For many horse owners, the answer to the age-old question (or should we say “old age” question) about when to start a senior feeding program, isn’t always the same. Some horse owners say a good approximation is 15 or 16. Others might feel the magic number is 20, while some may never switch to a senior feed. Although the calendar might say it’s time to start treating your equine partner as an elder statesman (or woman), deciding what age a horse becomes a senior varies. If you know what to look for, your horse will tell you when it’s time. Here are some telltale signs it’s time to consider switching to a senior feed.
Reduced energy and stamina: Like humans, horses slow down as they age. Some of this is due to the natural aging process and stiffness, but it might also be due to the horse’s changing dietary needs. Aging horses might also show some reduced stamina, so if you notice a decrease in performance, if your vet rules out anything medical, it might be time to switch horse feeds.
Loss of topline and muscle mass: Look at the muscling along your horse’s spine. If it appears to sag it can be due to the loss of muscle tone in the back and weakening of the ligaments. Also watch for decreasing muscle tone and slackening of connective tissue along the hind end and belly. This all happens as a part of the aging process and signals a need for appropriate amino acid levels for muscle development and maintenance.
Quidding forage: As horses age, their teeth can become worn, chipped or broken, often resulting in pain. This can manifest in the form of quidding, which are small balls of feedstuffs (including hay) that fall out of the horse’s mouth while trying to chew. The best course of action is to have your vet or equine dentist examine your horse’s teeth and float or pull the offending choppers. Following the exam, consider a senior horse feed which typically contains a softer pellet or can be made into a mash which is easier to chew for a horse with compromised teeth.
Increased grey: You might see some additional grey hairs around the eyes, ears, forehead and muzzle. This happens gradually and sometimes it’s hard to notice – snap a few pictures each season to compare any changes.
When it comes to nutrition, there are two types of senior horses – those that can effectively chew hay and those that can’t. Most senior feeds are “complete” feeds, meaning they can be fed as the sole ration if a horse is unable to chew and properly digest forage. To feed a geriatric horse properly, the feed should be weighed rather than measured in a coffee can or scoop.
If your horse can chew hay, below are the minimum amounts of senior feed required for maintenance:
800 lb. horse: 4-6 lbs.
1000 lb. horse: 5 – 7.5 lbs.
1200 lb. horse: 6 – 9 lbs
If your horse depends solely on senior feed and cannot chew hay, below are the minimum amounts of senior feed required for maintenance:
800 lb. horse: 10 -12 lbs.
1000 lb. horse: 12-14 lbs.
1200 lb. horse: 14 -16 lbs.
Although some of these amounts may seem excessive, it’s important that your horse gets the appropriate level of highly digestible fiber, vitamins and minerals to support his or her aging body.
Beyond nutrition, proper veterinary care for the geriatric horse is crucial. If you have a senior horse that regularly competes, vaccinations and safeguards against communicable diseases is extremely important. As well, a proper deworming program as suggested by your vet will keep your senior partner in good health and looking his or her best in the show ring or on the trail.
For more information on identifying signs of aging and tips for feeding your senior horse, visit SeniorHorseSigns.com. You can also visit HorseFeedBlog.com, an informative community platform that covers a wide range of topics including horse feed, feeding tips, digestive health, and management tips.