With advances in nutrition and preventive health care, today's horses can expect to have longer and more productive lives than ever before. Many horses are living well into their late 20s and 30s, with a good quality of life. Special feeds have been developed for older horses, which meet their unique nutritional needs and extend their productive lives.
A senior horse feed should be highly palatable, dust-free, easy to chew and digest, based on digestible fiber instead of grain, low in sugar and starch content, 12 to 14% crude protein, and contain added B vitamins, vitamin C and additional fat. Following are some tips on feeding the older horse, to help you make the most of your horse's senior years.
Schedule regular dental examinations.
Many horses have sharp points that develop on the edges of their molars that need to be filed down or floated. If hay and feed are not properly chewed, the horse may not be able to digest them well enough to obtain sufficient nutrients. If you notice your horse having trouble chewing, if he commonly drops his feed during meal time, or he spits out balls of hay or grass, it is time to schedule a visit from the dentist.
Wet the feed, making a mash or soup.
Some older horses may have lost enough teeth or their teeth are worn down enough that they are unable to properly chew even senior-type feeds very well. Adding some warm water to the feed and allowing it to set for 5 to 10 minutes before feeding will allow the dentally challenged horse to chew or swallow its feed better, and reduce the risk of choke and impaction colic.
Feed your older horse apart from aggressive eaters. If you have several horses together and don't have stalls to feed them individually, separate your older horse from the group so it can be fed alone. Unless your older horse is the most dominant horse in the group, it is not likely that he would be able to have the time alone to finish his feed.
Select a senior horse feed containing highly digestible fiber sources. Highly digestible sources of fiber include beet pulp, soybean hulls and alfalfa hay. These feed ingredients are easily broken down in the horse's digestive system, providing more calories and a lower risk of impaction colic than less digestible fiber sources. Feeds for older horses contain more fiber than conventional horse feeds. Senior feeds can be consumed at higher rates than conventional horse feeds and are designed to replace most of the hay or pasture that the horse would normally consume. That's the reason they are called "complete" feeds -- they contain enough fiber that they can be fed as the sole diet. Legends® Maturity is based on soybean hulls and also includes alfalfa meal, other sources of highly digestible fiber.
Choose a senior horse feed with a high fat level (6% to 10%). Fat in the form of vegetable oil, which is the preferred form of fat for the horse compared to animal fats, is easily digested by the older horse. Fat is also a concentrated source of calories, containing more than twice the calories per unit than carbohydrates, which make up the majority of calories found in grain and hay. Legends Maturity contains 6% fat, making it an excellent choice for the older horse. Many older horses will be affected by Cushing's disease, which alters normal cortisol and glucose metabolism and increases the incidence of founder and laminitis in affected horses. Legends Maturity contains higher levels of fat and fiber than most senior feeds, with low amounts of sugar and starch, which could improve glucose and insulin metabolism and reduce the risk of founder and laminitis in horses with Cushing's disease.
Provide some long-stemmed fiber in your older horse's daily diet. Although most senior horse feeds are high in fiber, and can be fed as complete feeds with no added fiber, these feeds can still lack what is called the "scratch" factor that will provide bulk and promote intestinal motility, and decrease incidence of cribbing, colic and wood chewing. Even if your horse has few or no teeth, hay cubes or chopped forage can be soaked until soft and mixed into feed or fed separately to your older horse.
For the dentally challenged older horse who can only eat a limited amount of hay, use these guidelines: provide .5% of the older horse's body weight daily in chopped forage or hay cubes (five pounds daily for a 1,000-pound horse) and provide 1% of the older horse's body weight in senior feed (10 pounds daily for a 1,000 pound horse). Soak the hay cubes or chopped forage and senior feed before feeding, and divide the forage and senior feed into two to four daily meals.
Provide high quality forage for your older horse. Poor quality hay is more difficult for the older horse to chew and swallow, and is more likely to cause an impaction colic. High quality hay is harvested at an earlier stage, is less fibrous and easier to chew, and breaks down quickly in the horse's digestive system, reducing the risk of impaction colic.
Martin W. Adams, Ph.D., is Nutritionist and Sales Manager, Horse Feed Sales, Southern States.