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Feeding the Old Horse
Owning an old horse can be frustrating at times when you see your old companion disappear. However, nowadays horses can live happily to a very old age, some well past the age of 30. Hopefully this article will help you and your old companion find the right care.
According to NRC and veterinary agencies, a horse is considered geriatric at the age of 20. In general, a horse is considered a senior horse of 15-16 years of age. In fact, many horse feed manufacturers provide feed specifically designed for horses 16 and older. Whether it is true or not is debatable. Some horses seem to age earlier, others later. The horse will age differently depending on the lifestyle it had, so it would be wrong to label all 16-year-old horses as old. From 20 onwards, however, a horse is definitely labeled as geriatric, as its body and organs have started to deteriorate significantly.
As a guideline, when the horse reaches 15 or 16, one should pay extra attention to its condition to ensure that it remains healthy and its weight remains consistent. From the age of 20 a body condition of 2-3 (Australian body condition score 0-5) must be maintained.
Most common problems encountered with senior horses
Feeding the old horse can be a challenge, as several factors play an important role in feed intake.
The most common problem is related to teeth. As the horse ages, the teeth will wear down, some may fall off, some may decay and the chewing of feed will be limited, causing improper absorption of feed and nutrients.
The usual signs of bad teeth are:
- Slow to chew, inability to masticate properly
- Feed falls from the horse’s mouth – the horse seems to be messy at feed time and kind of dribbling
- Whole foods found in droppings such as grains and long stalks
- Bad breath due to rotten teeth
- Thick nasal discharge, usually on one side, can appear if a decayed tooth is left untreated and has become infected
- Tendency to choke
- More prone to colic. According to an Auburn University study conducted in the mid-1990s, impact colic has a ratio of 88% in older horses compared to 29% in younger horses. Of the 104 horses over the age of 17, one of the main causes was dental problems (like bad pastures and tumors). In the same era, another study was conducted in Texas (USA) over a period of 12 months to identify dietary and management factors associated with colic in horses. The results identified that horses aged 10 years and older that are stabled and still receive regular exercise have higher risks than those that always graze. Among other factors are recent changes in diet, in type of hay, in weather conditions, in housing and worm infestation. Further studies confirmed similar results in 2000/2001, where 364 horses were examined over a period of 12 months in Texas USA. In summary, changes in diet (type of hay, grain or concentrate) such as feeding more than 2.7 kg of grains, feeding round bales of hay, and reduced access to pasture contribute to a high risk of colic.
As seen above, worm infestation is a primary problem. This also applies to all horses, young and old. If the horse is ridden with parasites, its feed intake will decrease. One should follow a worming regimen of 6 to 8 weeks.
A horse infected with parasites is more likely to have colic and difficulty putting on weight. If the horse has received a consistent worming program throughout its life, it is less likely to develop colic and has a greater chance of a long and healthy life.
As the horse ages, the digestive system appears to become less effective at breaking down food, as the horse may have reduced salivary and esophageal functions. Although the absorption of calcium does not seem to be drastically affected, the digestion of fiber and phosphorus decreases with age. The latter is even more pronounced in horses with tumors.
If the horse is deprived of important nutrients, the immune system’s ability to fight diseases will also be reduced, exposing it to high risks of not only getting sick, but also not recovering easily.
The horse is then prone to lose body condition and weight.
Arthritic conditions are painful and can limit the horse in walking and grazing.
Horses that have developed pituitary and thyroid tumors may have reduced insulin response and become sugar and starch intolerant. The same applies to founders who are often linked to pituitary tumors.
Horses with kidney and liver diseases also need a special diet. In case of kidney problems, chickpea pulp and alfalfa hay should be avoided due to their high calcium content. In case of liver and liver diseases, diets with high protein and high fat should be avoided.
How to care for the senior horse
It is important that the old horse is comfortable and enjoys his retirement.
The teeth should be checked every 6 months and full fat check should be done every 6 to 12 months. A complete blood test is not expensive and will help you understand how to care for your old companion. It will show many abnormalities and your veterinarian will be able to help you find appropriate treatment.
In case of arthritis, apart from medicines to make the horse more comfortable, many natural therapies can also help. Acupuncture, homeopathy, shiatsu, acupressure, aromatherapy and clay therapy are some. The herb Devil’s Claw can work as a natural anti-inflammatory instead of giving phenybutazone (Bute), but should not be given if stomach ulcers are present, in case of diabetes and heart disorders. French green clay applied as a compress to the sore area can provide great relief.
Old horses are quite often bullied by the young at feeding time. One must make sure that the senior horse can eat in peace and all its meals.
For better digestion, feed small amounts 2 or even 3 times a day.
A good shelter is essential for the old horse, as it is more sensitive to weather changes.
