Feed For Older Horses & Ponies in Winter

Aging can alter any animal’s nutritional requirements and this needs to be taken into account when choosing the best feeds for older horses and ponies. To promote general good health a regular worming programme is important and teeth should be checked regularly too by a vet or reputable horse dentist.

What age is a horse or pony classed as senior or old?

Horses age at different rates although as a general rule they are considered to be senior at 15. As veterinary and nutritional science continue to improve, the age we consider horses as senior is changing. Where some horses will be struggling with their weight and have dental problems in their late teens, others will still be going strong into their mid-twenties and more! This means it’s hard to determine exactly when a horse can be considered a senior.

If your senior horse is still in good health, then as with a horse of any age, simply choose a ration that is most suited to their bodyweight or workload. Although many senior mixes and cubes are available,not every senior horse or pony needs them, especially those that hold their weight well. If you are feeding less than the recommended quantities of a veteran mix, cube or mash it will mean that your older horse is missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. In these situations adding a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement or a concentrated feed for older horses alongside a fibre diet would be the right type of feeds to choose.

Senior-Specific Problems

Poor dentition, weight loss, PPID (formerly known as Cushing’s disease) and laminitis are just some of the problems that a senior horse may face. In practice, this means that they require a more specialised ration all year round, but feeding horses and ponies with poor teeth in winter can be particularly challenging as the reliance on conserved, long stem forage increases. Monitoring bodyweight and condition by regular use of a weigh tape and body condition scoring is good practice for any horse owner, but it is especially important for those with older horses. This will provide plenty of opportunity to alter the feed for older horses before any weight changes progress too far.

What is the best feed for older horses with poor dentition?

As horses age their teeth can become worn and loose, a problem that is usually first noticed when a horse drops partially chewed feed from its mouth which is termed “quidding”. Horses that quid long stem forage like hay or haylage can be problematic as, due to reduced digestion, further complications can ensue such as colic. Feed for older horses should take account of this and be softer and easier to chew sources of fibre to help avoid these complications.

A 500kg horse can typically eat around 6-8kg or more of forage in the winter months alongside grazing. It is not surprising that as soon as they start to struggle with forage, older horses may lose weight. In these instances the best senior horse feed for weight gain may simply be to make sure that the usual forage ration is replaced with something that the older horse can chew.

It is vital to remember that a horse needs fibre to maintain digestive health and fibre intake should still equate to at least 1.5% of bodyweight; a 500kg horse would therefore require 7.5kg of a fibre-based feed per day. When horses can no longer manage long stem forage the next step is to try a short chop hay replacer such as Dengie Hi-Fi Senior or Dengie Pure Grass. These are short chop alternatives to long stem forage and are much easier to chew. Simply treat them like a haynet in a bucket.

Another option for feed for older horses with poor dentition is to soak food to a mash or gruel consistency. Adding Dengie’s Alfa-Beet or Grass Pellets to a hay replacer ration is an ideal way of softening it as well as providing extra calories for those horses that need to gain weight. Dengie Alfa-Beet combines alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet with a convenient 15-minute hot soak or 2 hour cold soak. A combination of Alfa-Beet, Grass Pellets and a High Fibre Cube/Mash can be the best senior horse feed options for for those who can’t even manage to chew short chop fibres any more.

What’s the best senior horse feed for weight gain and topline?

Just because a horse is old it does not necessarily mean that they are going to be thin. However, if your veteran does start to lose weight it is important to ascertain the reason why and not just to put it down to “old age”. Run through a checklist including dental check, vet check and worming check to identify any problems. Also check your horse’s diet; in particular, are they eating as much hay as they used to? It may be time to consider moving onto a more senior specific or higher energy feed.

Remember to proceed with caution as the best senior horse feed for weight gain may not actually be senior mixes and cubes, especially for senior horses that have problems like laminitis or PPID. Both of these conditions require a low sugar and starch diet. Alfa-A Oil is Dengie’s highest calorie fibre feed and has a calorie level equivalent to a conditioning mix or cube but without the high starch levels. This makes Alfa-A Oil a suitable feed for older horses that need to gain weight but that require a low sugar/starch ration.  It can also be fed alongside Dengie Alfa-Beet if extra condition is needed.

Protein is one nutrient that receives lots of attention when it comes to maintaining top line and muscle mass in the senior horse. Remember that the quality of the protein is just as important as quantity. Alfalfa and full-fat soya are rich in lysine and methionine; these are essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which have to be supplied in the diet and in conjunction with exercise are important for maintaining top-line.

What’s the best senior horse feed for those with PPID and Laminitis?

The dietary management of a horse or pony with Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID, formerly known as Cushing’s Disease) should be based on a low sugar and starch diet, just as for horses prone to laminitis. Unfortunately, one of the main problems associated with the PPID is that horses tend to be more prone to laminitis as a result of the hormonal changes. This may mean that unfortunately you may be doing everything right with regard to their diet and yet laminitis still occurs.

Feeding according to weight and dental condition is also an additional consideration for horses and ponies with PPID and laminitis. For those that maintain weight easily, a low calorie, low sugar and starch product, like Dengie Hi-Fi Lite or Hi-Fi Molasses Free, is suitable. For those that struggle to maintain weight Dengie Alfa-A Oil, Alfa-A Molasses Free and Alfa-Beet are all suitable feeds.

Digestive Aids for Older Horses and Ponies

Did you know that without the aid of bacteria your horse would be unable to utilise fibre? The horse’s hindgut basically functions like a large fermenting tank, full of a dynamic population of bacteria that digest fibre. They produce energy and other nutrients which can be utilised by the horse. For this relationship to work efficiently the hindgut needs to be kept ‘hospitable’ for the beneficial bacteria.

There are several types of digestive enhancers available including yeast cultures and prebiotics which are designed to promote a healthy environment in the horse’s digestive system. Yeast cultures have been shown to improve the activity of hind-gut bacteria making fibre digestion more efficient. Yeast is one of the best senior horse supplements as it is economic and ideal for maintaining gut health and will help older horses get more out of the forage they eat.

For horses who have a specific digestive problem such as loose droppings or for those who consistently struggle to maintain their weight, the best senior horse supplements will be more comprehensive and are likely to contain ingredients such as Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) pre-biotics which provide an exclusive food source for the beneficial microflora in the hindgut.

For those that struggle to maintain weight, Dengie Healthy Tummy is not only a high calorie, balanced feed, but also contains live yeast and prebiotic for extra digestive support. Healthy Tummy is also a low sugar and starch feed making it an ideal senior horse feed for those with PPID that need to gain weight, or that struggle to maintain weight.

For friendly feeding advice contact the Dengie Feedline on 01621 841188 or click here to send an e-mail.