One specific class of horses that needs extra nutritional support during the cold winter months is our senior horses. The drops in temperatures, added with rain and snow, can be challenging for any horse, but aged horses can be more affected by these conditions. Fortunately, with some added attention to their diet and some additional care, senior horses can do quite well during this time of year.

A senior horse can be defined as one that is older than 15 years of age. Since horses are living longer because of better management, it is not uncommon to now see horses living into their 30s and beyond. However, just because a horse is older than 15 years does not necessarily mean their nutritional demands suddenly change. There are many factors that can influence their individual dietary needs. Yet, almost all our horses in North America are physically tested during the winter months. In our Winterizing: Nutritional Tips article, we discuss what challenges our horses face. This can be especially true for senior horses. Briefly, to recap:

  • A horse’s Lower Critical Temperature (LCT) is one at which a horse will begin to expend extra energy to maintain body temperature once ambient temperatures drop below that value. Factors such as body condition, hair coat, wetness, wind chill and others can all influence this temperature. For example, a horse with a wet coat has a LCT value of 59 °F (15 °C). Anything below the LCT requires more energy in the diet.
  • Horses need to enter the winter months in good body condition; a body condition score of 5 to 6 is ideal for most horses.
  • “Hotter” feeds like corn or oats do not generate more body heat and are not advised to be fed in high amounts. Rather, feeding more forage is ideal as it helps generate heat while being fermented in the hind gut.
  • Additional forage will also help provide the additional energy needed in the diet.
  • It is always important to remember water. Despite the cooler temperatures, horses absolutely require water in similar amounts to the warmer months; especially with additional forage in the diet.

When it comes to senior horses, the stress they feel during winter can be exacerbated just simply because of old age. As the body ages, its systems become less efficient. Senior horses do not thermoregulate as well as younger horses. Similarly, their digestive systems are not as efficient in digesting and absorbing nutrients from their diet. You also will have to take into consideration any potential arthritis or pain the horse might be suffering due to age. Some general signs of aging include:

  • Loss in body condition
  • Loss of muscling
  • Decreased activity and performance
  • Graying of the hair

Another factor to take into consideration is an older horse’s ability to chew their food. As horses age, their teeth wear down. Thus, an older horse will not be as efficient in reducing the particle size of their meals. This can be especially true with forage and results in less efficient digestion.

When planning for your senior horses in the winter, like any horse, their diet needs to start with high quality forage. The average 2 to 2.5% of body weight per day in forage is usually sufficient for a senior horse. With an example of a 1000-pound horse, this would equate to 20 to 25 pounds of forage per day. However, on days when your senior horse may experience temperatures below LCT, this could be upped to 3% per day or more. In our above example, this would equal 30 pounds of forage per day. It would also be wise to provide forage not only during the day but also at night. This allows greater coverage of time of the horse’s digestion system generating body heat.

In addition to forage, every horse needs additional nutrients. There are also many variables that influence what additional nutrients are needed. For senior horses, here are some general guidelines:

  • Easy keepers in good body condition with little or no trouble eating forage that can generally maintain condition into winter may do well with a ration balancer like Essential K® or Wholesome Blends™ Balancer.
  • Hard keepers that have trouble maintaining body condition or a senior horse that does well on a ration balancer in summer but drops condition during winter would be best suited with a feed higher in fiber and fat, such as Kalm ‘N EZ® or Senior Sport™.
  • For senior horses that can no longer chew long stem forage and need a replacement diet, Seniority™ Pellet or Seniority™ Textured are good choices.

If you are concerned with joint health, we would recommend any of the above feeds with the added “GC Plus.” More can be read about this in our Do You Feed a Joint Supplement article.

Overall, senior horses can do well during the winter months with an attentive owner. It is also recommended to have a veterinarian do a wellness check on your senior horses heading into winter. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us for a personalized feeding plan!

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.