Help your older horse make weight with these simple tips
As horses age, it can be harder to maintain a healthy weight. This is a relatively common problem with lots of resources available to consider. In this article, we will discuss how to evaluate your senior horse’s body condition, review common causes of weight loss in older horses, and discuss feeding solutions to help your horse put weight back on.
Weight loss in senior horses is a common issue. Always consult your vet first to rule out any medical conditions that may be causing or contributing factors. Establish a baseline weight and condition for your horse, evaluate your current feeding program, and consider changes to safely increase their caloric intake.
How to Tell if Your Senior Horse is Underweight
The most common sign that your horse is underweight is when you can see their ribs. Just eyeballing, however, is less than ideal. There are more accurate ways to quantifiably evaluate your horse’s weight and progress; it helps to combine methods for the most comprehensive view. The first step should be to establish a baseline and then periodically evaluate your horse against it. There are three recommended ways to figure out your baseline and measure your check-in’s.
- Using the weight tape formula method, measure your horse and calculate their weight.
- Pair this measurement with a body condition score. This is a numerical scoring system that ranks a horse between a 1 (extremely thin) and 9 (extremely fat). Most horses should fall between a 4 and a 6, depending on their workload and discipline.
- Take a picture of your horse from the same angle and location to monitor progress, as it is harder to spot changes when you see the horse on a regular basis.
Last, when in doubt, ask your vet! They will be happy to provide a neutral, third-party opinion.
Why is My Senior Horse Losing Weight?
There are several issues that may lead to a senior horse losing weight. These include:
Deteriorating Dental Conditions
Horse’s teeth grow throughout their lifetimes and gradually wear down as they chew. As horses age, the teeth may wear unevenly. Senior horses especially may have missing or broken teeth, or the teeth may simply wear out.
Consulting a vet for a dental exam is a highly recommended first step when evaluating the basic cause of weight loss in a senior horse.
If your horse’s teeth have worn out, feeding hay may no longer be an option. Most of the major equine feed brands have specially formulated senior feeds that are high in fat and fiber. Always read the feed label for specific feeding instructions. Senior feeds, or complete feeds, are typically formulated to be fed either as a supplement to hay, or as the sole ration for horses that may not be able to chew hay anymore.
This video shows how a basic dental exam works:
Competition for Food
If an older horse is turned out with other horses, they may have to compete for food and end up missing out on part of their ration. It is best to feed the senior horse alone so they have plenty of time to eat; as teeth wear out, it may take longer to chew too.
Older horses are more prone to different conditions including:
- Risk of Colic: as tooth quality deteriorates, colic becomes more common. Older horses are more prone to fatty tumors which can become wrapped around the intestine, creating a strangulating lipoma.
- Arthritis: Common in older horses, pain or stiffness in joints can reduce mobility. Pain can cause stress which can contribute to weight loss.
- Metabolic and Endocrinatic Conditions: Two conditions are more common in seniors—Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and PPID (Cushing’s disease). Both conditions can lead to laminitis.
- Eye Issues: Horses can develop cataracts and moon blindness, both of which are more common as age progresses.
How Can You Get a Senior Horse to Gain Weight?
There are several steps you can take to begin to put weight back on the older horse. Begin by ruling out any underlying medical conditions that may be affecting your horse. Next, evaluate the current feeding program and think about what is within your ability to change. Last, consider adding a supplement for additional calories.
Rule Out Medical Conditions
Initially, look for the root cause of the weight loss. Rule out any dental issues, parasites, or underlying conditions that may be contributing. Your vet is a great reference for this.
Evaluate Your Current Feed
Dig into the current feed program. Here are a few things to consider:
- Is your senior horse fed alone and given enough time to eat?
- Has the hay source changed recently
- Weigh your horse and confirm the ration is correct.
- Remember to feed by weight and not volume—different grains will have different densities and hay can vary drastically between cuttings or types.
- What type of hay is being fed? Consider swapping grass hay for alfalfa hay to provide additional calories.
- What kind of grain are you feeding? As horses age, their ability to digest feed may be reduced. Consider switching to a feed formulated for senior horses. Products that provide both pre and probiotics will help maintain a healthy gut. Always make any feed changes gradually.
- How many times a day is your horse fed? Many boarding stables only feed twice per day; consider adding a third meal to spread out the existing ration into smaller feedings or add additional calories with “lunch” or a “bedtime snack.”
Consider adding a supplement
Trying to keep weight on a senior horse is a common issue. Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent products designed to help. If you have evaluated all the options above, adding a supplement may be your next best option.
Here are some top options that can help:
- Inexpensive and Easy: Vegetable Oil. Yes, the kind you can buy at your local grocery store. Soybean oil or canola oil are preferable to corn oil. You can safely feed up to two cups per day to provide additional fat and calories; but make changes slowly. Start with ¼ cup per day and gradually increase.
- Easy but Expensive: Top dress with a high-fat supplement to add more calories to your existing feeding program. Some examples include:
- Nutrena Empower Boost
- SmartPak CocoSoya Ultra SP
- MannaPro Senior Weight Accelerator
- Effective yet Time-Consuming: Add beet pulp or alfalfa pellets/cubes to your horse’s diet. Because senior horses tend to have a more difficult time chewing, and as a result are more prone to choke and colic, we highly recommend soaking these products before feeding them. Soaking can be time-consuming, but reduces the risk of issues and is helpful for hydration, especially in the colder winter months. Plus, a hot mash on a cold day is an excellent treat for your horse!
Frequently Asked Questions
At what age is a horse considered senior?
How long do horses live?
Since equine nutrition has improved and general workload has decreased, it is not uncommon to see horses living to 25-30 years old. Generally, ponies live longer than horses.
What are good senior horse supplements?
There are many good supplements on the market depending on your goals. If you are looking to just add calories, consider adding vegetable oil as a top dress. Beet pulp shreds or alfalfa pellets or cubes are also good choices to add calories and fiber.
For an arthritic horse, consider adding a joint supplement—glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid are all common, effective ingredients.
Weight loss in senior horses is a common problem. Fortunately, there are many resources available to identify the root cause and facilitate weight gain. If adding a weight-gain supplement doesn’t work, consider switching your horse to a feed specifically formulated for older horses.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- How to Weigh a Horse (Easy Step-by-Step Guide)
- The Biggest Loser: Horse Weight Loss Guide for Beginners
- How much does a horse weigh? (Fun facts, calculator, FAQs)
- Solving the Senior Horse Feed Equation
- Hard Keepers Made Easy: Horse Weight Gain for Beginners
- Food or Foe: What Do Horses Eat (And Why)?
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