A Nutrition Plan For Your Senior Horse

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Equine Guelph

Each horse is an individual and will have their own specific nutritional needs. With that in mind, there are several categories into which seniors can be divided based on their nutritional needs.

The Healthy Senior 

For the senior in good health and at an ideal weight that is still used for performance and/or reproduction, continue with your current nutrition plan as long as it’s balanced and meeting the horse’s needs. A good quality forage at 1.5 to 2.5 percent of body weight on a dry matter basis should be enough to keep your senior in good condition. Provide unlimited access to water, salt, and a forage balancer. 

Concentrate feed is only required for horses that are not maintaining weight on forage, or for those with dental problems that interfere with feeding.

Monitor body condition score and body weight with a weight tape every week to quickly catch any changes.

The Overweight or Obese Senior 

For the senior that is overweight or obese but otherwise healthy, it is important to restore an ideal body condition. Overweightness and obesity are associated with the development of unfavourable metabolic changes and increased disease risk. Start by scheduling a veterinary visit to rule out any underlying problem contributing to weight gain. Work with your veterinarian and/or an equine nutritionist to develop a weight loss plan, which usually involves restricting feed intake (especially through pasture) and/or eliminating any concentrate feed the horse is receiving. A good quality forage balancer is essential when restricting feed intake. Always provide free access to water and salt.

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A play ball is a fun way to create more activity for the overweight horse. Photo: Shutterstock/Olga I

Increase the horse’s physical activity by choosing a method that works best for your senior, such as in-hand, loose, or ridden. Be consistent. Consider splitting the exercise into several short sessions each day and introduce exercise gradually to avoid overwork.

Consider changes to your management techniques to increase physical activity and/or prevent boredom between feedings. Here are some ways to accomplish that:

  • Hay nets and slow feeders can increase the time the horse spends foraging;
  • Provide frequent small meals; 
  • Separate forage in different piles to encourage movement; 
  • Provide a play ball or toy with a small handful of high-fibre pellets between feedings. This feed should be included as part of the horse’s calculated feed allowance according to the weight loss plan. 

Related: The Chew Factor - Fibre Intake in Horse Hay

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Your veterinarian can help you determine if the underweight senior has underlying health issues, such as parasites or dental problems. Photo: iStock/Eric Metz

The Senior That’s Losing Condition 

This horse is difficult to keep weight on with a normal diet but is otherwise healthy. First, schedule a veterinary visit for nutritional advice and to rule out underlying issues such as parasite or dental problems.

Observe the herd hierarchy. Your senior may have lost dominance in the herd and may have less access to feed. In this case, provide alternative feeding arrangements. 

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A grazing muzzle to restrict forage intake is particularly useful if the horse is obese or prone to laminitis. Photo: Dreamstime/Jacqueline Nix

Gradually increase the calories and nutrients in the horse’s diet. He should receive good quality forage at around 2.5 percent of body weight on a dry matter basis. A hay analysis is recommended. Highly palatable hay may increase the horse’s appetite. Using hay cubes/pellets or beet pulp could also be beneficial. 

If a concentrate feed is necessary, it should include good quality protein (e.g., 10 to 14 percent, preferably from soybean meal or legumes) and added vegetable oil/fat (7 to 10 percent). Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist will be able to recommend the best options for your particular senior.

Provide free access to water, salt, and a forage balancer. The type/amount of balancer required depends on the vitamin and mineral content of the concentrate feed. 

Including sweet-smelling/tasting feed toppings may increase feed intake and using odours that the horse already knows may increase the acceptance of new foods. 

Related: Grazing Muzzles

The Senior With Health Problems 

Different conditions will require different nutritional management strategies, and this is further complicated by the current health status of the horse (i.e., whether he is obese or has dental problems). A consultation with your veterinarian is essential to treat and address any such conditions that your senior may have, and your veterinarian may suggest a nutrition plan based on your senior’s individual needs. It will be easier for your veterinarian to assess your senior’s needs if you have kept detailed records of health checks, behaviour, body condition scores, body weight, and feeding programs. 

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Worn or missing teeth will impede the horse’s ability to chew and should be addressed by the veterinarian. For horses with poor dentition that are no longer able to chew long-stem hay, hay cubes are a good option. Photo: Shutterstock/Svyatoslaw Balan

The veterinarian will address any discomfort issues, such as pain in horses with arthritis, which may be causing decreased appetite. Management techniques, such as elevated feed stations and separation during feeding, may be helpful for horses with difficulty eating due to pain. Generally, diets high in cereal or water-soluble carbohydrates should be avoided.

All Senior Horses

A hay analysis is one of the most useful tools at your disposal and should be done whenever new cuts of hay arrive at your barn. Provide loose salt rather than a salt lick because many senior horses have a dry mouth and the loose salt is easier for them to consume. Perform body condition scoring regularly and watch for changes in muscle development, such as losing muscle.

See Henneke Equine Body Condition Score Chart

Related: Caring for the Equine Elder

Published with the kind permission of Equine Guelph.



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