When it comes to feeding senior horses, there are many factors to consider to support longevity and healthy aging.

Making sure your horse’s core nutritional needs are met and keeping up with routine healthcare are critical to promoting optimal well-being for many more years to come.

Horses are typically considered “senior” after 20 years of age. However, chronological age isn’t always the best indicator of their health status.

The exact age that classifies a horse as “senior” can vary depending on a multitude of factors such as the horse’s environment, genetics, nutrition and health history over their lifetime.

Looking at a combination of the horse’s chronological and physiological age is generally considered the most accurate indicator of aging in horses. [1]

Some horses remain very active into their late twenties, whereas other horses may exhibit signs of aging earlier in their late teens.

Common indicators of physiological aging include:

  • Decrease in muscle mass
  • Decline in coat quality
  • Poor dentition
  • Decline in comfort and mobility

Formulating a well-balanced diet that supports healthy aging is critical for senior horses. It is particularly important to accommodates changes in health status such as poor dentition or gut health problems.

You can submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation by our equine nutritionists who can help formulate an age-appropriate diet for your horse.

Nutritional Needs of Senior Horses

Nutritional programs for senior horses will vary greatly depending on the presence of any underlying health conditions. Healthy senior horses with no medical conditions may see excellent results on a similar diet to what they were fed during their mature years.

Many senior horses can maintain a healthy condition on a well-balanced diet and their energy and protein needs may not change significantly as they age. This is especially true if their work level decreases significantly, such as in retirement from a career in competition.

When certain health conditions are present that hinder nutrient absorption, or interfere with normal metabolic function, the digestion of typical feedstuffs like hay can be impacted.

Examples of such issues include poor dental health, diarrhea, and metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s / PPID.

In these situations, feeds that are easier to digest are needed to maintain optimal body condition. Specially-designed senior feeds and/or hay replacement feeds may be needed.

Feeding Programs for Senior Horses

1) Determine Nutritional Needs

As with any balanced feed program, the horse’s individual needs should be considered. This includes the horse’s body weight, work level and current body condition.

Horses in maintenance will require less energy and protein in the diet compared to active horses. Correctly identifying your horse’s work level will help to assess whether calories and protein are in over- or under-supply, which could lead to changes in body condition.

It is recommended to assess your horse’s body condition on a regular basis. Keeping a record of this will allow you to track whether their condition is changing over time.

The ideal body condition is 5 on a 9-point scale. Overweight or underweight horses will need to be fed accordingly to gradually attain a more healthful weight.

2) Identify health conditions early

Aging horses tend to be more prone to health conditions due to a variety of factors.

Depending on the individual horse, it is a good idea to have physical examinations done by a veterinarian twice yearly rather than once yearly. Regular checkups will ensure that any health conditions are detected and managed early on.

Conditions such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) require special dietary changes to reduce the risk of laminitis. Cushing’s Disease / PPID requires medication to control symptoms of this progressive disease.

Additional age-related health conditions that may require dietary adjustments include:

  • Cancer
  • Orthopaedic disease
  • EOTRH
  • Kidney and/or liver dysfunction

Deworming is also important to prevent internal parasites from causing weight loss in older horses, especially in horses on pasture for a large part of the year.

Maintain a schedule of fecal testing and strategic anthelmintic treatment to prevent major issues.

3) Check for Dental Issues

Optimal dentition (teeth health) is very important so that senior horses can thoroughly chew hay and other feedstuffs.

Chewing initiates the first step of digestion, helping to break down feed so that your horse can absorb nutrients that they need to maintain optimal body condition. [2]

Dental problems, such as broken teeth, sharp points, and more serious conditions like equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH) are more prevalent with increasing age.

Signs that your horse may have dental issues include: [1]

  • Quidding (spitting of half-chewed hay balls)
  • Dropping feeds when eating
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Weight loss
  • Compaction colic
  • Oesophageal choke

Keeping up with regular dental checks will help maintain a healthy chewing surface and detect issues early on.

For senior horses that have had teeth removed, chewing hay can become extremely difficult. Replacing some or all of their long-stem hay intake with chopped hay, soaked forage cubes and/or soaked hay replacer feeds will be needed in order to meet their fibre requirements.

Fresh grass pasture is also much easier to chew than hay. However, fresh grass should only be offered to horses that do not have metabolic issues and are otherwise healthy. Pasture can pose a problem for horses with metabolic issues such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome or horses at risk of laminitis.

