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Nutrition Nuggets: At what age is a horse considered a senior?

Horses age at different rates, just like humans. Physiological changes usually occur by the time they are in their twenties. These changes include exercise capacity and differences in hormones. They also go through physical changes, such as losing teeth and topline muscle loss.

But a horse can show these signs of aging beginning as early as mid- to late teens or as late as late twenties. Having your veterinarian perform regular wellness exams can help determine the rate at which your horse is aging and identify any health issues that need to be addressed.

In this month’s featured Nutrition Nugget, Dr. Nettie Liburt, Senior Equine Nutrition Manager at BUCKEYE Nutrition and Mars Horsecare US, discusses ways to help your senior horse. For example, the horse featured in the video is on a specific senior horse diet due to a lack of teeth. Watch the video below to learn more.

Senior horses or horses of any age on a senior diet need feed that is easy to chew and made with plenty of fiber and quality protein. If you’re looking for senior feed made with scientifically formulated nutrition and safe, high quality, consistent ingredients, try BUCKEYE Nutrition’s EQ8 Senior or SAFE ‘N EASY Senior. To provide additional protein, vitamins and minerals, supplement with GRO ‘N WIN or SENIOR BALANCER.

The best ways to feed a senior horse with dental issues

Senior horse grazing in a meadow

As your horse ages, he can experience dental issues. This can affect what and how they eat and could contribute to a loss of body condition. We’ll discuss signs of dental trouble and give you some suggestions for various feeding choices to help your senior horse’s health and performance.

Dental issues in senior horses

Periodontal disease often accompanies advancing age. A horse may experience tooth loss, or existing molars may become so worn that the horse can no longer chew properly. This makes it difficult to chew long-stemmed hay.

Have you noticed your horse’s body condition score decreasing, or are you finding semi-chewed hay (called “quids”) around the feeding area? Your horse is most likely struggling with dental issues and may not be consuming as much feed as you think he is. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, other signs of dental trouble include dropping feed, eating with the head tilted to the side, abnormal swellings around the cheek teeth, nasal discharge from one side, foul-smelling breath, or fussiness in response to the bridle or when asked to work.

A horse of any age may experience dental problems, but seniors are especially prone. No matter how old your horse is, a “senior” diet program that facilitates proper food intake can be implemented. This may involve a complete change in feed or simply making a few adjustments in the existing feed program, depending on the individual situation.

Feeding options for senior horses

If your horse is maintaining weight and body condition regardless of dental concerns, it is possible that no changes need to be made just because he reaches a certain age. However, if the horse consumes little or no grain concentrate or is on a forage-only diet and is maintaining condition, consider feeding them a low-calorie ration balancer. Ration balancers provide vitamins, minerals and protein at low feeding rates to ensure a horse receives all the necessary nutrients they need – even the ones potentially missing from forage or fiber alternatives.

Forage Alternatives and Complete Feeds

The most important part of feeding a horse with dental issues is ensuring proper intake of the fiber they need, even if they can’t consume hay. Fiber is essential for digestive health, and providing forage for the horse with dental problems can be accomplished with alternative forage sources if necessary. Chopped hay, soaked hay cubes or pellets, and soaked beet pulp are all excellent options. In addition, a complete feed – such as SAFE ‘N EASY Complete, which comes in pellet form – is designed to provide all of the fiber and nutrients a horse needs as their sole diet. SAFE ‘N EASY Complete may be soaked to ease consumption and increase water intake.

A daily ration of complete feed should be spread out into multiple small meals throughout the day. For example, a 1,000-pound horse may need 20 to 25 pounds of a complete feed every day. Feeding 4 to 5 pounds of SAFE ‘N EASY Complete every 3 to 4 hours will help extend the time it takes the horse to consume his daily ration, while making every effort to mimic natural grazing behavior by spreading meals out over time.

Feed Form

If necessary, feed a commercial grain concentrate that is extruded like SAFE 'N EASY Senior. Extruded feeds quickly soak and soften, and they are easy to chew and digest, especially if a horse is missing teeth.

Adding warm water to feed concentrates and alternative fiber sources also make it easier for horses to chew. The addition of water can help reduce the risk of choking and decrease the amount of feed dropped.

If possible, continue to encourage normal grazing behavior by giving your horse access to pasture and hay, which will help promote hindgut health.

Slowly transition the horse’s feed

If you decide to change your horse’s feed, make sure you slowly introduce new feed. Gradually decrease the amount of the old feed, while increasing the amount of new feed. It should take at least 10 to 14 days to transition to 100% of the new feed.

