This week I saw quite a few older horses come in to the clinic and overheard a lot of information about feeding them so I thought I would compile it all in my blog. I also thought this would go well with the informative Cushing’s Disease newsletter just posted by Dr. King.
To start with I learned that most older horses fall in to two categories when it comes to feeding: easy keepers (like me) and hard keepers. Both horses require careful feeding to make sure they stay healthy.
Easy keepers are the horse that looks at a blade of grass and gains 50 pounds. The biggest problem seen in these horses is laminitis due to insulin resistance. This is not a problem exclusive to older horses but does tend to get worse with age. I think most of us can relate to the ease of weight gain as we get older. Calorie control is the name of the game here. Most commercial diets will have recommended weights to be fed on a daily basis. If controlling calories means going below the lowest recommended weight, your horse is not getting the vitamins and minerals he needs. Therefore for the easiest keepers my doctors recommend feeding a ration balancer. Ration balancers contain the protein, vitamin and minerals your horse needs with no added calories. These are fed in small weights of ½ to 1 pound per day.
The next big source of calories is pasture, especially in the summer. Dr. Lacher told a client that the Bahia grass seed heads are full of protein and starch! This means quality time with the lawn mower to keep those seed heads at bay. If that isn’t enough for your horse a grazing muzzle can be used to further decrease grass consumption. The most interesting thing I heard the doctors saying this week involved the light/dark metabolism of grass. They said grass (and all plants) changes metabolism around sunrise and sunset which causes a buildup of starches. By keeping your horse off the pasture during these times you can decrease another source of starches.
Now for the hard keepers. The first thing Dr. King and Dr. Lacher do for hard keeper is a good dental exam. This involves sedation, a full mouth speculum and a bright light. On one horse this week they found an infected tooth that was sending bacteria into the horse’s bloodstream and making it painful to chew. They removed the tooth and will now watch the horse over the next month to see if she gains back her lost weight. The next thing recommended was testing for Cushings disease. If your horse comes back positive for Cushings disease medication can help with weight loss. No matter what the cause of weight loss, Senior diets are recommended to put weight back on. Senior diets are pre-cooked to make it easier for your horse to digest. In fact these diets don’t need to be chewed at all! As long as your horse is able to get the pelleted feed swallowed it will be digested. To help your older horse swallow Senior, water can be added to make it a mash.
If more calories are needed fat is a calorie dense, safe addition. Horses are very fat tolerant. One pound of fat for every 1000 pounds of body weight can be added daily. Fat comes in two main forms: vegetable oils and prilled (powdered) fats. This should be gradually added over 7 to 10 days to minimize diarrhea. The nice thing about fat is it doesn’t add much in the way of volume. This means your horse who is low man on the totem pole can eat the same volume of grain but get more calories from it.
Another way to add calories is with high quality roughage. Alfalfa and peanut hay can be fed free choice very safely and will add loads of calories. For our senior patients with poor teeth this can be done with soaked alfalfa pellets or cubes.
Sometimes weight loss is secondary to behavior changes. Older horses can move down the chain of command due to lameness or other chronic pain problems. If you are feeding your horse in a group situation you may need to change your setup to allow the old guy to eat alone.
I hope my summary of all I heard from the front counter helps you feed your older horse. If you have any questions, please contact the office and I will make sure Dr. King or Dr. Lacher get right back with you!
May your litterbox be clean and your food bowl full…Tony, the Official Springhill Equine Office Cat