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!

18 Replies to “Does My Senior Horse Need Calories or Protein?”

  1. We recently got a mare from a bad home that was starving her, since she has been with us the last 3 weeks she’s gained about 20 lbs. I feed 1 scoop of 12% martin dale feed with 1/4 scoop alfalfa nuggets along with probotics and vegetable oil, twice a day. But my question is, is she getting the salt she needs with the feed or do I need at add it at feeding time and if so how much? I’ve never fed salt and I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on feeding as to wether its needed or not but I want what’s best for my girl. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hello Emmalee, Thanks for the question, and for your work to bring her back to good condition! The answer to your question is no – feeds do not contain enough salt for horses. If feed companies put enough salt in to meet requirements, most horses wouldn’t consume the feed! Your best bet is, at a minimum, so put out a salt block so she can access it as she prefers. Ideally, loose salt is even better, as it is easier for the horse to consume than in block form – blocks were developed for cattle, which have very rough tongues. Please note, she may consume a fair bit at the start of offering free choice salt, but that should even out over a few days or a week.
      Thank you ~ Roy J.

    2. I have read that horses need at least 1 ounce of salt per day. I put 1 ounce of mineral salt in my horses’ feed at one meal and I have block salt available to them. I don’t have an issue with them refusing to eat. They never colic and they drink plenty of water. Also, I add water to their pellets which helps to keep them hydrated. I have a 5yo and a 28yo. Both are doing fine.

  2. Yes, yes, always in the best interest of the horse to have free choice salt, mineral, and cool clear water! The mainstays along with a good balanced diet of course!

  3. Hi,
    I read quite a bit about providing loose salt to horses. My question is how does one keep it free flowing? It seems that after only one humid day the entire bag has turned into a solid chunk.
    Thank you,


    1. Hi Ivan,

      Keeping loose salt free flowing in high humidity can be a challenge. If possible, storing in cool dry place is an option, not always possible. You might check with your supplier to see if they have a coarse loose salt product that contains an anti-caking ingredient or is weatherized for outdoor use. If you are not feeding a lot of horses, you might do the same thing we sometimes do on the human side, blend in a little white rice to absorb moisture. I have to do that for salt shakers in the summer. The white rice would be consumed by the horses.

      Best wishes,

  4. If you have a horse with copd that is on steroids during the summer. I feed a senior feed, can I also feed beet pulp or is that to much sugar. His weight always drops in summer do to heat and breathing.

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Thank you for your question about your horse that has COPD and is on steroids during the summer. Beet pulp is a good highly digestible fiber source and can be soaked for feeding. If possible, you may want to use beet pulp that has not been prepared with molasses. You can also increase the feeding rate of the Senior feed to maintain body condition. The higher fat levels in Senior Feed also reduce the heat produced by digestion of fiber. You may want to consider adding a high fat supplement for the same reason. We use Empower Boost with success for this purpose. Small meals at frequent intervals may also be useful with feeding in the cooler part of the day.

      Best wishes,

  5. I have a 25 year old QH. She has a very bad appetite, by this I mean she does not eat well. She is getting a senior feed with sweet feed and two calorie added supplements. Some days she will clean her bucket, others she barely touches the feed. I have had her for 23 years and she has always left feed. I feed good quality bermuda, and have been giving her alfalfa hay for the last 4 months. She looks awful, her back has sagged and her hip bones are sticking out. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi AnneMarie,
      Thanks for your great question! It sounds like you are doing a lot of things right, but another great steop would be to take our online Topline Assessment at This can possibly help better refine what products will help with that sagging back. You are also right about including a good quality forage, as well as adequate access to clean water and salt. Let us know if you have additional questions after completing the topline assessment!

      Best of luck!

    2. Perhaps she is unable to properly chew up the food to digest it properly. My 23 year old mare has very few teeth in the back for proper chewing. She spits out great big wads of grass or hay. I feed her rabbit pellets as they are easier to break down and digest.

    3. If your mare seems to prefer forage to grain you might talk to your vet about treating for ulcers. This was recently brought to my attention with a poor eater that I had

  6. I am new to the horse world. I have been given a 27 year old mare. She is sharing a round bale with 2 other horses in a pasture with very little grass. I give her 1 scoop of Senior Feed and 2 scoops of “One and Only” along with 1/2 cup of oil. Is this sufficient? Also, when you mention “loose salt”, are you talking about table salt? Thank you for your help.

    1. Hello Vicki, thank you for reaching out. We are not referencing table salt. You can purchase loose salt at a feed store that is recommended for animals.

  7. What do you recommend for an IR/Cushing horse who requires total NSC =< 11%. I have not been able to identify a feed in your line that meets these requirements. My mare sheds out is at a good weight, top line could look better. She is about 23.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Thank you for your interesting question regarding an IR/Cushing horse that requires total NSC =< 11%. As your review research, you will see that the 11% NSC (non-structural carbohydrate) recommendation is a total diet recommendation, so you will need to first consider the hay or pasture source that you have available. Once you have that information, you should be able to select an appropriate product. We have had good success using SafeChoice Special Care. If she needs some top line improvement, you may want to add a pound or two of Empower Topline Balance. You will need to consider options after you know the NSC content of your hay. Best wishes, Roy J.

  8. I am very new to owning a horse… I have been given a 23 year old mare who has developed laminitis. I have been told it was brought on by too much protein in the grasses in our pasture… Her supplemental food has been about 2 cups of senior pellets. Now Iโ€™m being told that she should probably be eating oats and not pellets, as long as thereโ€™s grass to graze on. Can anyone advise as to what is best to be feeding my senior, how much, and for how long?!?! Also over the course of the summer, the hair on her face has become very thin and dry… should I be adding some kind of oil to her food?

    1. Hello Kelly, Thanks for the question! First, there are two ways a horse can develop laminitis – through over-feeding scenarios such as lush grass or over-eating a grain meal, or through physical trauma (ridden too much on hard surfaces). You can read more about that here: The lush grass scenario actually has to do with the starch and sugar levels in the grass – not protein levels.

      You can also read more here: – on how to manage her diet properly.

      If she can chew hay and/or pasture just fine, and doesn’t need much grain to maintain her weight (2 cups would definitely by “not much”), then we would suggest a ration balancer type product, such as our Empower Topline Balance. It is specifically designed to provide the needed protein, vitamins, and minerals, without the starch and sugar levels or calories of a traditional horse feed (or of oats – we do not recommend feeding straight oats as a diet for any horse).

      If she has trouble chewing hay (you would see balls of chewed-up hay or pasture laying around) or has trouble keeping her weight up, then we would suggest a product such as our SafeChoice Senior – which will provide the correct amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fats for her overall health and condition, while keeping starch and sugar levels under control. You can figure out how much to feed her by using the feeding rate calculator here:

      Hope that helps! If you have any further questions, please let us know!

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