4) Select an appropriate forage

Once you have identified a senior horse’s nutritional requirements based on their body weight, body condition score and work level, an appropriate forage source should then be selected.

Forage or forage products should be available at all times to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers and prevent boredom.

If your senior horse is underweight or active, they will require a more energy-dense forage such as mixed grass-legume hay. Overweight horses should be given lower quality grass hay to support weight loss without needing to restrict forage intake.

In some cases, straw may be added to the feeding plan to support species-appropriate foraging behaviours while limiting the calorie content of the diet.

5) Feed digestible protein sources

Senior horses frequently struggle with a loss of muscle mass or poor topline.

Horses with health issues that impact digestion often require additional protein sources to maintain optimal muscling and overall health.

Most ration balancers and complete feeds have good quality protein sources added, such as soybean meal, alfalfa products and/or individual amino acids.

The individual amino acids lysine and threonine are particularly important. A study done in 2005 demonstrated that older horses exercised lightly were able to maintain optimal muscle mass when given supplemental lysine and threonine. [3]

Whether supplemental amino acids are necessary for your horse will depend primarily on forage quality and their exercise level. It is recommended to determine the protein content of your forage via hay analysis before significantly increasing dietary protein.

If your senior horse gets too much protein in their diet, this can put added strain on kidney function. Protein fed significantly in excess of requirements will result in the body breaking down excess amino acids and excreting them in urine. [4]

6) Ensure adequate water intake

Hydration is very important for all horses, but it is especially important in older horses that may have underlying health issues.

Older horses with dentition problems will chew less, produce less saliva and drink less than those with healthy teeth consuming dry hay.

If feeding hay replacement feeds, an easy way to increase water intake is to add water to the feed. Soaking feeds also reduces the risk of choke and supports gut health.

Salt consumption is one of the best ways to encourage drinking. Feed your horse 1-2 tablespoons of plain loose salt in their feed daily and offer loose free-choice salt at all times. This will stimulate the thirst response and ensure consistent hydration.

7) Observe herd dynamics carefully

In a group setting, senior horses can drop to a lower position in the social hierarchy, which can lead to weight loss and other issues. [5]

The lower social position may be linked to decreased fitness, pain arising from digestive issues or orthopedic disease, and/or general inappetence. [1]

Horses that are lower on the pecking order should be monitored regularly for changes in body condition. Measures should be taken to ensure adequate access to resources include feed and water troughs.

Steps that you can take include:

  • Spacing out hay feeders throughout the paddock
  • Providing multiple, spaced out water troughs
  • Grouping older horses in similar status together

8) Ensure vitamin and mineral requirements are met

Vitamins and minerals are required by the body to support enzymatic processes. Minerals are also components of tissues such as bone, teeth and muscle.

Low intake of key vitamins and minerals can affect metabolic processes and contribute to inflammatory issues such as poor joint health.

If using a senior or complete feed, the feeding recommendations must be followed carefully. A common cause of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the equine diet is feeding too little of a complete feed.

For most senior horses, complete feeds should contain high fibre and fat with low levels of sugar and starch (less than 10% total).

Feeding a balanced diet fortified with antioxidant vitamins and minerals can help inhibit pro-inflammatory pathways. The effect of age on inflammation is well-established in both humans and horses.

Obesity further increases this risk. Obese, older horses have higher levels of pro-inflammatory markers in the body compared to healthy, older horses. [9]

Important antioxidant nutrients to consider include selenium, copper, zinc, and vitamin E.

Supplementing with vitamin C may be beneficial for those senior horses that have decreased endogenous production of this vitamin due to liver dysfunction or respiratory conditions such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). [7]

However, healthy senior horses do not typically require supplemental vitamin C in their diet, as production in the liver will meet their daily requirement. [7]

Joint health is also a common concern in senior horses. Balanced vitamin and mineral levels will support joint health and keep your horse comfortable as they age.

Supplements that target joint health and mobility are also worth considering. There are hundreds of equine joint supplements available, but only some ingredients have sufficient evidence to support their use.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that contain organic trace minerals and high levels of key nutrient including vitamin E. Omneity is designed to balance the majority of common forages and to support gut health, skin and coat quality, hoof health and more.

Omneity Equine Mineral & Vitamin Supplement
  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

For horses with metabolic concerns, Mad Barn’s AminoTrace+ is formulated with higher levels of key antioxidants and amino acids to promote metabolic health.

