Meet Bugsy. He was a partbred Quarter Horse I rescued years ago. When he came to me, he was significantly underweight, suffered from an old stifle injury, and had a distrustful attitude. A few months later, he’d filled out, ran up and down hills with ease, and showed the curiosity and warmth of a youngster. How old was he? 25. Not old by today’s standards and yet, definitely up there. What made the difference? Nutrition.
Advances in veterinary medicine and greater attention to nutrition have made it possible, and even probable, that your horse will live well into his 30s and may even reach his 40s. Individuality plays as much a role in the way horses age as it does for us. There are fairly predictable changes, however, that go along with growing old, no matter what age they become noticeable. Some horses have trouble gaining weight, others become too fat. Teeth wear down, making chewing difficult; some may even lose teeth. Most horses experience a decline in immune function and get sick more easily or develop allergies. Muscle mass may diminish, and joints can become stiff. Digestion and absorption efficiency declines.
All these changes come about gradually, but as your horse starts to show signs of aging, the diet you’ve been feeding may now be obsolete and in need of an adjustment.
There are two major changes to consider:
- Saliva production diminishes. A senior-friendly diet considers your horse’s reduced saliva production, which makes dry food difficult to chew and nearly impossible to swallow. This natural aspect of aging is easy to manage by simply moistening your horse’s feed; he’ll appreciate having his meal a little on the mushy side. And be sure there is water close by.
- Digestion efficiency is not what it once was. This leads to diarrhea, electrolyte imbalances, and weight loss. It starts in the small intestine where your horse produces fewer digestive enzymes, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies simply because his tissues can’t receive the nutrients from his meal. Plus, undigested food enters the hindgut where it is either fermented (which can lead to colic or laminitis) or ends up in the manure.
To improve the diet, follow these guidelines:
- Choose senior feeds. Senior feeds are pre-cooked and extruded (formed into kibbles) that are easy to chew and digest. Many senior feeds add digestive enzymes to their formulas to further assist with digestion. They also contain vitamins and minerals, but keep in mind that the only way your horse will get enough of these nutrients is if you feed the recommended amount. Otherwise, a vitamin/mineral supplement may need to be added. Finally, opt for feeds that are organic or at least non-GMO in order to keep him healthier and reduce inflammation.
- Or choose beet pulp or hay pellets. These make excellent carrier feeds for your supplements. A non-GMO beet pulp or hay pellet is best. They need to be moistened into a mush. You’ll want to add a digestive enzyme supplement, along with proper vitamin/mineral supplementation.
- Feed the hindgut microbial population. These microbes are responsible for digesting fibrous portions of the diet, leading to the formation of volatile fatty acids to provide your horse with calories for energy. They are also necessary for B-vitamin production and maintaining a healthy immune function. Their numbers can significantly diminish due to several causes, such as stomach acid reaching the hindgut because of an empty stomach or inadequate saliva production (saliva neutralizes acid), pain and mental stress, illness, antibiotics, or feeding GMO feeds (that may be sprayed with Roundup). Pro and prebiotics are often added to senior feeds or supplements designed for aging horses.
- Include a source of omega 3s. The essential omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) must be in your horse’s diet because his body cannot produce it. Hay that has been stored for several months no longer has the levels once contained in living grasses. ALA supports immune function, reduces the inflammation of aging joints and muscles, regulates blood insulin levels, promotes healthy skin and hooves, and improves attitude. Stabilized flaxseed meal and chia seeds are excellent sources of omega 3s. They are well tolerated and easy to feed. For more difficult cases of inflammation, add additional omega 3s in the form of DHA as well.
- The second essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, is an omega 6. And while it, too, must be in the diet, oils typically found in commercial feeds are very high in this omega 6, creating an imbalance that increases inflammation. Avoid feeds that contain soybean oil (high in omega 6) and balance the diet with high-omega 3 containing feedstuffs.
- Supplement vitamin C. Vitamin C is necessary for collagen production (protein found in bones, joints, and blood vessels). It is also a potent antioxidant and natural antihistamine. When young, your horse was capable of producing plenty of his own vitamin C. Now that he’s getting older, his ability has diminished. He’ll get ample vitamin C from fresh pasture, as long as it is growing and healthy; but hay has virtually no vitamin C.
- Supplement vitamin D during winter or when stalled. Your horse can produce vitamin D from sunlight but during the winter months or if your horse is not exposed to at least 8 hours of sunlight each day, be sure there is enough vitamin D in your commercial feed or supplement. This vitamin (along with vitamin C) will help keep your horse’s bones, muscles, and teeth in top shape.
- Avoid high starch feeds. Cereal grains (oats, corn, barley, wheat, rice, etc.) and feeds made from cereal grains should be eliminated from the diet. As horses age, they are more inclined to exhibit signs of equine Cushing’s disease and a low starch diet is best.
A few words about weight …
Many horses gain weight as they age. This has to do with his sluggish metabolic rate. If he has weight to lose, he doesn’t really need anything other than pasture and/or hay, along with a small, low starch meal each day to serve as a carrier for supplements that may include ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, vitamin C, and a comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement. But never restrict forage — he needs to be able to graze at will 24/7, all day and all night. Going for hours without anything to eat will, ironically, prevent him from burning fat and he’ll remain heavy.
The underweight horse can be very challenging. First, try to determine the reason for weight loss. Worm infestation, ulcers, infections, liver or kidney disease, even cancer can cause weight loss. Pain and mental stress can also make it difficult for your horse to hold a normal weight. The most common reason for weight loss in older horses, however, is poor teeth. Soaked hay cubes or chopped forage, fed free-choice, will meet forage requirements. Extra calories can be provided in a variety of ways but avoid cereal grains. Horses are more prone toward developing Cushing’s disease as they age and should be fed a low-starch diet. Additional fat through ground flaxseeds or chia seed are safer ways to help your horse gain weight without the risk of starch. Additional protein from alfalfa, and especially hempseed protein, will boost protein quality to help maintain muscle mass, while adding extra calories. A good pre/probiotic will allow for more calorie production from the hindgut microbes.
Other age-related problems
- Joint and muscle deterioration. Most, if not all, horses over the age of 20 will develop arthritis to some degree. Stall confinement makes arthritis worse and makes muscles tight. Mild exercise helps lubricate stiff joints and builds up surrounding muscles. Even if you don’t ride your horse, the more pasture turnout he gets the better off he’ll be.
- Tendons and ligaments lose elasticity over time and muscle mass starts to decline. There are several nutrients that I find helpful in boosting joint and connective tissue strength and lean body mass. These include colostrum, branched chain amino acids, B vitamins, vitamins C and E, and others.
Your horse’s genetic background combined with his health status throughout his growing and adult years will influence how well he ages. If he was fed well all his life, with attention toward providing a clean diet and filling in nutritional gaps, he will likely live longer and with fewer ailments.
You are the best judge of how well your senior horse is aging. By keeping track of his weight, his eating habits, and his overall condition, you can make appropriate adjustments to his diet that will impact his health and overall quality of life.