Just like humans, some horses are considered to be ‘old for their age.’ We all have similar signs of aging; gray hair, loss of flexibility and joint stiffness, maintaining muscle tone, etc. These days, many horses are living active lives well into their 20s. Everything from genetics, to diet, to health care affect a horse’s general well-being. Determining when to adjust your older horse’s diet is not as simple as you may think. Knowing the physical signs of an imbalanced diet is crucial to helping you determine when it is time to transition your horse to a senior feed.
1. Undigested Grain in Manure.
As the body ages, the gut’s ability to break down food and extract nutrients decreases. If the body is not digesting feed properly, the horse will not receive proper nutrition. This is one reason why so many senior horses have trouble maintaining a healthy weight.
If you see this grain in your horse’s manure (and it is dropping weight), consider switching to a processed senior feed. These feeds are pre-ground, making them easier to digest. Additionally, the quality of protein in these feeds is generally higher than what is found in raw grain. Beet pulp is also a good alternative as it is digested in the hindgut and produces fewer intestinal gases.
2. Chronic Impaction, Gas Build Up or Hard Manure.
Along with poor digestion, the horse’s intestinal tract may slow with age. Poor digestion, lack of water intake, or a section of the colon that is not functioning properly may be the culprit. It is always important to have your veterinarian rule out other medical conditions that may be causing the problem.
Switching to a senior feed may help avoid these problems because it is easier for the horse to digest. If you also believe your horse is not taking in an adequate amount of water, try adding 2 tablespoons of salt to feed to encourage it to drink. Soaking feed is also a good way to increase water intake. Beet pulp can absorb up to four times its weight in water, making it an excellent option for water delivery. In the winter, consider a heated watering bucket. Horses prefer water that is between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Dropping Hay Balls.
– Quidding. If you notice the floor of your horse’s stall has small food balls scattered about it is time for a dental check up. Older horses with rotten teeth or teeth with sharp points may be reluctant to chew because it has become painful. Horses who are missing teeth may simply not be able to chew food effectively. Horses will store the food in the sides of their mouth, and then roll the food up in saliva balls and spit them out. The dropping of food balls will usually accompany a loss in body weight and overall conditioning due to lack of nutrition.
Calling a vet to complete a dental workup is the first step. Secondly, switch to a senior feed that is easy to chew and consider soaking it. This will help your senior horse chew and provide adequate water intake.
4. Chronic Coughing or Heaves.
Senior horses are more susceptible to respiratory problems and can develop heaves as they age. If your horse begins to exhibit a chronic dry cough, medications are available to treat this condition, but it will also be necessary to adjust their diet. To reduce dust and allergens, wet or steam hay before it is fed. Turning your senior horse out in a grassy pasture can also be helpful. This can be especially beneficial during times when aisleways are being swept.
5. Weight Loss.
If your senior horse is having trouble keeping weight on it is likely they are not receiving proper nutrition from their current diet. As discussed previously, the digestive system slows down and is not as efficient in breaking down and extracting nutrition from feeds. Feeding more of the same diet will not necessarily increase your horse’s body weight or condition.
6. Body Condition.
Decrease in body condition is not just about weight loss, or weight gain. Evaluating a horse’s muscle tone, skin, and coat will help you determine if it is receiving proper nutrition on its current diet. Many diets do not contain the proper amounts of protein, fatty acids and vitamins for senior horses. As the horse ages, what was once a balanced diet is usually no longer adequate.
Regularly evaluating and scoring your horse’s body condition will help you determine when your horse is losing body condition and when the adult equine diet needs to transition to a senior feed. This can be done by using the Henneke System of Body Conditioning Scoring. It is a simple hands-on method of scoring a horse’s condition on a scale of 1-9. A horse with a score between 5-7 is considered normal.
7. Poor Coat or Skin Issues:
A horse’s coat should be shiny, even as it grows out over the winter. A hair coat that is uneven and looks splotchy with long and short areas of hair can be an indication of improper nutrition. If the hair is overly oily, diet could be the cause. Note: A healthy, shiny coat does not equal an oily coat. Hair should not be overly dry either. Dander may be present on horses with both oily and dry coats. Oily or dry hair and dander are all good indicators that it might be time to evaluate diet and move to a senior feed.
There are other medical conditions affecting horses that can contribute to poor coat skin conditions such as parasites, hormone imbalances and allergies. It is important to have your veterinarian rule out these possibilities.
8. Choke (Inability to Swallow Food):
A horse can experience choke when it does not produce adequate saliva. The chewing of food produces saliva which helps break down food. It also helps it to slide down the esophagus. Less chewing means less saliva and food gets lodged in the esophagus. It would be similar to us trying to swallow a dry piece of bread without any water. The horse can still breathe but it can no longer swallow.
The root cause may be dental health. Dental problems can cause a horse to reduce the amount of time it chews its food. Switching to a senior feed that is easy to chew is recommended. Soaking your horse’s feed and hay will also help prevent choke. It probably goes without saying that a dental check up with your veterinarian is also in order.
There are many great feeds on the market today that can help you balance your senior horse’s diet. Providing a properly balanced diet is one of the best tools you have to prevent more serious senior horse health issues. Every horse is unique and will have special needs based on breed, level of activity and genetic factors. We recommend working closely with your veterinarian to develop a diet plan that works best for your horse.