How to Determine when Your Partner Needs a Diet Change
by Gina Fresquez, MS, CHHC
Taking care of the senior horse is one topic I hold dear to my heart as I have a 27-year-old mare that has been with me through thick and thin. Having owned her for 23 years, I have seen her mature and age over time; more drastically in the last few years. She has gone from an “easy keeper” to, more recently, a hard keeper and I have managed her diet accordingly.
Senior horses take a little bit (or a lot of) special care when it comes to nutrition and diet management. If you too have a senior horse, you may be asking yourself “when do I feed my horse a senior feed?” I get asked this question a lot out in the field and more often than not there is misunderstanding and I see senior feeds being fed inappropriately. Here are some facts you should know about senior feeds, including when to feed them and how to choose what is best for your aging horse.
Traditional senior feeds are a class of horse feed designed for older horses (generally 16 years or older). They are “complete feeds,” which means they already contain the necessary forage/hay needed for the horse. Therefore, forage is optional. These diets generally have higher feeding rates (average 4 – 15 lbs per day) because it is meant to replace most or all of the horse’s total ration (hay, protein, calories, vitamins and minerals). These types of senior diets are used for aged horses with dental issues (lost teeth, etc.) that are no longer able to chew and/or digest their forage. These diets are also great for the hard keeper that has intestinal upset and needs a more digestible source of feed to maintain weight and condition.
If your senior horse can chew and digest forage quite well a traditional senior feed might not be the most appropriate or cost effective choice for your horse. If you are still riding the horse and/or it is a harder keeper, therefore needing more calories to maintain body condition beyond the forage, your best option is to feed a more concentrated diet to your horse. This would be one that contains the necessary protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals to thrive, but not the additional forage. These feeds will help the horse maintain its condition and nutritional needs in a smaller feeding rate (average 3 – 6 pounds per day) than a traditional senior feed. Many feeds could work, but there are actually only a few concentrated diets specifically designed to meet an older horse’s nutritional needs, including added protein to prevent muscle loss, added vitamin C for increased immunity and low starch and sugar to manage blood glucose and insulin. Look for feeds labeled “senior” but have lower feeding rates and mention the product is to be fed in addition to hay.
If your horse is an easy keeper, meaning it maintains weight on forage alone and traditionally is on the fleshy to fat side without much, if any, feed, then neither of the above diets would be appropriate. This type of senior horse needs the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein to maintain health, but not the additional calories that most senior feeds contain. These horses normally do extremely well being fed ration balancers—highly concentrated feeds designed to balance off the forage and diet at very small feeding rate (1 – 2 pounds per day). The importance here is protein. As horses age, they cannot digest and absorb protein as well as they used to and therefore need a higher quality protein in the diet to maintain muscle mass (especially over the top line and hips). Ration balancers provide the vitamins and minerals needed for health as well as help develop and retain muscle development as the horse ages.
Deciding when and what feed to give your senior horse can be easy if you follow the directions on the products. Keep in mind that you have options and remember to be flexible as your horse ages and know that its feeding regimen will change along the way. For example, my horse has been an easy keeper her whole life so I have had her on a good quality hay and a ration balancer for the last 10 years. Recently she lost some teeth and has had difficulty chewing her hay so I have moved her over to a traditional senior feed at about 8 pounds per day along with a little timothy hay to munch on. Keep checking on your beloved senior horse each season and make adjustments as needed. Consult a professional if you need assistance.
Published December 2013 Issue