Fiber Sources for Senior Horses

The health and well being of senior horses are important topics to horse owners as these horses are frequently considered treasured members of the family.  There are many different criteria that are applied to determining when a horse would be considered a “Senior Horse”.  One of the important criteria is when we determine that, because of changes in ability to chew pasture or hay, we need to consider different forage options for our old friend.  Quidding (spitting out unchewed wads of hay) is one of the signs we look for in making this determination.  Inspection by a veterinarian may confirm that the condition of the teeth requires an adjustment in fiber sources.

Fiber Source Options

  1. There are now a variety of Senior Horse Feeds available that can be fed as a complete diet. These feeds are designed with sufficient fiber to help maintain gut heath as well as providing the required energy, protein (amino acid balanced), minerals and vitamins for the balanced diet.  They will also normally contain added pre and probiotics to help maintain gut health.  For horses with extremely poor teeth, these feeds can be made into a mash as well to make consumption very easy.
  2. Dehydrated alfalfa or alfalfa/grass pellets may also be used as a good fiber source. While not a complete balanced ration, these products work well for senior horses as they require minimal chewing.  They can also be soaked to form an easily consumed mash for horses with limited chewing ability.   Diet balancer products work well with this type of product to provide the addition amino acids, minerals and vitamins that are required to provide a balanced diet.
  3. Beet pulp is also a good highly digestible fiber source and is a good source of calories. Again, beet pulp is not a balanced ration, but may be added to a diet to provide energy.  Beet pulp pellets or beet pulp shreds can also be soaked for ease on consumption.
  4. Soy hulls are also a good highly digestible fiber source. Soy hulls are more likely to be used as a part of a Senior Horse Feed rather than being offered as a separate product.

Monitoring Body Condition Score and Topline Evaluation Score can help determine what changes may be needed in the total diet.  Loss of Body Condition Score tells us that our senior horse needs more Calories.  Loss of muscle mass may tell us we need a better amino acid profile in the diet.

Senior horses also need access to salt, preferably loose salt, free choice and free access to fresh, clean water.  Water temperature is important to senior horses as water that is too cold may cause discomfort to badly worn teeth and may limit water intake, which can contribute to other problems such as impaction colic.

Providing an appropriate fiber source is a key management tool to help our old friends enjoy a long and happy life!

Signs You Have a Senior Horse

Are you questioning if your horse has reached that Senior stage in life? Not sure of the signs or conditions that classify a horse as Senior? Then read on for some tell-tale tips on spotting a Senior horse.

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!