common questions come up when we talk about what happens to horses as they age and why their bodies change shape:

  • Does my good old horse need more calories (energy) or more protein?
  • He is out on good pasture and is holding his weight, but his hair coat looks dull and he has lost muscle mass.
  • She looks a little thin, should I add some fat/oil to her diet?

These are all apparently simple questions, but actually we need to look at the nutrient supply and purpose a little closer.

Calories from fat/oil, digestible fiber (structural carbohydrates and starch & sugar (non-structural carbohydrates) are the key energy sources for horses. If a horse is thin, that tells us that the horse needs more Calories to maintain fat cover measured by Body Condition Score system. Those Calories can be added from extra fat/oil, extra digestible fiber or additional starch and sugar. Vegetable oil contains 2.25 x the Calories per pound of carbohydrates and is a safe way to add Calories. Switching to a highly digestible fiber source (better quality forage, added beet pulp etc.) can also add Calories of digestible energy (DE). It takes 2-3+ pounds of added feed to add 1 pound of gain, depending on the feed.

Adding Calories alone will not bring back the muscle mass. This will require added protein (really added essential amino acids, particularly lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids). If a horse is getting adequate crude protein, but the protein is of limited quality and is low in one or more essential amino acids, the horse will not be able to utilize it fully to maintain or restore muscle mass. This is why it is essential to know the quality of the protein in feeds, particularly these first 3 limiting amino acids.

A common situation is an old horse retired to a grass pasture. It may be difficult for the horse to consume enough to maintain body condition, thus the horse loses weight. The grass pasture may also be low in crude protein and certainly low in essential amino acids, so the horse also loses muscle mass. Tough combination for an old friend!

The good news is that this can be reversed with the use of a well-designed senior horse feed providing both Calories and essential amino acids!

When Is It Time for Senior Horse Feed?

One question I am frequently asked by horse owners is “when should I switch my older horse to senior feed?”

It is interesting to note that 30-35% of the current horse populations in the US are “Seniors”. Surveys show 54% of all horse owners own at least 1 “senior” horse. By age definition “senior” horse has been defined as 15+ years of age.

Due to improvements in veterinary care and nutrition, horse routinely live 25-30 years of age, some into their 40’s. It is not uncommon to see horses in late teens and twenties performing at high levels. The key is that we need to treat horses as individuals. So when is a “senior” feed required?


Quidding of Hay

The result of quidding.

Signs that your senior horse may need a senior diet include:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor topline condition
  • Hoof quality and hair coat tell a story
  • Dropping feed while eating, may be a sign of dental issues
  • Loose stools
  • Quidding – dropping partially chewed hay out their mouth while eating.

As the horse ages, nutrient absorption and utilization decrease due to breakdown of the digestive system with age. Research has shown that senior horses experience poor nutrient absorption, which occurs particularly with phosphorus, vitamins and protein. Enzyme production may also decrease.

When we look at a senior diet there are some key points to consider. You want to choose a feed that is:

  • Highly digestible to accommodate less efficient digestive system.
  • Look for higher and improved protein quality to make up for small intestine inefficiency.
  • Does the feed contain higher fiber, and can it be fed as a complete diet, to make up for decreased large intestine efficiency, and possibly replace hay if the horse has dental problems.
  • Higher fat helps provide added safe calories.
  • Enhanced vitamin and mineral fortification are needed because of loss of digestive efficiency.
  • Use of pre- & probiotics in senior feeds can aid in gut health and the digestion of fiber.
  • Does the feed have the ability to be served as a mash? Not only are senior feed mashes highly palatable, but they also kelp keep the senior horse hydrated.

Below are the results of a recent feed trial. Cleo is an 18 year old Quarter Horse mare. We changed the diet from a maintenance level feed to senior feed. The results after 6 weeks were impressive!

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, 45 days after starting on SafeChoice Senior horse feed.

This is Cleo, on her "maintenance" feed diet.

This is Cleo, on her “maintenance” feed diet.

