Aging Equine Care Made Easy
As horses age, they require different feeding protocols than when they are younger. Senior horses have different dietary needs, and it is essential to ensure they get the proper nutrients to stay healthy.
Successfully feeding the senior horses can certainly be a challenge. There are specific feeds and supplements specifically formulated for the older horse population, however. From senior horse feed to soaked beet pulp, there are a variety of options available to help your aging horse thrive.
Struggles with Feeding Seniors
You might be wondering when a horse qualifies as a “senior.” Some people consider any horse older than 20 to be part of this age group. Others believe a horse to be a senior when specific physiologic changes occur.
These changes can include the following:
- Loss of dentition
- Decreased gastrointestinal function
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Respiratory issues
- Increased risk for metabolic changes such as Cushing’s
- Loss of muscle mass
- Loss of mobility
The best way to determine whether your horse is a senior is to combine any physical signs of aging with his actual age.
And if your horse has been maintaining an appropriate weight and body condition on his current regimen, changing your feeding regimen may not be necessary.
If in doubt, consult your veterinarian about the best approach to take when feeding your horse.
What Makes Seniors Different?
Although not all horses show signs of aging precisely the same way, specific changes can present distinct nutritional challenges.
As horses age, their teeth can deteriorate, leading to chewing difficulty when they eat grain and hay. If the horse doesn’t chew their food well, it won’t be properly digested, and the horse will miss out on crucial nutrients.
Aside from chewing, certain functions within the gastrointestinal tract decrease over time. This makes it more difficult for horses to digest fiber and protein. And a horse’s liver and kidney may not function as well when they age, making digesting protein even more difficult.
Appropriate protein digestion in the setting of organ dysfunction means selecting a feed that has specifically been formulated for this age group. Rather than simply feeding more protein, it would be best to find an amino acid profile that can easily be digested by the senior horse.
Senior horses can be more prone to either weight gain or loss. This can be due to changes in metabolism and specific health problems like Cushing’s disease.
Cushing’s disease can cause changes in appetite and insulin resistance. Horses in this age group may also be more sedentary than when they were younger, and feeding excess calories means over-conditioning.
Special Considerations by Feed Type
Let’s break down what you need to remember when feeding your senior horse hay, grain, and supplements.
Although hay and forage should be the cornerstone of a horse’s diet, seniors may have dental problems that prevent effective chewing. Sometimes you can tell your horse has chewing issues because they leave wadded-up chunks of hay.
Over time, the surfaces of a horse’s teeth can wear down, or they can even lose teeth.
Dental problems can also cause mouth discomfort, which makes chewing even more unpleasant. And if a horse is not chewing their food thoroughly, less saliva is produced, and choke becomes a distinct possibility.
Aside from the physical act of chewing, the nutritional content of hay must also be considered.
Over the years, the agricultural community has made considerable strides in producing nutrient-dense hay. An unfortunate side effect is that much of the hay produced today has high sugar and starch content. And horses with insulin resistance or other metabolic issues don’t need extra sugar in their diet.
One way to minimize the sugar content is by soaking the hay before feeding it. Soaking removes some of the excess sugar without removing the other nutrients.
One of the best ways to soak it is by putting some hay in a hay net and submerging it in a bucket of water for about an hour. After the hour has elapsed, remove the hay from the water and feed it as you usually would.
Soaking hay before feeding also reduces the dust content, a bonus for horses with respiratory issues. Wet hay can quickly transform into moldy hay, so only soak as much as your horse can eat at once!
Using a hay steamer to achieve a similar result is another popular way to reduce dust and possible mold exposure. The practice is more common in the United Kingdom, although the practice is starting to catch on in the United States.
And if you’d prefer not to soak or steam hay before feeding it, you have a few other options.
Standlee makes both alfalfa cubes and pellets low in sugar and high in digestible fiber. Soaking these types of feed decreases the risk of choke and impaction colic, and increases their digestibility and water intake.
Standlee also manufactures a shredded beet pulp product that provides calories for senior horses who have trouble maintaining weight. It’s also a good source of fiber. Similar to the alfalfa cubes, the product should be soaked before feeding.
Complete feed products on the market have all the nutrients a horse may need, including their fiber needs that traditionally come from hay or forage. Feeding a complete feed would eliminate the need to feed hay.
All horses should also have free access to clean water.
Standlee Hay Cubes
Standlee Smart Beet Shreds
Not all senior horses need supplementation with grain, especially if the horse has no trouble maintaining weight and is not active.
And if your horse has been doing well on the regimen they’ve been getting for years, you may have no reason to switch.
But if your horse has trouble gaining weight, consider a feed specifically formulated to address this issue. And if your horse has problems with insulin resistance, look for a feed with low sugar content.
