As horses age, their digestive tracts are not quite as efficient as they were when they were younger. Aged horses are likely to lose body condition, have difficulty chewing long stem forage, and can often be observed with feed falling out of their mouths. In ages past, many of these horses would fail to thrive. Today, we have a better understanding of the needs of our senior horses. Specific feeds have been formulated to meet their unique nutritional needs; so much so, that many horses are now enjoying life into their 30s, and the occasional horse even lives into their 40s.
At What Age Should My Horse Be Transitioned to a Senior Feed?
There is no simple answer to this question, as each horse will vary in their needs. An individual assessment and veterinary health check can help you decide when to transition your horse to a senior feed. This is because the chronological age (age in years) is less important than a horse’s “physiological age.” As horses age, they undergo physiological changes that reduce their digestion efficiency and when this occurs, it will vary from horse to horse.
The single most important factor in deciding when to transition a horse to a senior feed is their teeth. Through the aging process, horses will wear down their teeth and even lose some of them. When this happens, horses will have greater difficulty breaking down their feed. At the extreme end of the spectrum, this can lead to a horse’s inability to even chew and consume forage. You can observe this in older horses that attempt to chew forage and small balls of partially chewed forage will fall from their mouths. This is called “quidding.” In these cases, a total forage replacement feed is required.
A much less extreme and easier to miss sign is when a senior horse has a reduced ability to chew their forage. While they may have difficulty chewing, the feed does not fall out of their mouth like with quidding. It cannot be emphasized enough just how important it is for a horse to break down forage through the grinding action of their molars. It is critical that the particle size of a horse’s forage is reduced for not only the ease in swallowing, but also to help increase the surface area available for the digestion process to take place. Horses can and do experience choke when feed is not properly reduced through chewing. Additionally, with less surface area available to digestive enzymes and microbes, the horse cannot extract as many nutrients out of their feed. You can learn more about choking in horses HERE.
Another contributing factor of when to transition to a senior feed is a horse’s inability to digest their feed as efficiently as when they were younger. With age comes a reduction in the digestive tract’s capability of not only digesting feed, but also absorbing it. Thus, less nutrients are absorbed across the digestive system lining into the horse’s blood stream. This can lead to weight loss and other digestive disorders.
All in all, it will depend on where the horse is in the aging process when determining how best to meet their nutritional needs. In some instances, one horse may need a forage replacement feed when they are 20 years old. In others, a horse may be happy and receiving all their nutritional needs from a traditional diet into their late 20s.
Supporting Your Senior Horse’s Maximum Digestibility
The goal is to maximize the amount of nutrients the horse digests and absorbs from their diet. This is done by feeding high quality forage and choosing a quality horse feed. For example, choosing feeds that are “fixed formula” give you more awareness to what exactly you are feeding your horse. Feeds that are not fixed formulas will often list ingredients as “grain products” or “roughage products.” In these instances, you are not assured of the quality of the ingredients used, and the overall feed is less consistent for your horse. Learn more about fixed formulations and why they are important HERE.
Senior horses can get additional digestive support from consuming prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes. Briefly, prebiotics are nutrients that are not digested by the horse, but are key nutrients for the very important microbes in the digestive tract that help digest fiber. Probiotics are actual live microorganisms that help support the beneficial microbes in the gut of the horse. You can learn more about the importance of feeding pre- and probiotics HERE.
Finally, the addition of digestive enzymes in high quality horse feeds can be particularly beneficial for aging horses. Because an older horse has less digestive efficiency, added enzymes help improve their digestion. Digestive enzymes aid in breaking down nutrients into smaller components that are more easily absorbed and used by the horse.
Total Forage Replacement for Horses
Understandably, there is some confusion when it comes to a senior feed or what some companies label a “complete feed.” Some feed companies are labelling their products as “complete,” which may mean they are meeting the nutritional requirements of that class of horse and are not a total forage replacement feed.
A true complete feed is one that can be used as a total forage replacement for the horse. This is also seen in some senior feeds. Thus, check the labelling carefully to see if the senior feed is intended to be a complete feed. Generally, a complete feed is higher in crude fiber (> 15%) with the needs of senior horses in mind.
Total forage replacement is required once a horse can no longer adequately consume forage. This is usually due to the wear and loss of teeth. The goal for these horses is to provide a feed that can replace all the forage in their diet. Well formulated complete feeds will also provide additional nutrients to support a horse’s health. Quality complete feeds are those that have highly digestible sources of fiber listed in their ingredients, such as beet pulp, soy hulls, and alfalfa.
Alternative sources of forage for senior horses can also include soaked hay pellets or cubes. Soaking ensures that horses that have difficulty chewing can consume them and also limits the risk of choke. However, hay pellets or cubes alone cannot meet all the nutritional requirements for these horses; they will need additional nutrients from a horse feed.
When feeding a complete horse feed, at minimum, they should be fed at 1% of the horse’s total body weight per day. For a 1000-pound horse, that would be 10 pounds of feed per day. Notably, many senior horses require more than the daily minimum to maintain their weight. Because these horses are generally not eating any forage throughout the day like they would do naturally, the feed should be split into small meals fed throughout the day.
It is also important to remember that complete or senior feeds are not as nutrient-dense as compared to a ration balancer. This is because these feeds are intended to replace forage and are designed to be fed at higher volumes. Thus, they have a lower concentration of essential nutrients, which ensures they are not supplied in excess when feeding large volumes. Thus, if a complete feed is underfed, this will result in underfeeding important nutrients to the horse. It is always recommended to follow the feeding directions suggested by the manufacturer.
Can I Feed a Senior Feed to a Young or Middle-Aged Horse?
Yes! We often recommend feeding a feed that is high in digestible fiber (<15% crude fiber) to horses of many ages. Sometimes, these feeds have “senior” in the name, but that isn’t always the case. Kalm ‘N EZ® falls into the category of complete, senior feeds, but is appropriate for horses of many ages. High fiber feeds provide cool sources of energy and are great for supporting hind-gut health when hay quality is poor.
When searching for a feed for a hard keeper, it is a common misconception that “senior” feeds are best. It is true that some senior-type feeds may be appropriate for the hard keeper, but many are low calorie to allow for total forage replacement. Senior Sport™ or Resolve® are great options if you are looking for a feed that is both high calorie and high in digestible fiber.
Take Home Message
Ultimately, remember that age is just a number! Routine dental care and careful observations of changes in an older horse’s body condition will help determine when a total forage replacement feed is needed. Many horses can benefit from a feed high in digestible fiber sources before the time for total forage replacement has arrived, as well as added digestive support technologies. The addition of pre- and probiotics, additional enzymes, and other advancements in equine nutrition means that senior horses can thrive on bagged horse feed. However, read the feed label to ensure you are feeding a horse feed that is designed to be fed as a total forage replacement feed and be sure to feed it at the correct quantities.
If you have any questions or concerns about what you are feeding your horse, please feel free to contact us for a free consultation.