What Your Senior Horse is Telling You About Dietary Changes

Recent studies indicate that about 30% of the horse population in the U.S. may be considered “senior” horses. The appearance of the senior horse may give useful suggestions as to what changes need to be made in its diet.

Loss of body condition may be the result of more than one type of change. If the fat cover, as measured by Body Condition Score, has decreased, the horse needs more calories. These calories can come from added fat from vegetable oils, high quality fiber or controlled amounts of starch and sugar. Increased energy intake from highly digestible sources can restore body condition score.

If there is a loss of muscle mass causing a visual and measurable change in the appearance of an old friend, this will not be fixed with just increasing the energy intake. The senior horse may need additional a high quality protein source containing the essential amino acids lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting amino acids, to rebuild muscle mass. The loss of muscle mass may also be accompanied by dull hair coat and loss of hoof quality.

The change in hair coat and hoof quality may also be associated with a deficiency of key trace minerals in the diet as well as key vitamins.

Changes in body condition, muscle mass, hair coat and hoof quality may all indicate the need for dietary changes. The easiest solution may be to switch to a senior feed especially designed to meet the changing dietary needs of a senior horse. Your old friend will show you the results!


How Much Do I Feed My Senior Horse?

Most of us have that one special senior horse – maybe he’s been with us for a long time, or maybe you’ve rescued him in his old age from a bad situation. Whatever the case, most people have had some experience with the special nutritional needs of geriatric horses. Senior feed usually fills this bill very well – soft pellets they can easily chew, lots of digestible fiber, a little extra protein to maintain muscle mass, and added fat for body condition.  It may surprise you to know, however, that the majority of people who feed a senior ration are not feeding it correctly. One of the most common mistakes I see horse owners make is underfeeding their senior horse.

Senior horses can be categorized two ways – those that can eat hay and those that can’t. Because most senior feeds on the market today can be fed as a sole ration (ie 16-18 lbs. per day to a 1,200 lb. horse in light work) they have to be formulated in such a way that a horse eating this much of the feed won’t be overdoing the concentration of vitamins/minerals, etc. Therefore, even if your horse is able to eat hay along with the senior feed, you still need to feed the minimum amount (5-7.5 lbs. for a 1,000 lb. horse), to even begin to meet the fortification requirements that your horse has in advanced age. Below is a guideline for correct feeding amounts for senior horses.

TIP: Put away those coffee cans and get out your scale!!!

If your horse can eat hay, the minimum amount of senior feed he should have per day for maintenance is:

800 lb. horse: 4-6 lbs.
1000 lb. horse: 5 – 7.5 lbs.
1200 lb. horse: 6 – 9 lbs

If your horse depends solely on senior feed and cannot eat hay, the minimum about of senior feed he should have per day for maintenance is:

800 lb. horse: 10 -12 lbs.
1000 lb. horse: 12-14 lbs.
1200 lb. horse: 14 -16 lbs.

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

When Should I Feed a Complete Horse Feed?

A complete feed is a fortified grain/forage mix that is formulated with high quality fiber sources to raise the total percent fiber in the feed, so that reduced hay feeding can be done safely. Some fiber sources in complete feeds include alfalfa, beet pulp, and soy hulls. These are all good digestible fiber ingredients for horses.

Here are some of the many reasons why you might decide to feed a complete feed.  

  • You have a horse with poor teeth or no teeth that can no longer chew and swallow hay. This can be a young or old horse.
  • Good quality hay is hard to find, obtain, or pay for. This situation will most likely occur in:
    • Drought situations when plants aren’t growing or they are very mature when they get tall enough to cut. When a plant gets too mature it has high levels of lignin that can’t be digested by the horse leading to digestive upsets or increased risk of colic. Plants also lose nutrient content the more mature they get.
    • Extremely wet conditions because it may be more mature by the time a farmer gets good weather to cut it and flooding can also bring debris onto fields that can be harmful to your horse.
    • Situatinos where hay gets more expensive as fertilizer and fuel costs rise.
  • There is a lot of hay wasted from handling, transporting, ect. More hay is wasted when horses are fed round bales. When hay is expensive and there is a lot of waste, complete feeds may be more cost effective.
  • Hay is hard to handle and round bales/large square bales require a tractor for handling and other equipment such as a flatbed trailer. Equipment requires fuel, tires, maintenance, ect. The cost of handling hay should be brought into consideration when cost is a major factor in feeding.

