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?

WHEN YOUR HORSE CAN NO LONGER MAINTAIN GOOD BODY CONDITION ON A NORMAL HAY AND GRAIN DIET.

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!