When a horse becomes a senior, chances are, they’re going to require a little more work and expense on your part. Their joints may be stiffer, they may start to lose body condition, and you might have more trouble keeping weight on them. However, your senior horse has likely earned their spot at your farm, and they deserve the very best care you can give them throughout their golden years..
Fortunately, many feed and supplement companies have designed products specifically for our aging equines – to help us keep them healthy for as long as we can. There are also a number of other things you can do to help keep your senior horse at a healthy weight.
We’ll discuss all of the above in this article.
When is a Horse Considered a Senior?
There is no set answer to this question because it can be different for every horse. As a general rule, however, most horses are considered “seniors” by the time they reach 18-20 years of age. And while some horses can remain in excellent body condition for years, others begin to deteriorate either slowly or quickly.
Therefore, the best way to classify senior horses might be those that require a modified diet in order to maintain their body condition.
4 Reasons Why Senior Horses Lose Weight
1) Decreased Nutrient Absorption
One problem senior horses may have is a decreased ability to absorb nutrients which can cause them to lose weight.
Decreased nutrient absorption can be caused by intestinal worms that have caused damage over the years or even current parasite infection.
It can also be due to a reduction in the effectiveness of the intestinal lining as a horse ages which makes it difficult for nutrients to pass the mucosal surface and reach the bloodstream.
Protein digestion may also be a problem with senior horses. As a result, muscle wasting can occur as a lack of available protein causes the body to break down its own muscle tissue to provide protein for important bodily functions.
2) Dental Problems
Senior horses are much more likely to experience dental problems than their younger counterparts; This is due to normal wear and tear of the teeth over time as well as tooth loss.
Unfortunately, these problems can be related to nutrient absorption, especially if the teeth aren’t able to fully chew food into small enough particles for the digestive enzymes and gut microbes to effectively digest. This results in more food passing through the digestive tract undigested.
3) Environmental and Herd Stress
Older horses are more likely to have trouble handling changes to their environment. Relocation to a new place, changing pasture mates, or even just moving to a new pasture can be stressful for seniors, and this stress may lead to weight loss as they try to adjust.
Herd stress can affect senior horses since they tend to be near the bottom of the pecking order and may be pushed away from food or hay by other horses.
Additionally, environmental changes, particularly cold weather, can become more difficult as horses age. Reduced body fat and altered hormone production can lead to increased sensitivity to cold. Eating more hay/fiber in cold weather helps horses to stay warm, but if your horse isn’t able to eat long-stemmed forage, there will be a reduction of internal body heat produced. Therefore, having good shelter for senior horses becomes even more important.
4) Disease/Chronic Pain
Older horses are also more prone to developing age-related diseases and conditions such anemia, respiratory problems, osteoarthritis, and Cushing’s disease.
Due to the chronic pain that many of these diseases and conditions cause, this can result in reduced appetite. Senior horses need regular veterinary check-ups to identify and treat these conditions. Also don’t forget routine hoof care as overgrown hooves can lead to added stress on already ailing joints.
How to Feed Your Senior Horses For Weight Gain
As you can probably see, the solution to helping an older horse gain weight isn’t as simple as throwing more grain or hay at them. Though all horses need to consume approximately 1.5-2% of their bodyweight daily, seniors often need more than just added calories.
Aside from addressing underlying dental and health issues, they need food that they can chew, digest, and absorb. This is where commercial senior horse feeds can be extremely helpful, as these products are designed specifically for the unique problems senior horses often deal with.
If fed at the recommended amount, senior feeds are considered “complete feeds”, meaning they contain all of the minerals and vitamins a horse needs (aside from salt). However, in order for your horse to get all the nutrients he needs from a complete feed, you will need to feed at the manufacturer’s recommended amount.
Likewise, offering high-quality hay and pasture can go a long way in helping them to get the long-stem fiber they need in order to maintain body weight and a healthy digestive system.
However, since some seniors have trouble eating hay and tend to lose weight in winter when grass isn’t available, hay alternatives such as hay cubes, hay pellets, beet pulp, chopped hay, or chaffhaye may be needed. Just make sure to thoroughly soak anything that could pose a choking hazard (which seniors are already at risk for due to dental issues).
Most senior feeds include beet pulp and can be soaked as well to make them easier to chew and digest. Soaking feeds can also ensure that your senior is getting enough water during cold weather when they may be more reluctant to drink.
Because many seniors have trouble with muscle wasting, adding a variety of protein sources into their diet can also be helpful. Some examples of good protein sources for horses include:
- Alfalfa – hay, cubes, or pellets (19-23%)
- Flaxseed meal (31-35%)
- Hemp seeds (33%)
- Chia seeds (19-23%)
- Soybean meal (44-52%)
- Sunflower meal (26-30%)
- Wheat bran (15-20%)
To help seniors better digest and absorb the nutrients they’re eating, consider adding a high quality pre- and probiotic, such as FullBucket’s Extra Strength Probiotic Pellets.
With 50 Billion CFU’s of the superpowered yeast probiotic strain, Saccharomyces boulardii, L-Glutamine to help support the integrity of the intestinal wall and prebiotics to support a healthy microbiome, FullBucket Probiotic Pellets can help keep senior horses’ digestive tracts functioning like new for many years.
Don’t forget that for seniors, routine veterinary, dental, and farrier visits are vital in order to address underlying issues that could be causing them to lose weight. Keep an eye on herd dynamics and work to address their unique dietary needs; You will be well on your way to helping your senior horse look and feel his best.