While many senior horses may no longer gallop across cross country courses any longer, they still have plenty to offer in their later years. Through proper nutritional care, senior horses can have a thriving and happy life for years to come. Before entering winter, it is important to assess an aging horse’s nutritional needs.
Which horses are considered “senior” horses? This term is difficult to define – the truth is, there is no correct age. Large factors, such as a horse’s previous activity strains and health issues, determine whether a horse is ready for the “senior” status. Some horses make the switch to senior status in their teens, while others do not gain the elderly status until they are in their late 20s! Typically, a horse is ready to transition to a senior feed diet when it struggles to maintain condition, despite consuming adequate amounts of forage and concentrates. This may be because the horse’s digestive system is no longer able to break down a feed’s nutrients, or it may have poor dental health. Always consult with a veterinarian to determine if the horse has any underlying health issues before switching to a senior feed.
Senior horse feeds are considered complete feeds, meaning that they contain the full amount of forage and concentrates needed. Since these feeds contain all the required nutrients, they can be fed without forage or can be fed to replace part of the forage. Typically, these feeds are very fiber-heavy with ingredients such as beet pulp (since they replace the forage in a horse’s diet), and contain higher levels of fat, protein, vitamins, and trace mineral values. Before beginning to feed a horse a complete senior feed, consult with the feed manufacturer’s equine nutritionist to determine which senior formula is best for your horse and how much to feed. However, there is no need to feed a complete feed if a horse can still digest and chew regular forage to maintain its body condition.
At Excel Equine®® Feeds, we offer a variety of senior formulas, ensuring that a senior horse can find a perfect feed for its nutritional requirements. Senior Needs®, a textured mix, is highly fortified with nutrients to provide support for compromised metabolisms and to benefit skeletal strength. Seniority® is a textured feed high in fiber, so it is the perfect choice for a horse who has difficulty processing hay. The addition of alfalfa pellets also works to add calories. Senior Plus® is a pelleted feed that has low added molasses and 10% starch, making it a perfect choice for horses who are insulin-resistant or a hard keeper. Lastly, Senior HF® is a pelleted feed with added beet pulp to increase fiber intake, making it a great choice for horses needing to gain weight.
If a horse is heading into the winter is under conditioned, it may be good to increase its calorie consumption for weight gain. Before changing the diet, consider increasing the horse’s intake of its regular hay – for many, more roughage is all that is needed to add extra pounds. Replacing a quarter of a horse’s regular roughage with alfalfa hay is another approach; alfalfa hay is more calorie-dense. If a horse has difficulty digesting dry hay, consider soaking the flakes before feeding to soften the stems, making it easier for an elderly horse to consume. There are also hay steaming products available on the market. Steaming hay softens the stems and creates a pleasant aroma, which many horses find appetizing. If these methods do not work, then increasing a horse’s grain intake can be considered. As a rule of thumb, it is best to feed a horse several small meals a day rather than two large meals. A horse is designed to continuously eat, so feeding more frequent meals will safely optimize the digestive process.
There are a variety of other products available on the market to aid senior horses needing extra calories or a forage alternative. Beet pulp is one of the most popular choices, as this fiber-dense forage is commonly an ingredient in manufactured feeds and can be fed on its own. Beet pulp provides more calories per pound than hay, making it a great option for older horses needing to gain weight. A horse can consume up to half its daily forage intake with beet pulp. Rice bran is another quality source of calories. Excel Equine® Feeds offers EquiEdge®, a pelleted rice bran supplement providing healthy fats that incorporates ground flax, adds safe calories, and improves a horse’s coat condition and overall health. Lastly, alfalfa cubes and pellets are a great alternative for horses that cannot digest the dry hay. These forages can be fed soaked, making them easier for a horse to eat. Since alfalfa cubes can be easier for a horse to consume, a horse will oftentimes eat the cubes quickly, leaving it with an empty stomach shortly after the food is digested. To prevent this issue, ensure that the horse has enough forage provided so that it can eat throughout the day.
With these feeding tips, a senior horse can successfully navigate enter the colder months and live a long, healthy life.