Feeding Horses Well into Their Senior Years

Life Stage : Senior

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Purina Animal Nutrition

With many people today living into their nineties, the definition of “senior” has changed considerably over the past few decades.

People are working longer, staying active and making better nutritional choices in an effort to maintain muscle mass, joint and bone health, cognition, and a healthy heart. Now, for healthy, active seniors, 70 can be considered relatively young.
Similarly, the age at which a horse is considered senior has changed. In the past, age 16 and up was the general classification for a senior horse. Now, some horses work and compete well into their 20s. Also, similar to people, a horse’s ability to remain active into its golden years depends upon a number of factors, including good nutrition, regular veterinary care, and an owner attuned to any physical or behavioral changes the horse may be experiencing.

Signs your horse is entering his senior years

Some owners struggle with determining when their horse is a senior horse. How do you know when it’s the right time to adjust your feeding management? What are some things that could indicate a diet change may be in order? Here are some signs that your horse is entering his senior years and some nutritional steps you can take to help keep those years as healthy as possible.

1. Changes in eating behavior

Your horse’s ability to chew forage is generally a major indicator as to whether switching to a senior feed is in order. Some common changes in eating behavior include:
  • Quidding: Often the result of poor teeth, quidding is when a horse stores feed in the side of his mouth and drops it after a few bites, or drops feed quickly after taking a bite. 
  • Behavioral shifts: These may include atypical actions when the horse tries to chew, such as lifting, shaking or twisting his head, or dropping feed.
  • Slower eating: Because of chewing problems, senior horses often eat more slowly than they used to; for example, going from a five-minute feeding to taking 20 minutes to eat.
  • Increased risk of choke: Poor teeth, decreased saliva production, poor musculature of the throat area and other factors can lead to a blockage in the esophagus, commonly known as choke. This can make swallowing difficult or even impossible.

2. Body condition

Weight loss and diminished body condition are indicators that your horse is not digesting feed as efficiently as he should, especially if you haven’t changed anything in your horse’s feeding or exercise programs. Because senior horse feeds are typically more easily digestible than those formulated for younger horses, a senior feed may be better able to provide your horse with needed nutrition in a way that is easy to chew, digest and utilize.
Just because your horse is a senior doesn’t mean a significant loss of body weight is normal.  Many owners are resigned to having a thin horse just because the horse falls into a senior category. It is possible for a horse to maintain a body condition score of 5 well into his senior years, if he is fed properly.

3. Musculature

If your horse isn’t building muscle even if you are still riding and working him as you normally would, talk with your veterinarian about placing your horse on a senior feed. A feed with high-quality protein can help your horse maintain muscle mass.

The evolution of senior horse feed

Twenty-five years ago, research demonstrated that older horses had reduced apparent digestibility of fiber, protein and phosphorus. This data prompted further research into the nutritional requirements of senior horses, leading to the creation, in 1993, of Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed — the first nationally available feed specifically formulated for senior horses. 
Here are the key features and benefits of Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed.
1. It’s a complete feed with built-in forage that is easy to digest
Because Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed is easy to chew and highly digestible, even a horse with poor teeth or loss of body condition can benefit from it. Fiber sources include a combination of soluble and insoluble fibers such as beet pulp and top-quality hay.
2. It addresses the special needs of aging horses
Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed has several features specifically geared to older horses:
  • ActivAge® prebiotic, which has been proven to protect against inflammation, strengthen immune function and boost response to vaccinations.
  • The proprietary Amplify® Nugget, which has been scientifically formulated with rice bran, flaxseed and vegetable oils for an optimal fatty acid profile and nutritional balance, while maintaining strong palatability.
  • Easy Soak™ pellet technology, which can create a mash in five minutes with warm water, making it easy to chew and swallow for horses with dental problems or missing teeth.
3. It offers a total nutrition package
Purina® Equine Senior® supplies 100 percent of required vitamins and minerals and also contains high-quality protein that can help maintain muscle mass. Added antioxidants (vitamin C and vitamin E) offer additional immune system support. Studies have shown that senior horses with low body condition continue to benefit from changing to a senior feed and feeding ample amounts to promote weight gain. These horses also show improvements in red blood cell count, hematocrit, hemoglobin and vitamin C status when fed Purina® Equine Senior® (HR-47, Purina Animal Nutrition, Equine Senior Field Trials, 2008).
Help your senior horse enjoy an active, healthy life 
Clearly, senior horse nutrition has come a long way in the last few decades. Multiple feed choices and customizable feeding programs are helping senior horses live longer, healthier lives. Backed by solid science, these feeds help control inflammation and influence the immune response of the senior horse, and are more easily digestible and usable by the body. Talk with your veterinarian about your senior horse’s nutrition to be sure you are feeding properly. A few small adjustments in your feeding regimen can help your horse fully enjoy his senior years.