Long stem forage is an important part of the horses diet and a good source of forage should comprise of at least 50% of the horses daily intake when possible. However, when any of the above conditions exist it may be necessary to feed a complete feed only or reduce the amount of hay being fed. A horse that can no longer chew hay will need to get all of his daily requirements from a complete feed that is easy to eat such as a senior complete feed with softer pellets that can also be fed as a wet mash. If hay shortage, hay cost, or drought is the reason you feed a complete feed you may want to continue feeding some hay in the diet for long stem forage if possible.

It is important to read and follow the feeding recommendations when buying a complete feed, and they should list the recommended feeding amount both with and without hay on the tag. As you decrease the amount of hay, you will need to increase the amount of complete feed. Here are two examples of complete feeds and how much to feed a 1,000 lb maintenance type horse with no hay and with hay/pasture.

  • A senior horse feed – generally a highly digestible and highly palatable product that can be fed as a complete feed, and is designed for older horses. 
    • A 1,000 lb maintenance type horse would receive 12 – 14 lbs of a senior feed, if no additional hay is fed.
    • The same horse, if it was being fed hay, would receive 5 – 7.5 lbs of the senior feed.
  • A traditional complete horse feed – known as “hay replacers” or “hay stretchers” – are a complete feed that combines high quality roughage and grains in a pelleted form. It can be fed as a complete feed or with forage. 
    • If no hay is fed, a maintenance type horse would receive 1.5 lbs per 100 lb body weight. A 1,000 lb horse is recommended to get 1,000/100 = 10 x 1.5 lbs = 15 lbs of a complete feed.
      When feeding along with hay or pasture, a typical recommended amount to feed a maintenance type horse 0.5 lb per 100 lb body weight or 5 lbs.

Whether you chose to feed a complete feed with hay or without, it is important to feed the recommended amount and make adjustments as needed depending on if your horse is an easy or hard keeper. It is also important to provide free choice salt and clean, fresh water at all times. Complete feeds should be split into two or more feedings. Horses should be switched slowly from one feed to another and also when eliminating hay from the diet. When reducing the amount of hay fed, it is recommended to reduce hay over 1-2 weeks.

Managing The Horse With Cushing’s

The vet has diagnosed it and the reality begins to sink in – your horse has Cushing’s disease. Now what?  Cushing’s is an endocrine disease caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland that is most often seen in older horses and ponies. This tumor results in high cortisol and is most often exhibited by  hyperglycemia (high glucose), excessive thirst, excessive eating, excess urination and a shaggy haircoat.  At this time there is no cure for Cushing’s but by keeping a close eye on nutrition and management, we can improve the quality and possibly lengthen the life span of a Cushing’s horse.

Routine is important to the Cushing’s horse because changes in diet, medication, etc. can have negative effects on health.  Cushing’s horses have a compromised immune system and for that reason, seemingly small or mundane parts of their care become very important.  There are a few management practices that are particularly important: 