All commercial feed products on the market must list the type of horse for which the feed was formulated. You’ll find a good match if you choose a reputable brand and a feed specific to your horse’s issues.
And if you’re in doubt about what you’re feeding your horse, always consult your veterinarian or an equine nutrition expert.
Here are a few of our top feed picks for senior horses. All 3 options are complete feeds, meaning they are formulated to meet a horse’s daily nutritional requirement with little or no forage/hay supplementation.
Top Three Senior Feeds for Horses:
Safe Choice Senior by Nutrena
- Key Features: Controlled sugar/starch content, contains prebiotics and probiotics to assist with digestion, soak the feed before feeding for horses with dentition concerns
- Point of Differentiation: Formulated with antioxidants and critical nutrients to support topline health.
Equine Senior by Purina
- Key Features: Contains prebiotics to support immune, digestive, and joint health, controlled sugar and starch formula, pelleted feed meaning every piece delivers the same exact nutritional content
- Point of Differentiation: Contains essential fatty acids to support body condition and coat health.
Tribute Equine Seniority
- Key Features: Comes in either a pelleted or textured formulation, balanced combination of amino acids and antioxidants, lower starch and sugar content to support metabolic health
- Point of Differentiation: Lower calorie feed meant to be fed in larger portions may not be the best choice for horses with difficulty maintaining weight.
There are several supplements on the market that are marketed to senior horses.
But as with any supplement, you should consult your veterinarian or an equine nutrition expert before starting your horse on one. And in some cases, feeding a complete feed may already contain all the nutrients your horse needs.
What are the best senior horse supplements?
Although there are many supplements on the market, here are our picks for top supplements across various categories.
- Joint Supplement: Nutramax Cosequin ASU Equine Powder, a product that combines glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM to support joint health.
- Digestive Health Supplement: Nutrena Empower Digestive Balance Horse Supplement provides probiotics to support a normal gastric pH.
- Antioxidant/Immune Support: SmartImmune Pellets contain echinacea, vitamin C, and Tumeric to fight free radical damage and boost your horse’s immunity.
- Weight Gain: Manna Pro Senior Horse Weight Accelerator is specifically formulated with Omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics to help your senior horse gain weight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is senior horse feed high in sugar?
No, most commercial senior horse feed is not high in sugar. In fact, it is formulated to be low in sugar and high in digestible fiber.
Q: Best senior horse feed for weight gain?
If your horse is struggling to maintain weight, consider a feed specifically designed for seniors who need assistance with weight gain. One option is Manna Pro Senior Horse Weight Accelerator.
Q: Best complete feed for horses?
There are several excellent complete feed choices on the market. In general, stick with a well-known brand that has been around for many years. Examples of these brands include Purina and Nutrena. These companies have the research to back up their products and are highly recommended by veterinarians.
There are a variety of complete feeds designed for different types of horses. Choose your brand and look for one that addresses the unique needs of your horse.
Q: Why might you need a low sugar senior horse feed?
As horses age, their metabolism changes, and they become more susceptible to insulin resistance and Cushing’s Disease. This means they are less able to process carbohydrates, so choosing a low-sugar and starch feed is essential.
Many senior horse feeds on the market are specifically formulated for older horses.
Q: Is Triple Crown Senior a good horse feed?
Yes, Triple Crown Senior is an excellent horse feed for older horses. It is a low-sugar and starch feed that is easily digestible and contains all the nutrients an older horse needs.
When it comes to horses, age is sometimes just a number. Although selecting a feeding regimen for a senior horse may seem daunting, many great products are on the market to keep your geriatric horse happy and healthy. If your horse is maintaining weight and body condition on their current feeding regimen, you might not have to change a thing.
But if your horse is losing weight, shows signs of pain while eating, or shows signs of lameness, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. They can help you figure out what’s happening and work with you to formulate a feeding regimen to address your horse’s specific needs.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- Feeding the Senior Horse | Equine Science (iastate.edu)
- Feeding senior horses | Equine Wellness Magazine
- The How and Why of Soaking Hay | Horse Journals
- Taking Care of the Senior Horse – Kentucky Equine Research (ker.com)
- SafeChoice Senior Horse Feed | Nutrena (nutrenaworld.com)
- Equine Senior® Complete Horse Feed | Purina (purinamills.com)
- Seniority™ Pellet Horse Feed | Tribute® Equine Nutrition (tributeequinenutrition.com)
- Cosequin® ASU | Joint Health Supplement for Horses
- Nutrena Empower Digestive Balance Horse Supplement, 138001 at Tractor Supply Co.
- SmartImmune™ Pellets (smartpakequine.com)
- Manna Pro Senior Horse Weight Accelerator, 8 lb., 1000091 at Tractor Supply Co.