Feeding Options for Senior Horses

Life Stage : Senior

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Purina Animal Nutrition

As our horses age, we often encounter difficult situations associated with the aging process.

Older horses sometimes lose or gain too much weight, have respiratory conditions, or they may have increased incidences of choke, colic or founder. Depending on the causes of these problems, we may be able to address some of them with nutrition. 

What is a senior horse?

First, we should define the senior horse. We typically think of a senior horse as one that is in its teens, but individual horses become seniors at different ages. The age at which a horse’s nutritional needs shift from those of a mature adult horse to those of a geriatric horse is determined by genetics and the way that horse was managed throughout its life. Basically, the horse itself determines when it becomes a senior. I look for some common indications of changing nutritional needs to determine when to start addressing the needs of a geriatric horse.
For instance, if it is becoming more difficult to maintain the horse’s body weight on its traditional diet of hay or grass and feed of hay or grass and feed, or the horse starts dropping wads of partially chewed hay on the ground (quidding), then it is likely time to switch to a diet designed for senior horses. Some horses require dietary adjustments around age 16, but others go well into their twenties before needing any major diet changes. It is best for the horse if you pay close attention and address any special needs before significant decline in condition or health occurs. Working with your veterinarian will be helpful in determining when to begin addressing concerns of the aging horse, as well as essential to ensure the continued good health and longevity of your horse.

Some of the problems common to older horses include:

  • Worn or missing teeth
  • Decreasing digestive efficiency
  • Respiratory problems
  • Difficulty maintaining body weight
  • Poor haircoat
  • Chronic lameness 
Each of these situations may have causes unrelated to age, but addressing the nutritional needs of the individual horse can possibly improve or help manage the condition.

Monitoring the aging horse’s dental condition

You can spot an aging horse by teeth checks. As a horse ages, the grinding motion of chewing wears the teeth down, and the teeth then erupt to replace what has worn away. At some point in a horse’s life, there is not enough tooth left to replace the wear, and the horse can no longer chew properly. Further, as the teeth wear they can develop sharp edges or points that can lacerate the cheeks and tongue. Finally, inadequate chewing can cause lack of salivation, which may result in poor lubrication for swallowing, thus increasing the possibility of choke.
Regular dental care is essential to maintain the horse’s teeth in good shape to chew properly. Senior horses often have difficulty chewing hay and even possibly grass due to poor dental condition. Even with excellent dental care, the time may come for an older horse to get its roughage from a source other than long-stemmed forage because it just cannot chew adequately.
One option is Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed is a complete feed, which means it contains all the essential roughage so that even a horse unable to chew hay will receive adequate fiber. At some point, Equine Senior® feed may replace all of the hay in the horse’s diet. As the horse ages further, it may be beneficial to add water to Equine Senior® feed to produce a mash or gruel, which will be even more easily edible for the horse with extremely poor dental condition.
If the older horse is still well able to utilize long-stemmed hay in its diet, then Purina® Equine Senior® Active horse feed is designed to provide the nutrient profile needed by an aging horse along with appropriate good-quality hay/pasture.

The aging horse’s digestive tract

As a horse ages, its digestive tract becomes less efficient due to decreased motility, digestion and absorption of nutrients. In these situations, feeding a processed feed instead of whole grains and including higher nutrient levels in the feed will help provide adequate nutrition to meet the horse’s needs. Equine Senior® and Equine Senior® Active horse feeds are both formulated to meet these increased nutrient requirements when fed as recommended.
Older horses may also suffer from colic due to a higher incidence of lipomas (fatty tumors), poor teeth, reduced exercise, and a higher risk of impactions. According to a study at Texas A&M University, the leading factor for increasing risk of colic is a change in hay. Making all diet changes gradually, providing adequate water, good-quality feed and hay, and following good management practices will help reduce the risk of colic.
Working with your veterinarian to keep the horse on a proper deworming and parasite- control program is also vital to maintain the health and efficiency of the digestive tract.

Respiratory problems in aging horses

Some older horses may have respiratory difficulties such as heaves (recurrent airway obstruction or RAO) or inflammatory airway disease (IAD). If your veterinarian has diagnosed a respiratory condition in your older horse, feeding and environment changes to reduce dust and allergens will be helpful. Feeding a complete feed such as Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed or Purina® Omolene® #400 horse feed allows you to decrease or eliminate hay in an attempt to reduce the amount of dust and pollens the horse may inhale.

Suggestions for managing horses with respiratory conditions

Remember: Strictly follow your veterinarian’s instructions with regard to housing/barn access
  • Avoid excessive exercise.
  • Keep pasture mowed if horse is allergic to outdoor pollens.
  • Provide adequate ventilation in stalls and barns.
  • Do not use dusty bedding in stalls or run-in sheds.
  • Consult your veterinarian to determine if anti-inflammatory medications or other medical interventions are indicated.