  • Deworming – Cushing’s horses can be more susceptible to parasites because of their weakened immune system.  Work closely with your vet to develop a deworming schedule and program that is catered to your horse. Your vet should also be seen regularly for dental care and wellness exams.
  • Farrier Care– Regular farrier visits are important because certain types of leg and foot conditions are more likely with a Cushing’s horse, such as abcesses of the hoof and laminitis. Signs of laminitis can be a tender footed stance and the horse acting like he is “walking on egg shells”. 
  • Grooming – Hair coat and temperature regulation are problems in Cushing’s horses so you will want to help your horse as much as you can by preventative grooming practices. Consider body clipping in hot/humid weather and be mindful of temperature and weather changes. When blanketing, make sure the hair coat is dry and clean to help reduce the incidence of skin issues. Prompt treatment of any wounds or infections is essential.
  • Feeding– One of the main goals in feeding the Cushing’s horse is to control the starch + sugar (NSC) content per meal. This helps to regulate the blood glucose and insulin levels.  The NSC content of the concentrates fed to the horse is important, but even more so is the content of the hay /forage and the combination of the two together. Some guidelines have suggested an NSC maximum value of 10-13% based on the total diet (forage + concentrate). Testing your hay will give you a good idea of the NSC values.
  • Consider a feed that is fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and complexed trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support the immune system.

Following these tips will help improve the quality and possibly length of life for the horse diagnosed with Cushing’s.  If you have specific questions regarding your horse, please work with a qualified nutrition consultant or your veterinarian.

Pre and Probiotics in Horse Feed

While scanning information about various horse feeds, you may have come across the phrase ‘contains prebiotics and probiotics’….Hmmm, sounds impressive, but what are they, what do they do for your horse, and why are they important?  Pre- and probiotics are considered “functional ingredients” that are added to horse feed to provide benefits to your horse. Here is some information about them and what they can mean for the digestive tract and overall wellbeing of your horse.

Healthy, inside and out
Rosie shows a dappled coat, indicating good health shining from the inside out.

It starts with the gut. The environment of the intestine (a.k.a. gut) contains naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms commonly called  ‘bugs’. Gut bugs are found in all species, including humans, and are essential to the digestion process. For the horse, gut bugs work to break down components of forage and feed as they pass through the digestive tract.  The bugs deconstruct complex molecules within feedstuffs, which releases nutrients and allows the synthesis of energy substrates and important vitamins. Those nutrients are then absorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, where they become available to cells in the body to support basic maintenance, growth and activity.

Feed that is broken down and digested more completely allows for more nutrients to be readily available for absorption.  This is essentially what probiotics do. Adding probiotics to a horse feed means adding more beneficial bugs to the existing population in the horse’s gut. Probiotics such as yeast culture, work with the naturally occurring bug population to enhance the digestive process, further breaking down complex protein and fiber fractions in the gut and making them more available for absorption into the blood stream. As a probiotic, yeast culture has also been shown to balance and stabilize the digestive microbial ecosystem in the cecum of the horse, as well as help prevent the colonization of bad bacteria in the gut.  A stable microbial ecosystem is beneficial to the horse beyond improvements in digestive and absorption efficiency, it also reduces the risk of digestive upset, such as gas colic, that a horse might experience with changes in feed or hay, or while under stress from transportation, shows, changes in weather or other.

Prebiotics can be thought of as an energy jolt for the gut bugs.  Prebiotics are a rich nutrient source for the gut bugs (e.g. lactobacilli, bifidobacterial) which in turn stimulates their growth and activity, making them more effective at their job. Research has shown that prebiotics help stabilize the population of gut bugs even through sudden changes in the diet, which helps to reduce incidents of digestive upset.  For performance horses who require energy dense diets that include higher levels of starches and sugars, prebiotics can help reduce the incidence of digestive disorders and support optimal performance.  Prebiotics such as inulin and oligofructose are selectively fermented by the gut bugs, stimulating their growth and activity, which benefits the horse by enhancing the absorption and retention of certain minerals, which in turn can support the immune system, skeletal tissue, and more.

The population of bugs in the gut are sensitive to changes in their environment brought on by stress, illness or the ingestion of undesirable materials .The addition of pre- and probiotics to a diet has been shown to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of digestive upset, namely diarrhea. For senior horses, the use of pre- and probiotics in feeds has been shown to improve the digestibility and absorption of nutrients, which can translate into an enhanced quality of life.  In summary, pre- and probiotics work with the naturally occurring gut bugs to support optimal gut health, aid in the digestion process, as well as provide a buffer against negative bacteria.