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Feeding the Old Horse
Owning an old horse can be upsetting at times when you see your old companion disappear. Nowadays, however, horses can live happily into old age, some even into their thirties. We hope this article helps you and your old partner find the right care.
According to the NRC and veterinary authorities, a horse is considered geriatric at 20 years of age. In general, a horse is considered a senior horse at the age of 15-16 years. In fact, many horse feed manufacturers provide a specially formulated feed for horses over 16 years of age. Whether this is true or not is debatable. Some horses seem to age earlier, others later. A horse ages differently depending on the lifestyle it has had, so it would be incorrect to label all 16 year old horses as old. However, from the age of 20, the horse is definitively labeled as geriatric, as its body and organs have begun to deteriorate significantly.
As a guideline, when a horse reaches 15 or 16 years of age, you should pay extra attention to its condition to ensure it stays healthy and its weight stays the same. From the age of 20, a body condition of 2-3 (Australian body condition scoring 0-5) should be maintained.
The most common problems experienced by older horses
Feeding an old horse can become a problem because various factors play an important role in feed absorption.
The most common problem concerns the teeth. As the horse ages, its teeth wear down, some may fall out, some may decay, and forage chewing will be impaired, causing improper absorption of forage and nutrients.
Common symptoms of bad teeth are:
- Slow chewing, inability to chew properly
- Feed falling out of the horse’s mouth – the horse appears to be messy at feeding time and kind of dribbling
- Whole food is found in the droppings, such as grains and long stalks
- Bad breath due to decayed teeth
- Thick nasal discharge, usually on one side, can occur if a decayed tooth has been left untreated and has become infected
- Tendency to choke
- More prone to colic. According to an Auburn University study conducted in the mid-1990s, impact colic has a rate of 88% in older horses compared to 29% in younger horses. Of 104 horses over 17 years of age, dental disease was one of the main causes (as well as poor grazing and tumors). During the same era, another 12-month study was conducted in Texas (USA) to identify dietary and management factors associated with colic in horses. The results showed that horses aged 10 years and older who are stabled and still have regular exercise are at higher risk than horses that are constantly on pasture. Other factors include recent changes in diet, type of hay, weather conditions, housing and worm infestation. Another study confirmed similar results in 2000/2001, where 364 horses were examined over a 12-month period in Texas, USA. In summary, changes in diet (type of hay, grain or concentrate), as well as feeding more than 2.7 kg of grain, feeding round hay bales and limited access to pasture contribute to a high risk of colic.
As seen above, worm infestation is the primary problem. This also applies to all horses, young and old. If a horse is kept with parasites, its feed intake will be reduced. One should follow a deworming regimen for 6 to 8 weeks.
A horse infested with parasites is more at risk of colic and difficulty gaining weight. If a horse follows a consistent worming program throughout its life, it is less likely to develop colic and more likely to live a long and healthy life.
As the horse ages, its digestive system appears to be less efficient at breaking down food, as the horse may have decreased salivation and esophageal function. Although calcium absorption does not appear to be drastically affected, the digestion of fiber and phosphorus decreases with age. The later is even more pronounced in horses with tumors.
When a horse is depleted of important nutrients, its immune system’s ability to fight disease is also reduced, putting it at high risk of not only getting sick, but also not being able to recover easily.
The horse is then prone to losing body condition and weight.
Arthritic conditions are painful and can limit the horse’s ability to walk and graze.
Horses that have developed pituitary and thyroid tumors may have a reduced insulin response and may become sugar and starch intolerant. The same goes for the founder, which is often associated with pituitary tumors.
A horse with kidney and liver disease also requires a special diet. For kidney problems, pipe pulp and alfalfa hay should be avoided due to their high calcium content. High protein and high fat diets should be avoided in case of liver and liver disease.
How to care for an older horse
It is important that the old horse is comfortable and enjoys his retirement.
His teeth should be checked every 6 months and a full veterinary check every 6 to 12 months. A complete blood test is not expensive and will help you understand how to care for your old companion. It will show many abnormalities and your vet will help you find the appropriate treatment.
In addition to medications that make the horse more comfortable, many natural therapies can help with arthritis. Acupuncture, homeopathy, shiatsu, acupressure, aromatherapy and clay therapy are some. The herb Devil’s Claw can act as a natural anti-inflammatory in place of phenybutazone (Bute), but should not be given if stomach ulcers are present, diabetes or heart conditions. French green clay applied as a poultice to sore spots can provide great relief.
Old horses are often bullied by youngsters at feeding time. It is necessary to ensure that the older horse can eat and all meals in peace.
Feed small amounts 2 to 3 times a day for better digestion.
A good shelter is essential for an old horse as it is more sensitive to changes in the weather.