If your horse has a sensitive digestive system, this process could take a few weeks to a month. The more time you can take to transition to the new feed, the better the transition will be for your horse. The practice of slow transition also includes hay – when a new batch of hay arrives, slowly mix it in with existing hay so the horse’s gut has time to adjust to the new forage source.

Feed suggestions for senior horses

Good management and supportive nutrition will help your horse thrive and feel his best. Feed him the highest quality, safest feed available. Make dental care part of your horse’s routine wellness program in partnership with your veterinarian, and work with BUCKEYE Nutritionists to ensure a diet best suited to your horse’s individual needs. Buckeye Nutrition offers a variety of feed and supplements for senior horses and ponies that are made in a 100% medication-free mill from ingredients that meet the highest quality standards.

Extrusion and Extruded Feed: What's the benefit?

Have you ever stopped to think about how your horse’s feed is actually cooked? At BUCKEYE™ Nutrition, it’s our job to think of things like this every day. When we asked our customers what they’d like in a feed designed for senior horses, one of the common comments was that it was easy to chew. So we went to work! How can we make a horse feed that maximizes ease of chewing? Simple – we can extrude it! Fortunately, our mill in Dalton, OH has extrusion capability, which gives us amazing flexibility in our manufacturing processes. The result is our new SAFE ‘N EASY Senior. Extrusion has long been used in pet food manufacturing, but has also recently become utilized for equine feed. If you’re now wondering what extrusion actually is, read on!

Sne Senior Form

In your own kitchen, you may have a pressure cooker. Pressure cooking is essentially what the process of extrusion is. Ingredients are ground and conditioned with steam, then cooked for a short period of time under high temperature and pressure. The mixture is then forced through a die, which determines the size and shape of the final product. The extrusion process helps to break down the structures of starches (and, depending on temperature, proteins), resulting in a “gelatinization” of starch (Dunnett, 2013). Extrusion appears to improve starch digestion in the small intestine (Vervuert, et al. 2008), lessening the likelihood that starch reaches the hindgut. Protein in extruded grains also appears to have higher digestibility compared to ground or pelleted grains (Rosenfeld and Austo 2009). All of this means that an extruded product is essentially “pre-digested,” so that the horse can absorb starches and proteins a more efficiently. 

Extrusion also makes it easier to manufacture high fat feeds, which is beneficial for hard keepers. Moisture of the final product is typically low, helping to prolong shelf life and prevent mold, and are typically low in dust (Dunnett 2013). In addition, horses tend to consume extruded feeds slower than pellets or textured feed (Ely, et al. 2019), helping to lower the risk of digestive upset.

What you may not know about an extruded nugget is that it is less dense than other forms of feed (pellets or textured, for example). That means that if you fill a cup with pellets, and you fill the same cup with extruded feed, they will not weigh the same. The extruded feed will weigh less. That is one reason why it is so important to weigh your horse’s feed, and not just go by cups or scoops.

Because extruded feeds are less dense then other feed forms, they will fall apart in the horse’s mouth easier. Adding water to an extruded feed, like our new SAFE ‘N EASY Senior, will result in an oatmeal-like consistency within about 3 minutes. For the horse with poor teeth or lack of chewing ability, feeding this type of soup or mash is an excellent option for calorie and nutrient consumption with a reduced risk of digestive upset. As a bonus, soaking feed helps increase water intake, and that’s always a good thing!

Extrusion has many benefits for horses of all ages, from helping to maintain weight to improved digestibility. Please contact us with your feeding questions, we’ll be happy to help with your nutritional concerns!

 


 

References

Dunnett, C. 2013. Ration evaluation and formulation. In: Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Geor, R.J., Harris, P.A and Coenen, M., Eds. Saunders Elsevier, London. pp. 405-424.

 

Ely, K., Harris, P., Kaufman, K., Liburt, N., Krotky, A., McIntosh, B. 2019. Digestibility and postprandial response according to processing method and meal time of day. JEVS. 76:67.

 

Rosenfeld, I. and Austo, D. 2009. Digestion of cereals in the equine gastrointestinal tract measured by the mobile bag technique on caecally cannulated horses. Animal Feed Sci Tech. 150(3-4):249-258.

 

Vervuert, I., Voigt, K., Hollands, T., Cuddeford, D., Coenen, M. 2008. Effects of processing barley on its digestion by horses. Veterinary Record. 162: 684-688.