In cold weather, if the horse accepts it, a rug will keep him warm and help save his energy.
Always provide clean fresh water at all times.
Vitamin C can help the horse’s immune system. Vitamin C can be found naturally in Rosehip. 1 to 2 tablespoons a day in the feed.
Vitamin B group in the form of Brewer’s Yeast can be beneficial, especially in cases of kidney and hepatic diseases. It will also help with digestion. Up to 100 g per day.
Sweet feed should be avoided, especially in founders and sugar-intolerant horses. This includes molasses, honey and sweet feed mixes.
If there is no liver dysfunction, the addition of vegetable oil can help to maintain their body condition. Up to 2 cups a day, slowly introduced over a period of 3 weeks. Virgin coconut oil is a rich source of lauric acid, the source of disease-fighting fatty acid derivative monolaurin. Cold pressed Canola oil is also an excellent oil for horses. It contains about 10% omega 3 fatty acids, 20% omega 6 fatty acids and omega 9 fatty acids. Omega-3 and 6 are essential for the normal functioning of all tissues and for vision, heart, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. These two fatty acids must be balanced and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 must be approximately 2:1, which is provided by cold-pressed canola oil. Coconut oil can be given in smaller quantity than Canola like 25-100ml. Canola can supplement to reach 2 cups of oil per day. When providing fat and protein diets to a horse, one should check the horse’s droppings to see if their consistency remains normal. If the drops become loose like “cow pat”, reduce the oil and/or the protein content. Too much protein can be seen in urine when it becomes thick, smelly and difficult to pass.
Avoid starchy food for better digestion, especially if the horse has a tendency to tie-up or founders.
As digestion is not optimal at this age, avoid eating cereals. Extruded pellets are much safer and have shown good results with geriatric horses. Feed manufacturers provide extruded/micronized pellets as well as specially designed feed for senior horses.
Herbs that can help with intestinal ulceration are Marshmallow, Meadowsweet, Liquorice and Slippery Elm Bark. A handful each of Marshmallow and Meadowsweet once a day can help with stomach ulceration, inflammation and irritation. Liquorice should be used with caution as it is a laxative and should not be used if the horse is shaking or has loose manure. It should also not be used long term and only 1 teaspoon a day for up to 3 months. Slippery Elm Bark is good for shaving at a dose of 1 to 2 tablespoons a day.
You can provide good quality protein (12-16%, 8-10% if renal diseases are present) in the form of full fat soybean meal or stabilized copra meal. Copra meal such as CoolStance provides 20% crude protein, while a full-fat soybean meal such as Soygize (HyFeed) contains 39% protein, so only a small amount may be needed. If there are no liver and renal diseases, good alfalfa chaff can be added in small amounts for protein.
As the horse may have poor teeth, provide their meals as a soft mash for easier chewing and good quality chaff. Hay may be too hard to chew or the horse may choke on it, so the hay may need to be moistened to soften it, or chopped like chaff. It is good practice to steam hay so it is not dusty. To do that, John Kohnke recommends putting the hay in a hessian bag and leaving it in water for up to 1 hour. Remove the bag and let it hang to drain water.
Always deliver hay at ground level. If hay is in hay nets that are hung too high, there is a greater risk of contamination. A horse, by nature, grazes with its head down and its digestive system is adapted to this practice. Having to eat with his head up goes against his physiology and causes problems.
If we are on the subject of dust, rations should always be dampened to eliminate dust. Dust is very harmful to a horse’s lungs. Horses in stables must also have a dust-free environment.
And of course always seek veterinary advice, even if it seems to be nothing! Better to be safe than sorry
You can find more information about feeding your horse at http://www.australiannaturalhealing.com
Sicilian PD. “Nutrition and nutrition of the geriatric horse“, The Veterinary clinics of North America. Equine practice2002, p491-508
Cohen ND, Gibbs PG, Woods AM. “Diet and other management factors associated with colic in horses“, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association1999, p53-60
Dr. J. Kohnke, Dr. Frank Kelleher, Dr. Penny Trevor-Jones. “Feeding Horses in Australia, A Guide for Horse Owners and Managers”, RIRDC Publication No. 99/491999
DG Pugh, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACT, Diplomate ACVN. “Feeding the Geriatric Horse“, Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University2002
Dr. John Konhke. “Feeding the Senior Horse”, Fact sheet
Pete G. Gibbs, GD Potter, WL Scrutchfield, MT Martin. “Mature, Senior and Geriatric Horses: Their Management, Care and Use“, Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, 2005
Victoria Ferguson “The Practical Horse Herbal”, Horses For Courses2002
Catherine Bird “A Healthy Horse The Natural Way”, The Lyons Press2005
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