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Feeding the older horse

The increased awareness of horse owners around aspects of general equine health, from nutrition to dental, hoof and parasite management, has resulted in the average horse living for longer. Although the natural lifespan of the horse has not changed, many are now surviving easily to 30 years of age or older, where previously this was very uncommon.

Because of the physiological changes normally associated with aging, geriatrics may require special adaptations in health care, environment and diet to enable them to remain healthy. As well as slight changes in dietary nutrient requirements, it is important to pay attention to joint health, dental health and the risk of various conditions such as Cushing’s, laminitis and other metabolic issues.

Requirements for certain nutrients in older horses can increase, as the effectiveness of the intestinal lining decreases with age. This can make it difficult for nutrients to pass the mucosal surface in order to reach the bloodstream. Research has documented a decreased absorption of phosphorus, vitamins and protein in the aged equine.

Regular dental and worming programmes are even more important in older horses, as teeth can become compromised and worn and resistance to many deworming pastes can build significantly.

As with any horse, structural carbohydrates in the form of forage should be the most important part of the diet. In cases where dental health is inhibiting the ability for the horse to consume the all-important 1.5 percent of their body weight in forage daily through pasture and hay, super fibres such as beet pulp and soy hulls are an extremely beneficial fibre source. These are not only high in digestible fibre, they have the added bonus of supplying moisture and being extremely easy to eat.

While many older horses tolerate grains well, the increased risk of digestive conditions and metabolic issues mean that it can be best to select a lower starch feed with higher levels of fibre and fat to supply safe energy. A well-formulated senior horse feed should contain a fibre percentage higher than 12 percent and a protein percentage between 12 and 16 percent from a high quality protein source like soybean meal. Any grains contained in the feed should also be processed into other highly digestible forms such as pelletised or steam flaked to enhance digestibility.

While certain feeds are designed and marketed specifically for old horses, there are many high quality feeds available that meet these specifications and are equally as suitable for ensuring horses receive all the nutrients they require for optimum health in their older years. McMillan Grain Free is a great high fibre option containing soy hulls, beet pulp and high quality fat from canola oil. Other equally suitable options include certain breeding feeds such as NRM Evolve and high fibre performance feeds such as NRM Low GI Sport.

For assistance with feeding plans for older horses, to manage condition and enhance overall health, consult with an experienced equine nutrition advisor.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutrition Technical Advisor.