When is a horse considered a "senior"?

When it comes to seniors, one of the most commonly asked questions is, “At what age is my horse a senior?” The answer, of course, depends on the horse. Horses, like people, age as individuals, and there is no hard and fast rule about when a horse is officially a senior citizen. The National Research Council (2007) suggests that while 20 years is an estimate of what is considered old age, there is considerable individual variation. A combination of chronological age (age in years) and physiological characteristics are best used for determining whether a horse is a senior (NRC 2007). However, many horses have some signs of aging around 20 years. Some of those changes may be visible, such as grey hair around the face or loss of muscle tone, while others may not be so obvious, such as hormonal changes or changes in the immune system.


 

As horses age, they typically fall into one of four categories:

  1. Young at Heart – generally healthy
  2. Aged with a tendency to gain weight/obese
  3. Aged with a tendency to lose weight/underweight
  4. Geriatric – other health problems involved

 

Still, one may notice that it is harder for a horse to work or compete at a certain level than it used to be. It may take longer to warm up for work, and it’s harder to cool down afterwards.

Aging is usually associated with changes in strength, body composition and general physiological function, but how much of these changes occur is very much dependent on the individual (Ralston and Harris, 2013). We do know that older horses have a harder time regulating body temperature (McKeever, et al., 2010), and are more easily affected by extreme temperatures (hot or cold). Exercise capacity decreased, recovery time increases (Betros et al., 2002) and there is a natural change in the endocrine system (Malinowski et al., 2006) that can be mitigated to some extent by maintaining a light training program (Liburt et al., 2014). Recent research has also suggested that a decrease in microbial diversity in the hindgut may occur as a result of age (Dougal et al., 2014). Again, some of these changes are easily observable while others are not.

We love our seniors, no doubt. The 2015 USDA APHIS survey put the population of horses over the age of 20 years at 11.5% of the equine population, up from 7.4% in 1998. We know more about how horses age, and how to better care for them. One of the most important things we can do as guardians of our animals is to know what is normal and what is not. Note changes, work with a veterinarian to maintain regular healthcare, and adjust exercise regimens as necessary (according to ability and ambient temperature). Diet need not change unless there is a reason, for example, weight gain/loss or endocrine disease. I’ll leave you with this recommendation: Know Your Horse! Keep track of weight, changes in behavior, movement and attitude. Maintain open lines of communication with your veterinarian, and of course your friendly BUCKEYE™ Nutrition professional nutritionists! We’re here to guide your horse’s nutrition through every stage of life, so ask us when you need help.

The old adage, “Use it or lose it” holds very true for horses as well as their human caretakers – having a job, even if low level, helps keep the body moving, and the mind stimulated. Make accommodations for any changes a horse experiences, but don’t count them out just because the years add up!


References:

Betros, C.L., McKeever, K.H., Kearns, CF., Malinowski, K. 2002. Effects of ageing and training on maximal heart rate and VO2max. Equine Veterinary Journal. 34(S34):100-105.

 

Dougal, K., de la Guente, G., Harris, P.A., Girdwood, S.E., Pinloche, E., Geor, R.J., Ninelsen, B.D., Schott, H.C., Elzinga, S., Newbold, C.J. 2014. Characterisation of the faecal bacterial community in adult and elderly horses fed a high fibre, high oil or high starch diet using 454 pyrosequencing. PLoS One 9(20:e87424.

 

Liburt, N.R., McKeever, K.H., Malinowski, K., Smarsh, D.N., Geor, R.J. 2013. Response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to stimulation tests before and after exercise training in old and young Standardbred mares. Journal of Animal Science. 91(11):5208-5219.

 

Malinowski, K., Shock, E.J., Rochelle, P., Kearns, C.R., Guirnalda, P.D., McKeever, K.H. 2006. Plasma beta-endorphin, cortisol and immune responses to acute exercise are altered by age and exercise training in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl. 36:267-273.

 

McKeever, K.H., Eaton, T.L., Geiser, S., Kearns, C.F., Lehnhard, R.A. 2010. Age related decreases in thermoregulation and cardiovascular function in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal. Nov (38):220-227.

 

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Unique aspects of equine nutrition. In: Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th Ed. National Academies Press, Washington, DC. pp. 235-267.

 

Ralston, S. and Harris, P. 2013. Nutritional consideration for aged horses. In: Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Geor, R.J., Harris, P.A and Coenen, M., Eds. Saunders Elsevier, London. pp. 289 -303.