Feeding Your Older Horse

Did you know that the nutritional requirements of horses change as they age?

Feeding horses over the age of 20 years can be more challenging than feeding young or middle-aged horses for reasons including increased in chronic diseases, decrease in body condition, and gradual wearing of their teeth. Here are a few things to know about feeding your older horses.

What is different?

Older horses differ from young or middle aged horses for the following reasons:

  • They may have an increased protein catabolism (the breakdown of protein sources in the body including muscles and heart), and therefore require more protein to help offset the imbalance.

  • They may have a decreased digestive efficiency in the hindgut, so they may not be able to fully digest their nutrients, and require easier to digest foods while still maintaining their fibre requirements

  • They may have a poorer ability to digest phosphorous, which also impacts on their ability to utilise calcium effectively, and can lead to leeching of calcium from bones and teeth. Food should be supplemented with higher calcium and phosphorous to avoid this.

  • They may have greater wear on their teeth due to age, resulting in poorer capability of chewing larger, drier fibre sources. Poor teeth can also reduce their saliva production through a decrease in chewing, which impacts on the digestibility of fibrous foods.

  • They may have reduced mobility due to arthritis, which limits their grazing.

  • They begin to lose body fat, which reduces their ability to keep warm during the winter, meaning their energy requirements become much higher.

  • They are more likely to have or develop chronic diseases including Cushings, liver disease, EMS or melanomas, which complicate their nutritional requirements.

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What can I do to help my older horse eat well?

feeding older horses requires multiple changes
  • Consider using shorter stemmed fibrous feeds over hay, to help make it easier for the hind gut to digest.

  • You may need to dampen chaff and lucernes, and other dry feeds, to make it easier to digest and provide moisture needed for digestion, which may be reduced with decreased saliva.

  • Select feeds that have higher protein, such as extruded soybean meal (38%) or extruded micronized lupins or canola meal (32-33%). Copra and Lucerne hay may also work, with protein at 23% and 15-17% respectively.

  • Look for feeds with higher calcium/phosphorous. There are specialised commercially prepared senior feeds available which cater for additional protein, calcium and phosphorous compared to feed designed for middle aged horses. You can also consider using a good quality breeder feed as well, as this also contains higher protein, calcium and phosphorous, and may be more economical as it tends to be produced in higher quantities than senior feeds.

  • Increase their feed during winter considerably and monitor their body condition closely. You may need to implement rugs that are slightly warmer than those used for the younger horses, but monitor carefully and don’t go overboard, as you may risk heat stress.

  • Consider adding supplements to support joint health and reduce pain, which can help them by improving their movement, and therefore grazing, when they are in the paddock.

  • Regularly assess your horses’ dental healthy with a qualified dentist and review their feeding plan. Your dentist may be able to assist with recommendations based on your horses’ needs.

  • Monitor your horse for any health changes and work with your vet regarding the best options for management, including nutrition.

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