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!

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.

 

Dentition

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.

Blanketing

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.

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.