From Sport to Senior: Your Horse’s Changing Nutritional Needs

Marty Adams, PhD, PAS – Technical Services Equine Nutritionist for Cargill

As your horse gets older and you show or compete less, their nutritional needs will vary. The nutritional needs of a horse’s feeding program will depend on the amount of activity, age, metabolism and quality and quantity of hay and pasture. Let’s go through two different stages and provide feeding recommendations for your aging equine athlete.

Gray Senior Horse Grazing

The first stage is when your horse is 15 to 20 years old, and the show or competition schedule has been reduced or retirement is now in effect. Energy requirements are less with reduced activity, and the amount of grain or concentrate required should be less to maintain a desired body condition score. If you can maintain good body condition with just a few pounds per day of feed besides hay and/or pasture grazing, consider providing a diet balancer.

A diet balancer is designed to provide required nutrients at a much lower feeding rate than a conventional horse feed. The recommended minimum feeding rate for a conventional horse feed is usually 0.5% body weight per day or 5 pounds daily for a 1,000-lb horse. Diet balancers have an increased concentration of amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and additives and have a recommended minimum feeding rate of only 0.1% body weight per day or 1 pound daily for a 1,000-lb horse. You may already have a horse that is an easy keeper and only requires a few pounds of diet balancer, or you only need to provide a few pounds of additional feed with a diet balancer on a daily basis. Many horses are fed with only a diet balancer or a diet balancer/conventional feed combination due to a thrifty metabolism or plenty of hay or pasture is provided to meet energy requirements.

We have three high quality diet balancers available, Nutrena® Empower® Topline Balance®, and from our ProElite line of feeds, ProElite® Grass Advantage Diet Balancer and ProElite® Alfalfa Advantage Diet Balancer. These products can be fed alone or with forage (hay and pasture). These diet balancers are formulated with concentrated levels of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to provide all required nutrients to the horse for maintenance and integrity of muscle, coat, and hoof condition as well as optimal support of immune and digestive health.

The second stage is when your horse is retired or lightly ridden and is 20 to 25 years of age. You observe weight loss when your horse is fed hay and grain. Upon further observation, you notice quidding of hay (partially chewed pieces of hay dropped to the ground) and slavering of grain (feed dropped to the ground or feed container). This is due to poor dental condition when the molars are now so shallow, they can no longer erupt enough to provide an efficient cutting or shearing function for the horse to effectively chew and swallow their feed. Tooth loss can also occur at this age, and this also reduces the ability of the horse to chew and ingest their feed effectively, especially for poor quality hay.

For older horses in this second stage needing weight gain, feeding recommendations are to switch to a senior horse feed and higher quality hay or a chopped, cubed, or pelleted hay. Soaked alfalfa cubes make a great forage source for the older horse, they are readily consumed and are a great source of calories and digestible fiber. And a highly fortified and high fat senior feed can provide additional calories for the older horse needing weight gain. Choose a senior feed with a controlled carbohydrate content and well, with low guaranteed levels of starch and sugar for additional feeding safety.

There are many great choices that meet all of the requirements for a high-quality senior horse feed. Nutrena® SafeChoice® Senior Horse Feed with 8% fat, Nutrena ProForce® Senior Horse Feed with 13% fat and ProElite® Senior Horse Feed with 10% fat and are highly fortified feeds with quality fiber sources, high calorie content and guaranteed maximum dietary starch and sugar values. Providing one of these senior feeds along with a processed forage such as alfalfa or grass hay cubes can be used to easily maintain weight for older horses with poor dental issues.

Utilize these two stages as your horse transitions from an active show or competition career to retirement to maintain optimum health and longevity. For more information on our horse feeds and supplements, where to find a retailer, or to have one of our horse feed field representatives assist you with feeding recommendations at your farm, visit www.nutrenaworld.com, www.toplinebalance.com or www.proelitehorsefeed.com.

Fiber in Horse Feeds

In our previous post, we learned what fiber is and how a horse digests it,and we also learned that a horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s bodyweight in quality roughage will satisfy its daily fiber requirements.

When it comes to any grain sources that may be added to your horse’s diet, fiber plays a much smaller role since the amount of fiber that is added by grains is relatively little, but the effect and digestive process is similar.

When feeding the grain portion of the diet, ensure that your horse is not receiving high quantities of grain meals all at once – typically no more than 5-6 pounds of grain per meal at most. Because grains tend to be higher in starch than roughage, feeding too much at once can overwhelm the small size and quick rate of passage of food through the stomach and small intestine, and allow starches to pass undigested to the hindgut. Digestion of starches in the hindgut releases lactic acids that are toxic to the fiber-digesting microorganisms, which can result in a gas colic episode or laminitis.

