What to Feed Older Horses

Sabrina Barnwell MVB MRCVS on 09 November 2016
Halloween is over and the Christmas decorations are already prominently displayed in the shops! We have been very lucky with the dry weather this autumn meaning that many horses are still happily munching on grass in paddocks not yet looking like swamp monsters! 

The nutritional value of the grass is decreasing at this time of year, this means that horses on a grass only diet will soon need extra calories and nutrients to keep them in optimum condition. Depending on the horse, its use, fitness and age the nutritional needs will differ from horse to horse. 
All horses, regardless of age, breed and workload need water and plenty of good quality fibre in the diet. Horses in work have an increased need for added concentrate in the diet. 

Improvements in management, nutrition and veterinary treatments combined with cultural changes mean that there is a greater number of older horses in the population. Age is a big factor in the “what to feed older horses dilemma”. Most horse owners are familiar with the increased need for good quality protein in the diet of young and growing horses, but older horses too need extra protein. 

The “average” adult horse in average work needs “on average” a diet with 10% protein, this is because the muscle mass is well developed and not under extreme work stresses. Older horses however tend to “drop muscle”. This causes the dipped back appearance that we often see in older horses. 

Horses are increasingly maintaining competitive careers well into their teens. We have previously written advice on what to feed older horses in work and competition. All money spent on feed will be entirely wasted if the horse cannot eat, or cannot digest food. Before even considering what feeds to buy make sure that your horse has no dental problems. Problems such as dropping food or “quidding” are a red light warning indicators of dental problems but other issues may be more subtle and so older horses should be checked by a vet or qualified equine dentist at least once a year.   An annual veterinary check-up is also recommended, there are certain diseases such as Cushings and arthritis that are more common in older horses.
 
So assuming that the horse has a clean “MOT” and no specific problems that need to be addressed in the diet….. 
The key ingredient for the golden oldies is protein. The OAPs need a good quality, easily absorbed protein source. This helps fight the battle against wasting muscle. They will also need plenty of calories, and even more as the weather gets colder. Older horses need plenty of energy just to keep warm. Just like to young growing horses these elderly ones need lots of calcium, older bones need a little more help in staying healthy. In fact old horses really need a high-quality source of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin E and selenium are associated with muscle health and are potent antioxidants. Human studies in particular have shown huge anti-aging benefits of diets rich in antioxidants. 

All things considered it turns out that the beloved older ones are quite similar to the growing babies. Options for concentrate feeding should include Stud Cubes or Horse Care 14 for horses that benefit from a low starch diet, Adding a balancer such as GROCARE Balancer is of huge value for making sure older horses come through the winter in great condition. 

Top tips

  • Add chaff. The more the merrier where fibre is concerned. Good quality fibre is so important. Chaff added to the concentrate will also slow down the passage of the concentrate through the digestive tract. This gives all the enzymes and bacteria more time to absorb as much good stuff as possible form the feed
  • Make sure the horse can get to the food! Sounds simple but in group’s older horses may be slower or have lameness issues meaning that they get bullied away from the food. Sometimes if separating the horses is not practical it is useful to hand feed the older horse a balancer such as our GROCARE Balancer. The small quantity (about a coffee cup twice a day) can be eaten quickly and reasonably discreetly
  • If the horses has dental problems use a feed that can be soaked, Stud Cubes or Horse Care 14 both can be soaked, beet pulp can also be added to the diet (mixes don’t soak very well)
  • Rugs vs no rugs? There is no correct answer to the great rug debate, each situation should be assessed. Rugs are great, as the weather gets colder horses burn extra calories just trying to stay warm….. a warm, dry, rugged horse doesn’t need to burn off so many calories just to stay warm. But…. Rugs hide problems. Older horses are more susceptible to skin problems which may not be noticed if the rugs are not removed and replaced to check over the horse regularly. Also older horses may suffer from Cushings disease, this often causes sweating, more so under a heavy winter rug. So decide whether you can regularly check under rugs before you wrap your OAPs up for the winter. 

For more specific advice on what to feed older horses, or to discuss the dietary needs of horses with Cushings disease please contact a member of our equine team
 
Tags: Condition, Dietary Management, Good Quality Haylage, Old Horses Competing