Dr. Bourke has been complaining recently about how much she has to feed her senior horses. I don’t understand what the big deal is, since I eat whenever I feel like it. Don’t horses do the same? I listened to her tell a story of this really nice family that had been effectively starving their older gelding because they didn’t know how to appropriately feed him. It turns out that older horses often need different kinds of feed than young or middle age horses, and LOTS of it!
All of the major feed companies make feeds specifically formulated for Senior horses. Nutrena Senior, Purina Equine Senior, Triple Crown Senior, and Seminal Senior are all examples. These senior feeds usually share the follow characteristics: They are 1) easy to chew, 2) easy to soak, 3) easy to digest, and 4) formulated as ‘complete feeds’. Complete feeds are products that can be fed as a horses’ sole source of food, replacing all other grain and hay. The major ingredient in complete feeds is usually processed alfalfa or another fiber source like beat pulp, so unlike traditional ‘grain’, you need to feed much larger quantities of it to provide the same amount of calories.
Dr. Bourke said that SKINNY senior horses, especially ones with dysfunctional teeth, need to eat between 1.5% and 2% of their body weight in senior feed per day. I did the math, and for an average sized quarter horse, this comes to 15-20 lbs of food per day!! But who feeds by weight anyway? Everybody I know uses scoops – some big scoops, some small scoops, some heaping scoops, but scoops nonetheless. Dr. Bourke said it’s really important to know how much 1 ‘scoop’ of your feed weighs. I brought her my food scoop, which turns out is only ½ a cup, and she weighed it for me. The amount was miniscule. I think I will complain to management. But back to horse feed. The ‘standard’ horse sized food scoop can hold 3 quarts, which is APPROXIMATELY 3 lbs of food. But again, this varies. If you have a kitchen scale, use this to weigh out one full scoop. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, put one scoops worth of food in a large plastic bag, and take it to your local feed store for them to weigh for you. The produce scale at the grocery store works great too!
If you need an approximate place to start, 15-20 lbs of food, assuming a 3 lb scoop, is 5-6 full scoops per horse per day. Think 2 full scoops in the AM, 2 scoops midday, and 2 scoops at night. Yes, that’s a LOT of food! Another way to think about this, is that if you are really feeding 20 lbs of food per day, you are going to use up an entire 50 lb bag of feed in 2 and a half days. It is important to remember that while it is safe and often necessary to feed this much senior feed, it would be VERY dangerous to give any horse this much of other kinds of feeds. These guidelines apply to complete senior feeds only. And as always, make feeding changes slowly.
I asked Dr. Bourke about hay, and she said that teeth-less old horses can’t chew well enough to get much nutrition out of hay. She said they can even colic or choke if given really stemmy stuff like coastal hay. She said that when feeding enough senior feed, hay isn’t required at all, but that if you want to give the horse ½ a flake or so of either alfalfa or peanut hay in order to give them something to munch on, that’s ok.