AminoTrace+ Equine Supplement
  • Complete mineral balance
  • Supports metabolic health
  • Formulated for IR/Cushing's horses
  • Promote hoof & coat growth

9) Focus on gut health

It is a common misconception that older horses experience problems with gut health simply due to their age.

Recent research shows that age has less of an impact on the equine fecal microbial population than previously thought. Instead, other factors (such as obesity and diet composition) are more likely to impact microbial population. [6]

The complex interaction between the gut microbiome and overall health in senior horses is a topic that warrants further study.

Feeding practices and underlying health conditions have the most impact on gut health. Health conditions that directly impact gut function include:

Long-term use of antibiotics or NSAIDs can also negatively impact the gut microbiome, potentially leading to weight loss, diarrhea or free fecal water syndrome.

For horses with impaired digestive function, gut health supplements can be beneficial to support feed efficiency and nutrient utilization. Look for supplements that contain digestive enzymes, toxin-binding factors, prebiotics, yeast and probiotics. Probiotic supplements should be provided in adequate supply to reach the hindgut intact.

Mad Barn’s Optimum Digestive Health is well-suited to older horses because it provides comprehensive gut support that focuses on the hindgut and immune function. It contains toxin-binding mannanoligosaccharides as well as 88 billion CFUs of probiotic microbes.

Optimum Digestive Health Equine Supplement
  • Prebiotics, probiotics & enzymes
  • Support hindgut development
  • Combats harmful toxins in feed
  • Complete GI tract coverage

Example Feeding Programs for Senior Horses

Wondering what to feed your senior horse to best support their health and well-being? Below are some examples of balanced feeding programs for different horses of varying needs.

Every horse has unique needs and a unique feeding situation. For help with designing the right feeding plan for your horse, please submit their information online and our nutritionists can assist you for free.

A Healthy 500 KG Horse in Light Work with Normal Body Condition

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mixed hay (10% crude protein) 10.5 kg (24 lb)
Beet pulp 450 g (1 lb) (dry weight)
Ground flaxseed 100 g (1 cup)
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Premix 120 g (4 scoops)
Optimum Digestive Health 80 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 101%
Protein (% of Req) 146%
NSC (% Diet) 8.8%

 

Active, senior horses with no underlying health conditions and that are maintaining a healthy weight should be fed a diet providing close to 100% of their energy requirement.

This can be achieved by feeding mixed grass-legume hay as well as additional energy sources. When adding calories, highly digestible fibre sources such as beet pulp or soybean hulls are a good choice for providing calories while also supporting hindgut health.

An Overweight Insulin Resistant 500 KG Horse at Maintenance

Feed Weight Loss Diet
(Amount / Day)
Grass hay (8% crude protein) 9 kg (20 lb)
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
AminoTrace+ 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 92%
Protein (% of Req) 108%
NSC (% Diet) 6.8%

 

Insulin resistant, overweight horses (body condition score of 6 or higher) should be fed lower-quality grass hay whenever possible. The overall diet should provide less than their required energy to support gradual weight loss.

If lower-quality hay is unavailable, there are additional strategies to reduce caloric intake from hay. This includes rationing the hay to provide no more than 1.5 – 2% of the horse’s body weight as hay.

Soaking the hay for 30 minutes (warm water) or 60 minutes (cold water) can also help decrease the sugar and energy content of the hay. [10]

Pasture access should be avoided or limited. Grazing muzzles are effective for reducing grass intake on pasture. Alternatively, you can limit pasture access to the early morning hours when sugar content is lowest and avoid overgrazed pasture.

A Thin 450 KG Horse at Maintenance with Poor Dentition

Feed Weight Gain Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mixed hay (10% crude protein) 4 kg (~9 lb)
Timothy-Alfalfa cubes (soaked) 5 kg (~11 lb)
Ground flaxseed 200 g (2 cups)
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity premix 120 g (4 scoops)
Optimum Digestive Health 80 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 125%
Protein (% of Req) 185%
NSC (% Diet) 4.14%

 

Horses with poor dental health often experience weight loss. Dietary adjustments can be made to support weight gain and improve palatability of the diet.

A portion or all of the hay can be replaced with forage cubes, preferably timothy-alfalfa cubes to provide adequate protein and energy. These can be soaked to help with chewing. Additional sources of energy can include ground flax, rice bran or oil.

Oils such as flax, canola or w-3 oil would be appropriate for adding calories. w-3 Oil has additional benefits for joint health, cardiovascular function and respiratory health. It contains high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which has anti-inflammatory effects.

w-3 Oil Essential Fatty Acid Supplement
  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

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