About PATH Intl.

Tips for Feeding the Senior PATH Intl. Horse

By Jessica Normand, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member

Modern horses tend to live long lives, thanks to advancing veterinary medicine and improved management. This means those of us caring for aging horses need to understand how to best meet their nutritional needs. While there isn’t a specific age that horses are considered “senior”, 15 is generally a good benchmark for when the horse’s health and nutritional needs may start to change. Of course, it’s imperative to work with your veterinarian to monitor each horse’s body condition, digestive health, immunity, and overall wellness as they age.

What happens in the aging horse?
You may notice senior horses in your care have a reduced body condition score (weight loss), loss of muscle tone including a sway back, dental changes, and a decreased ability to maintain the same workload as they could in their younger days. Older horses may also start to experience less effective digestive function, loss of bone density, a less robust immune system, less resilient connective tissue, and reduced cardiopulmonary function.

Feeding the Older Horse
Work with your veterinarian to monitor body condition and dental health carefully. Aging horses may have a harder time maintaining healthy fat cover and muscle tone as their digestive tracts become less efficient, and of course dental disease adds to this challenge. All horses need 1-2% of their body weight from forage, so you may have to adjust the sources of roughage provided to senior horses in your care, to accommodate their changing dental needs. Some options include complete feeds, which are formulated with a significant portion of fiber, as well as chopped forage, cubed forage, or soaked beet pulp. For senior horses not being fed a full serving of a fortified or complete feed, consider a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement to make sure their basic nutrient requirements are being met.

Aging equine digestive tracts may have a harder time absorbing protein from the diet. As a result, it’s important to provide high quality protein, meaning essential amino acids, rather than just focusing on the total (crude) protein percentage. Research* has shown that supplementing with the essential amino acids lysine and threonine, specifically, improves muscle mass in aged horses. This may be an excellent strategy for senior horses who lose their topline and develop a “pot belly” appearance from the weight of their intestines, due to loss of abdominal muscle tone. There are numerous equine amino acid supplements on the market, and several are quite economical.

Supplements designed to support the function of the digestive system by providing probiotics, prebiotics, and digestive enzymes can be a great addition to the senior horse’s program. Healthy horses in their prime manufacture their own vitamin C and B vitamins, but as their bodies become less efficient in these functions, supplementing with these vitamins may also be warranted. Additional antioxidants like vitamin E, as well as adaptogens and other herbs meant to support the immune system can be great additions to the senior horse’s program as well.

For senior horses that need help maintaining weight overall (not just lean muscle) consider adding more fat to the diet. Because fat is the most concentrated source of calories, it’s the most efficient way to help any horse gain weight. It’s also a “cool” burning energy source (won’t make horses excitable) and healthier than increasing calories from a grain that’s high in sugars and starches – especially for senior horses also being managed for endocrine/metabolic conditions. It may make sense to choose a commercial feed with a higher crude fat percentage, and/or to add healthy oil or a fat supplement to the diet. The ideal fat supplement comes from healthy fat sources such as flax seed, chia seed, or fish oil, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Avoid corn oil, which is high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Fat must be introduced slowly to avoid loose stool (of course, it’s good practice to make ALL feed changes slowly to reduce the risk of digestive upset).

Because arthritis is an extremely common aspect of aging, also work with your veterinarian to help keep your older horses comfortable. Besides plenty of turnout (to limit stiffness) and a consistent exercise program if possible, prescription medication and/or oral joint supplements can make a big impact on senior horses’ comfort level and quality of life.

In addition to dietary considerations, there are numerous other aspects of management that need to be adjusted as senior horses age. The following article from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) provides an excellent summary: https://aaep.org/horsehealth/older-horse-special-care-nutrition

Lastly, preventive care becomes even more important as horses age, so work closely with your veterinarian. Having a comprehensive physical exam performed twice per year instead of annually is an excellent idea to help you stay on top of the changing needs of the senior horses in your care.

*Graham-Thiers PM, Kronfeld, DS. Amino acid supplementation improves muscle mass in aged and young horses. J Anim Sci. 2005 Dec;83(12):2783-8.

markel-insurance-company

luitpold sm

equisure headercrop

Therapeutic RidingTherapeutic DrivingInteractive VaultingEquine Services for HeroesEFP-EFL

Additional Sponsors

AdequanEQUUS FoundationMarkel Insurance CompanyCavalloRIDE TV