What and How Much to Feed Senior Horses
I have a 26yr old TWH who has recently started losing some weight around his flanks. He is free of parasites (this was checked last month) and an equine dentist pronounced his teeth in good condition. Good pasture is available to him 24/7 and he is also fed about 4lbs of grass hay daily at this time. He prefers to eats in his pasture. He receives no grain. I started him on Purina Senior about 10 days ago to supplement his nutrition needs and am feeding him twice per day (3.5 lbs per feeding). I have been told by my local animal feed store that I could put more weight on him by using Purina Strategy of Purina Ultium. He is not worked and only on a maintenance feeding plan. He is otherwise alert and seems happy with his other TWH companion. Please advise me on a feeding plan. – Linda R. via AAEP Ask the Vet
Congratulations for getting this far with your guy! Now it may be time to think of him as a senior horse with senior needs. I’m really glad to hear that you’ve had his mouth inspected and all seems to be fine there. You still need to make sure that he can bite off, chew and swallow pasture grass though and hasn’t begun quidding. If you suspect that may be the case, he might not be able to masticate long stem hay either in which case it’s time to transition to chopped hay, hay cubes or hay pellets.
Next, AAEP has just published Parasite Control Guidelines that I would encourage you to read, with one of the first things you’ll learn being that no horse is truly “free” of parasites. He may be a low shedder, or the parasites may not be laying eggs right now, but I’ll guarantee you that your horse has worms so please don’t neglect giving him dewormer at least once or twice a year! The older horse begins to become less efficient in many organ systems, including the immune system, so an appropriate parasite control program (and vaccination program) becomes even more important as he ages.
Another organ system that doesn’t work as well as cells and tissues get older is the digestive system. Since he’s now less able to extract nutrition from the same food he’s always eaten, starting him on Purina Equine Senior was a great idea! This commercial “hay and grain in a bag” is specifically made for the older horse, with higher protein levels to keep their topline and other muscles from wasting and easier-to-digest ingredients than traditional concentrate. Since it is like both hay and grain combined–with feeding rates as high as 12, 15, or even 18 pounds per day–don’t be afraid to add a third meal or to give him more each time. Of course, if you switch to a true concentrate like Strategy or Ultium, you would feed much less. So there’s a tradeoff between feeding large amounts of a highly digestible feed made for senior horses or smaller amounts of a higher calorie feed made for hardworking or hardkeeping horse. You may want to (gradually) try both approaches and see which does a better job of keeping weight on your individual animal.
There are lots of other ways to put weight on horses and keep it there, and unfortunately you have to do a little bit of experimenting with your own horse to see what works best for him. Some horses really blossom when the diet is supplemented with additional protein or amino acid, others respond to extra fat, while still others gobble down beet pulp, a high-fiber feedstuff which is fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut into fatty acids or energy. I recommend trying one thing at a time and seeing how your guy does, while at the same time identifying and removing and sources of stress or unnecessary calorie loss, such as stomping flies in the summer, shivering in the winter, or illnesses and injuries. I’m also a big proponent of keeping horses in consistent light work as long as possible, soundness permitting, as even walking promotes muscle development.
And of course, stay in touch with your veterinarian, who may want to bump up the annual visit to twice yearly, since problems with immunity, digestion, teeth, hooves and other parts happen that much faster once horses enter their golden years. Good luck and enjoy your horses for a long time to come!