Top 10 Feeding Tips for Senior Horses
1. Feed a forage based diet. Hay and pasture. If they are no longer able to chew hay, then feed hay pellets or cubes instead, weighed in the same amount you would hay. Horses eat approximately 1 1/2-2% of their body weight in forage per day. (For a 1000 lb. horse that is 15-20 lbs. per day). If they are not maintaining their weight, then increase the forage. (Also do a dental check to make sure their teeth are ok). Seniors also tend to do better with softer hay (more leaf and less stem) as it is easier to chew.
2. Feed soaked hay pellets or cubes for healthy weight gain. As seniors age, it’s not uncommon for them to come out of winter a little on the slimmer side. The quickest way to help them gain weight is to feed soaked hay pellets or cubes in addition to their hay and pasture. Hay pellets and cubes have a higher feed utilization than hay, since they are “pre-chewed” in a sense.
3. Feed 10-20% of the diet as alfalfa*. I usually start at 10% (a 1000 lb. horse that eats 20 lbs. per day, 10% would be 2 lbs. per day) to add variety to the diet and for the amino acid profile. If they need a little more weight gain, or in the winter months, I may increase it. However, soaked hay pellets are so effective for weight gain that I tend to go there first.
4. Eliminate grain and processed feeds. I do not feed grain, or processed feeds of any kind. A horse’s gut is not designed for grain, and can cause a myriad of health issues.
FYI: if you are taking a horse off grain and going to a 100% forage based diet, be aware that they may look terrible as their body adjusts. Feeding additional soaked hay pellets/cubes during this time can help them gain weight in a healthy way from forage. Seniors who are grain free are much healthier, their coats shine, and the “old look” disappears.
5. Find a non-grain based mineral supplement. My favorite is an herbal one found in this book: The Anima Herbal Recipe Book. It is based on hay tests for the Pacific Northwest of the United States, which is typically low in copper, zinc and selenium. Another option is Platinum Performance, founded by a veterinarian. They make an excellent product, and are one of the pioneers of how nutrition affects the overall health of a horse.
6. Provide fresh water and salt. Free choice loose salt and a salt block. I offer both so horses can decide for themselves. I prefer a naturally occurring salt like Redmond salt, himilayan pink salt. I stay away from salt/mineral blocks that have sugar added. Read the label. You’d be surprised at the ingredients.
7. Feed an omega 3 fatty acid supplement. This is in the non-growing season, or anytime the horse does not have access to pasture. Flax oil or ground flax seed are two options.
8. Increase the variety of the diet. Look for a couple of different hays. I’ve been able to find fescue (FYI: don’t feed to pregnant mares), timothy, and orchard grass where I’m located.
Taking your horse for a grazing walk through the woods is another excellent way to increase the variety in the diet. Wild horses can eat 25 different plants, including woody plants. Increased variety will promote the overall health of the horse.
9. Provide access to forage at all times. A horse’s stomach secretes acid at all times whether food is in there or not. Ulcers and incidences of colic are greatly reduced when horses have access to forage at all times. Horses will also self-regulate when they don’t fear running out of food.
10. Provide a living environment of 24/7 movement, whether it’s a pasture or track system. The more space, the better, and the healthier the horse will be. Digestion is tied to movement. Confinement increases colic and gastric distress, not to mention increased aches and pains, especially in seniors.
NOTE: These are guidelines that have worked for me in bringing multiple senior horses back to full health. If there are serious health issues going on, it is wise to consult a veterinarian and nutritionist to make adjustments if necessary. However, at no time do I advocate grain for a senior horse simply because of its inflammatory properties, even though it is very popular with some veterinarians and feed stores.
*If your horse is “grass affected”, alfalfa (lucerne) may not be appropriate. For more information about grass-affected horses visit: www.CalmHealthyHorses.com.