In cold weather, if the horse accepts it, the rug will warm him and help conserve his energy.
Always provide clean, fresh water.
Vitamin C can help the horse’s immune system. Vitamin C can be found naturally in rose hips. 1 to 2 tablespoons per day in feed.
The group of vitamin B in the form of brewer’s yeast can be especially beneficial in kidney and liver diseases. It will also help with digestion. Up to 100 g/day.
Sweet feed should be avoided, especially in horses and horses with sugar intolerance. This includes molasses, honey and sweetening compound feed.
If there is no liver dysfunction, adding vegetable oil can help maintain the body’s condition. Up to 2 cups a day, introduced slowly over 3 weeks. Virgin coconut oil is a rich source of lauric acid, which is the source of monolaurin, a disease-fighting fatty acid derivative. Cold pressed canola oil is also an excellent oil for horses. It contains around 10% omega 3 fatty acids, 20% omega 6 fatty acids and omega 9 fatty acids. Omega-3 and 6 are necessary for the normal functioning of all tissues and for vision, the heart, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. These two fatty acids need to be balanced, and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be roughly 2:1, which cold-pressed rapeseed oil provides. Coconut oil can be given in smaller amounts than canola oil, for example 25-100 ml. Canola can add up to 2 cups of oil per day. When feeding a horse a fat and high protein diet, it is necessary to monitor the horse’s weight loss to determine if their consistency remains normal. If the droppings get too “cow” like, reduce the oil and/or protein content. Too much protein can be seen in the urine because it becomes thick, smelly and difficult to pass.
Avoid starchy food for better digestion, especially if the horse is prone to binding or cramping.
Since digestion is not optimal at this age, avoid feeding grains. Extruded grains are much safer and show good results in geriatric horses. Feed manufacturers provide extruded/micronized grains as well as specially formulated feeds for older horses.
Herbs that can help with ulcers in the intestines are yarrow, meadowsweet, licorice and elm bark. A handful of buttercup and meadowsweet once a day can help with ulcers, inflammation and intestinal irritation. Licorice must be used with caution as it is a laxative and should not be used if the horse is bloated or has loose manure. It should not be used long-term either, and only 1 teaspoon per day for up to 3 months. Slippery elm bark is suitable for scrubbing in a dose of 1 to 2 tablespoons per day.
You can provide quality protein (12-16%, 8-10% in kidney disease) in the form of full-fat soy meal or stabilized dill meal. Dill flour such as CoolStance provides 20% crude protein, while full fat soy flour such as Soygize (HyFeed) contains 39% protein, so only a small amount may be needed. If liver and kidney disease are not present, good alfalfa husks can be added in small amounts for protein.
As the horse may have bad teeth, feed the food as a soft mash for easier chewing as well as good quality chaff. Hay may be too hard to chew or the horse may choke on it, so the hay may need to be moistened to soften it or chopped as chaff. It is good practice to moisten the hay so that it is not dusty. To do this, John Kohnke recommends placing the hay in a bag and letting it soak in water for up to 1 hour. Remove the bag and let it hang to drain the water.
Always provide hay at ground level. If hay is in hay nets that are hung too high, there is a higher risk of suffocation. By nature, the horse grazes with its head down, and its digestive system is adapted to this practice. Having to eat with his head up goes against his physiology and causes problems.
Since we are on the subject of dust, batches should always be moistened to remove dust. Dust is very damaging to the horse’s lungs. Horse stables should also have a dust-free environment.
And of course, always seek veterinary advice, even if it seems like nothing! Better to be safe than sorry
More information on feeding your horse can be found at http://www.australiannaturalhealing.com
Siciliano PD. “Nutrition and feeding of the geriatric horse“, Veterinary Clinics of North America. Exercise horses2002, pp. 491-508
Cohen ND, Gibbs PG, Woods AM. “Dietary and other management factors associated with equine colic“, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association1999, pp. 53-60
Dr. J. Kohnke, Dr. Frank Kelleher, Dr. Penny Trevor-Jones. “Feeding horses in Australia, a guide for horse owners and managers”. RIRDC Publication No. 99/491999
DG Pugh, DVM, MS, Diplomat ACT, Diplomat ACVN. “Feeding the geriatric horse“, Chestnut University College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University2002
Dr. John Konhke. “Feeding an Older Horse”, Information sheet
Pete G. Gibbs, GD Potter, WL Scrutchfield, MT Martin. Adult, senior and geriatric horses: their management, care and use“, Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University System, 2005
Victoria Ferguson “The Practical Horse Herbal”, Horses for courses2002
Catherine Bird “A Healthy Horse the Natural Way”, Lyon Press2005
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