Generally speaking, when you look at a the tag from a basic equine ration, the higher the crude fiber level listed, the lower the energy content of the feed.  Of course, there are other factors that must be looked at, such as the fat level, and also possibly the sources of fiber.

Beet pulp, for example, is often referred to as a “super-fiber” due to the high level of fiber it provides while also providing roughly the same energy level as oats.  While soy hulls and dehydrated alfalfa are common ingredients used to increase fiber levels, a performance horse ration with a higher fiber level may make use of beet pulp to achieve both increased energy and increased fiber levels.

Using Nutrition to Manage Horses with Gastric Ulcers

A horse owner recently contacted us about changing her horse’s diet. She stated that they are ¾ of the way through show season and he is just “off his game”. It seems that the horse was showing a lack of appetite and not finishing his grain. In addition, his disposition became rather grumpy and his performance level was suffering. In addition, a few times he had shown signs of mild colic over the past two months.

We suggested the owner contact her veterinarian, as it sounded like the horse may have an ulcer. The percentage of horses with ulcers continues to increase, and higher intensity levels of training are correlated with an increase in ulcer incidence. The ulcers often occur in the upper third of the stomach, which does not have a mucus layer and does not secrete bicarbonate that helps to buffer stomach acid. In general, horses managed with 24-hour access to well-established, high-quality pasture are less likely to have gastric ulcers; however, studies have shown that the prevalence of squamous ulcers in horses exposed to pasture varies by regions of the U.S. and management. This is likely due to the fact that as a horse grazes, it produces large amounts of saliva, which contain the bicarbonate and amylase needed to provide a buffer for the stomach lining.

Within the week she contacted me and said the horse had been diagnosed with a gastric ulcer. He was now on medication, but we needed to make dietary changes as well. I suggested the following “back to basic” steps to help manage her horse’s condition:

  1. Allow the horse to be turned out or hand grazed.
  2. If access to pasture is not possible, good quality hay is a must. Recent studies indicate that legume hay such as alfalfa is an excellent choice due to the high calcium content which may help to serve as a buffer.
  1. Breaking the daily rations into smaller more frequent meals helps keep saliva production constant and protect the stomach lining – more like “grazers” instead of “meal eaters”. If possible, use a slow feed hay net (also called a nibble net) to allow the horse to consume hay more slowly and increase chewing time. Also, it’s a good idea to feed hay prior to grain.
  2. High starch diets also tend to aggravate ulcers due to increased acid production. A high fat, high fiber feed is ideal.
  3. Consider a digestive supplement such as Nutrena Empower Digestive Balance which contains marine sourced calcite. It is a highly porous form of calcium, includes other trace minerals such as magnesium, and has twice the buffering capacity of regular calcium carbonate.

It’s important to remember that all horses are unique and respond differently to stressors. If you can minimize stressors as much as possible, provide your horse with access to pasture and light exercise, offer quality nutrition and forage, you are helping to limit the chance your horse will develop ulcers.

Rebuilding Topline: “Pre-Work” Prior to Putting Your Horse Back in Work

Rebuilding ToplineAn ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If your horse has been out of work for a few months this might just be the perfect time to do a little prep work. 

Before you hop back in the saddle, use the weeks prior to check if your horse’s diet is balanced and providing the nutrients to have their body ready to support, recover and rebuild when you start exercising. 

A common misconception about topline is that it can be improved through exercise alone. Lack of exercise – or the wrong type of exercise ‑ is often blamed for a poor topline.

While exercise alters existing muscles, building new muscles is a different story. The nutritional building blocks of muscle (essential amino acids) must be present in sufficient quantities and balanced with adequate calories to rebuild or augment muscle tissue.

In fact, if a horse is worked hard but his diet lacks sufficient amino acids, existing muscle mass can shrink. This can be a slippery slope in some situations, and as muscle atrophy sets in, the belief is that the horse needs to work even harder when in fact the fuel is not present (in the form of nutrition) to help support and repair tissue that is broken down with exercise.

Just like human athletes, athletic equine partners need more essential amino acids than maintenance horses to maximize the effects of training and allow the horse to look and feel its best.

Certain exercises are thought to improve topline include hill work, backing exercises, and those that encourage the horse to collect and arc the body. These exercises can help condition muscles, but only if the diet is supporting the muscles through proper nutrition.

Ensure the nutritional building blocks of muscle are available in your horse’s diet before you head back to work so their system will have the nutrients available to build the muscle and support their body.

One suggestion to help with this issue is to combine a feed that contains guaranteed levels of the right amino acids (fed at the right amounts per the feed tag) with a healthy exercise program for best topline results.  Work with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist to ensure you are on the right track. 

A great resource is available at ToplineBalance.com by clicking on the “Fix My Topline” button and walking through the 8 questions in the barn with your horse.  

Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin.
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs.