Oh lovely February— At this point in the year with extreme & fluctuating weather conditions, the tail-end of quality hay supply, and performance programs starting back up, ’tis the season for hard keeping horses! For owners with older horses, including myself, this can be a stressful time. Recently, this question keeps popping up- Should I switch my horse to senior feed?
Being mom to a 21 year old princess mare, I sympathize with the uncertainty in optimizing an older horse’s diet. I hope to help simplify this topic. So without further ado, lets talk about feeding the ‘senior’ horse!
Such a relative term really, a senior horse can generally be thought of as a horse in his mid-teens onward. As a horse ages into his older years, his performance ability may decrease, and he may not hold on to the muscle development he maintained in peak condition. Nutritionally concerning, he may not be able to digest feedstuff as efficiently, which is where we see declining body condition and a need to adjust our feeding program.
*It is important to remember that each horse will age at his own rate.* The management and feeding requirements for a 21 year old warmblood may be completely different from those of a 21 year old welsh pony.
Most feed lines carry a concentrate blend specifically designed for horses who can no longer utilize nutrients from long stem forage. A good senior feed will first and foremost supply plenty of bio-available fiber.
Ideally, fiber is a horse’s primary dietary energy source. The horse’s hind-gut is home to billions of micro-organisms that live to break down fiber for the horse. With functional capacity to digest 15-30 lbs forage each day, the average horse needs this fiber to maintain a healthy environment in his gut. Ergo, when the horse can no longer chew or digest long stem forage, we should replace this dietary component with another form of digestible fiber.
Just as a horse needs a high fiber diet, he also needs a low starch diet. When a horse eats mainly forage with some concentrate formula, NSC levels (sugar+starch) in the concentrate have a higher allowance. This is simply due to the fact that the horse eats 18 lbs of hay, and only 6 lbs of grain mix.
However, if the horse loses his dental integrity and can no longer eat sufficient long stem forage, he will rely on 15 lbs of concentrate formula and some soaked alfalfa cubes to maintain body condition. At this point, a 30% NSC level may become problematic. As we talked about above:
Abundant Fiber= Healthy Hind-gut/ Abundant starchy energy= Not So Healthy Hind-gut
Fortunately, good senior formulas account for this and utilize more fat & fibrous energy sources than starchy energy from cereal grains. This way a horse can rely on the formula for his daily ration and maintain his gut health.
On the note that the horse may not be able to chew sufficiently, quality senior feeds are mash-able. For a horse who relies mainly on senior formulas, soaked feeding prevents choke, helps keep the horse hydrated, and lengthens meal time.
Finally, any good senior feed should be well fortified with antioxidants. These compounds such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Beta-Carotene, and Selenium act to prevent cell damage from oxidation as a horse ages. Where these compounds are mostly abundant in fresh cool season grass, a horse who cannot obtain nutrients from long stem forage will need them fortified into their diet.
Here’s to everyone’s favorite answer… It depends on the horse!!!
Mainly, senior feed should be called upon as a horse loses his ability to digest long stem forage. In good circumstance, the subjected horse will lose this ability slowly, typically due to dental wear. So, over the course of a year or few, he will rely more and more on a senior formula.
This being said, putting a well functioning older horse on senior concentrate won’t hurt. Nutritionally, these formulas are designed to be easy on the gut and well fortified with nutrients. So by all means, if a specific senior formula fits the bill for older horse’s needs, go for it!
While senior formulas are generally designed for ‘the older horse’, each ‘older horse’ has specific needs. While some senior formulas are designed to be high fat, high energy formulas, some aren’t. For this reason, an older horse who can eat long stem forage well yet is becoming a hard keeper, may not necessarily need senior feed.
This horse may have increasing nutritional demands to maintain his fitness/body condition as he ages. In this case, a feed program with more fat, more easily digestible fiber, and more energy may be required. Before jumping to any formula labeled “senior”, check out the nutritional analysis on the tag. A performance feed designed for a starch sensitive horse with (12/12/20)(protein, fat, fiber) specs may be much more suitable than a senior formula with (10/6/18) specs. At the same time, some senior feeds are designed for the harder keeper.
Ergo, moral of the story: Each horse is an individual even as they age. To stay on top of the aging horse’s management, keep a close eye on his body condition, energy levels, and ability to eat through forage. As these horses needs change, we have to allow flexibility in our expectations of them, their management, and their diet in order to keep them sustainably well.
~Good Mares Age Like Wine~