Feeding Senior Horses
My life with horses began with a senior. Her name was Lady Be Good (Lady, for short) and she was approximately 21 years old when we signed the lease papers and brought her home. A retired hunter jumper, Lady was in good shape aside from a hock that gave her occasional trouble. I rode trails and showed Lady for several years before semi-retiring her; at that point, her only work was carrying around a few small children for half-hour riding lessons each week.
By her later twenties, Lady began losing body condition, so we started her on senior feed. I remember driving across town to get it (I was a teenager by then) and paying a whopping ten dollars a bag! Lady must have had good teeth because she was maintained on a coffee can of senior feed twice a day + hay or pasture until her early thirties when her arthritis got so bad we decided her put down.
Some thirty years later, I find myself with another senior horse who looks a lot like Lady. Hershey is 25 and a much harder keeper though. He’s always been that way. I started him on senior feed in the winters a few years ago, but this is the first year I’ve noticed him having trouble eating hay. Unlike Lady, his teeth aren’t in the best condition.
Many older horses lose body condition due to dental problems, a reduced ability to absorb nutrients, or just plain old age. This is when we tend to start calling them “seniors”. It could happen when your horse is 18, or it could be at 28, but at some point, you probably won’t be able to keep feeding the same diet you feed your younger horses. It’s time to move on to a softer, more easily digestible diet: a senior diet.
While my younger horses still do well on a diet of nearly 100% forage, Hershey can no longer maintain his body condition this way–at least in the winter. So I now feed him Triple Crown Senior and soaked hay pellets.
Many older horses are sensitive to sugar and starch, so it’s important to feed a diet low in NSC’s (non-structural carbohydrates). Triple Crown Senior has an NSC level of just under 12%. Triple Crown Safe Starch (NSC level below 9%) is another great option for seniors if you can find it in your area. It contains chopped forage with added vitamins and minerals and can be fed as a complete diet as well.
With any senior diet, the first thing to ensure is that it’s based in fiber. Forage should be the foundation, fed at a minimum of 1.5% bodyweight daily. Pasture often works well, even for seniors, but if eating hay is a problem during fall/winter, go to soaked hay cubes, chopped hay, or possibly soaked beet pulp. (See this post for a longer list of hay alternatives.) Soaked pellets can be used for horses with missing or damaged teeth. Just make sure to soak until it becomes a mash. Most senior feeds have increased fiber levels as well and many can be fed as a complete diet, if needed.
If you’re putting together your own senior diet, you will need to look at protein next. Good quality and varied protein sources are important since older horses may experience muscle wasting. Along with protein, seniors need high-quality, chelated minerals which are more easily absorbed. Additionally, seniors have an increased need for phosphorous since they don’t digest this mineral easily. This is where adding rice or wheat bran to the diet can help.
Finally, senior horses will also benefit from antioxidants (especially vitamins C and E) and prebiotics such as yeast culture products in their diet.
Complete senior feeds often include all of the above, but if you’re going to feed them, it’s important to follow feeding directions. I’m normally not a proponent of processed feeds, but in the case of seniors, it may be the only way to keep up their body condition.
With seniors who are eating little to no hay, it’s important to feed smaller meals more often throughout the day to keep their gut moving. This will also help keep them warmer in cold weather. (remember the act of digesting fiber keeps horses warm!)
If you have a feeding program that works well for your senior horse, please feel free to share in the comments section below!
Sources and Further Reading