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What You Need to Know : Feeding Your Senior Horse

Author: Kristin O'Leary/Wednesday, March 12, 2014/Categories: Horse

As most horse owner know, as our horses age, their nutritional needs change.  It can be difficult to determine what to feed our horses to keep them healthy and happy.  Kathleen Young, Ph.D and Lead Technical Equine Nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition, shares valuable information that you can use to maintain and improve your aging horse's health.

" As our horses age, we often encounter difficult situations associated with the aging process. Older horses sometimes lose or gain too much weight, or they may have increased incidences of choke, colic or founder. Depending on the causes of these problems, we may be able to address some of them with nutrition.
What is a senior horse?
First, we should define the senior horse. We typically think of a senior horse as one that is in its teens, but individual horses become seniors at different ages. The age at which a horse’s nutritional needs shift from those of a mature adult horse to those of a geriatric horse is determined by genetics and the way that horse was managed throughout its life. Basically, the horse itself determines when it becomes a senior. I look for some common indications of changing nutritional needs to determine when to start addressing the needs of a geriatric horse.
For instance, if it is becoming more difficult to maintain the horse’s body weight on its traditional diet of hay or grass and feed of hay or grass and feed, or the horse starts dropping wads of partially chewed hay on the ground (quidding), then it is likely time to switch to a diet designed for senior horses. Some horses require dietary adjustments around age 16, but others go well into their twenties before needing any major diet changes. It is best for the horse if you pay close attention and address any special needs before significant decline in condition or health occurs. Working with your veterinarian will be helpful in determining when to begin addressing concerns of the aging horse, as well as essential to ensure the continued good health and longevity of your horse.
Some of the problems common to older horses include:
  • Worn or missing teeth
  • Decreasing digestive efficiency
  • Respiratory problems
  • Difficulty maintaining body weight
  • Poor haircoat
  • Chronic lameness 
Each of these situations may have causes unrelated to age, but addressing the nutritional needs of the individual horse can possibly improve or help manage the condition.
Monitoring the aging horse’s dental condition
You can spot an aging horse by teeth checks. As a horse ages, the grinding motion of chewing wears the teeth down, and the teeth then erupt to replace what has worn away. At some point in a horse’s life, there is not enough tooth left to replace the wear, and the horse can no longer chew properly. Further, as the teeth wear they can develop sharp edges or points that can lacerate the cheeks and tongue. Finally, inadequate chewing can cause lack of salivation, which may result in poor lubrication for swallowing, thus increasing the possibility of choke.
Regular dental care is essential to maintain the horse’s teeth in good shape to chew properly. Senior horses often have difficulty chewing hay and even possibly grass due to poor dental condition. Even with excellent dental care, the time may come for an older horse to get its roughage from a source other than long-stemmed forage because it just cannot chew adequately.
One option is Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed is a complete feed, which means it contains all the essential roughage so that even a horse unable to chew hay will receive adequate fiber. At some point, Equine Senior® feed may replace all of the hay in the horse’s diet. As the horse ages further, it may be beneficial to add water to Equine Senior® feed to produce a mash or gruel, which will be even more easily edible for the horse with extremely poor dental condition.
If the older horse is still well able to utilize long-stemmed hay in its diet, then Purina® Equine Senior® Active Healthy Edge® horse feed is designed to provide the nutrient profile needed by an aging horse along with appropriate good-quality hay/pasture.
The aging horse’s digestive tract
As a horse ages, its digestive tract becomes less efficient due to decreased motility, digestion and absorption of nutrients. In these situations, feeding a processed feed instead of whole grains and including higher nutrient levels in the feed will help provide adequate nutrition to meet the horse’s needs. Equine Senior® and Equine Senior® Active Healthy Edge® horse feeds are both formulated to meet these increased nutrient requirements when fed as recommended.
Older horses may also suffer from colic due to a higher incidence of lipomas (fatty tumors), poor teeth, reduced exercise, and a higher risk of impactions. According to a study at Texas A&M University, the leading factor for increasing risk of colic is a change in hay. Making all diet changes gradually, providing adequate water, good-quality feed and hay, and following good management practices will help reduce the risk of colic.
Working with your veterinarian to keep the horse on a proper deworming and parasite- control program is also vital to maintain the health and efficiency of the digestive tract."

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