Body weight and condition

As a horse ages, its metabolism changes. Older horses usually fall into one of two categories:
  • Easy Keepers – Reduced metabolism and activity result in excessive weight gain that can be hazardous to the horse’s health.
  • Hard Keepers – Loss of body weight, body condition and muscle mass caused by reduced digestive efficiency and medical issues affect metabolic rates.
It is more common to see older horses that are underweight than overweight. As previously discussed, senior horses tend to have problems with poor dental condition, along with decreased digestive efficiency. In these situations, Equine Senior® horse feed fed to replace most or all of the forage. If the horse still has good dentition, and is well able to utilize hay and/or pasture as the source of forage, then Purina® Equine Senior® Active horse feed may be an appropriate option as a high-calorie feed to support older horses needing to gain weight.
If the older horse is too fat, aim to reduce its weight to maintain a body condition score of about 5. As long as the horse is able to utilize good-quality hay, a good option for taking weight off is to feed hay and Purina® Enrich Plus® horse feed, or a moderate- calorie feed such as Purina® Equine Senior® Active horse feed. If the horse cannot adequately chew hay, it may be beneficial to reduce the amount of Equine Senior® horse feed fed, or possibly feed Purina® Equine Adult® horse feed, which is lower in calories than Equine Senior® horse feed.

Obese senior horses

Obese senior horses may suffer from Equine Metabolic Syndrome (sometimes improperly referred to as hypothyroidism or peripheral Cushing’s disease). These horses tend to store excess fat, especially along the crest of the neck, over the shoulders, on the rump, and in the sheath (geldings), and often exhibit chronic laminitis. Horses affected with Equine Metabolic Syndrome may also exhibit insulin resistance, in which blood glucose (sugar) is not adequately removed from the blood via the hormone insulin.
At this time, Equine Metabolic Syndrome is not completely understood, but it is believed by researchers that obesity, as well as a genetic susceptibility, are important predisposing conditions. If Equine Metabolic Syndrome has been diagnosed, it may be helpful to reduce the amount of starch and sugars in the horse’s diet to help decrease the amount of blood glucose. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed is formulated to contain reduced levels of starch and sugars, and has been fed successfully to many horses with this condition. Purina® WellSolve L/S® horse feed is also an appropriate option for insulin-resistant older horses. Additionally, it is important to consider the hay and/or pasture fed in these situations, since grasses can contain high levels of soluble carbohydrates (starches and sugars).

Haircoat and skin

Horses of all ages may suffer from poor haircoat and skin condition due to poor nutrition, but aging horses may be especially susceptible. Good grooming and proper nutrition can go a long way toward addressing these conditions.
An older horse with a long haircoat that sheds late in the year, or incompletely, may be suffering from Pituitary Pars Intermedia Disease (PPID), commonly referred to as Cushing’s disease or syndrome. PPID is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland in the horse’s brain. Symptoms include hirsutism (long haircoat), loss of muscle mass, and excessive drinking and urination. If you feel that your horse is exhibiting these symptoms, consult your veterinarian.
Horses with PPID may also exhibit insulin resistance and can benefit from diets lower in starch and sugars and higher in fat and fiber. However, veterinary care is essential in proper care of horses suffering from PPID.

Chronic lameness

There are many causes of lameness in aging horses, such as chronic laminitis (founder), arthritis or stiffness from weakened bones due to demineralization. Veterinary care is important in diagnosing the cause of lameness and alleviating pain.
Suggestions to manage older horses with chronic lameness:
  • Avoid obesity and heavy loads because extra weight burdens aging joints, tendons and ligaments. Overweight horses may also be prone to laminitis.
  • Have a reliable farrier provide routine hoof care every six to eight weeks.
  • Provide regular, moderate exercise (if approved by your veterinarian). Gradual workouts at least four times a week are recommended. Avoid abrupt changes in exercise duration or intensity. Ride or walk on softer surfaces such as grass or light, sandy soil if lameness is a problem.
The objective is to provide a nutritionally balanced diet with more calories from fat and fiber (as opposed to calories from starch/sugars), along with adequate high-quality protein and an appropriate vitamin and mineral balance to meet the aging horse’s needs. Some horses may also benefit from a high-quality oral joint supplement.
Providing a high-quality, nutritionally balanced senior feed for horses to meet the special needs of the aging horse, such as Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed, Purina® Equine Senior® Active horse feed or Purina® WellSolve L/S® horse feed, in coordination with an overall health and management program as recommended by your veterinarian, will help ensure that your horse will live comfortably in good health for as long as possible.

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