The Equine practice nc

Feeding Senior Horses

Idon’t know when a horse becomes a “senior.”  Age is a human concept of marking how many times we circle the sun.  If instead we were traveling in a straight line through space, how would we mark the passage of time?  The idea of us or our horses “getting old” would be an impossibility.  Yet getting old is how we all are trained to think.  Let me offer a different approach.

We base age on the recurring event of the Earth passing the same spot in space once a year.  We accept this based on seasons, day length or a calendar but are we really sure this is accurate?  For instance, why do we appear to age at different rates?  I think there are better and more accurate ways to measure time.  

Every day starts with a sunrise and while each day is unique, they are all roughly the same.  We can be assured that this daily routine will continue for a very long time.  The other two events that define our lives is our birth and death.  Therefore my definition of a “senior” horse is one that has limited days left of natural life (abrupt end of life due to accidents are an exception).  When that endpoint occurs is only a guess but preparing for those senior years is a daily event starting soon after birth.  This makes a short answer to the question, “How do you feed the senior horse?”  You feed them the same as a young horse.

If a horse is fed correctly from birth then they will never need to be fed differently.  The evidence for this is everywhere we look.  All wild animals including horses eat the same food from weaning to death.  Unfortunately most horses living a domesticated life are not fed correctly and as the days get closer to their death the effects that we consider to be the “senior look” become more noticeable.  These effects include obesity or loss of body fat, loss of muscle along the top line, enlarged abdomen, fat loss above the eyeballs, poor hair coat, poor hoof condition, chronic skin conditions, metabolic issues, hormone issues including insulin resistance and pituitary dysfunction (Cushing’s), unsoundness and other conditions all related to increased age.  But rather blame the accumulation of time (age) we need to look at the accumulation of daily effects of poor feeding and the subsequent daily effects of gut inflammation.

The Real Question

Here is another way to look at the horse becoming a “senior.”  If there is little to no gut inflammation throughout the life of the horse then there is no adverse signs of aging and no “senior” horse.  The real question to ask is, “How do you feed the horse with adverse signs of aging mentioned above?”  The simple answer is 1) start feeding the horse as horses should be fed to eliminate gut inflammation and 2) add protein until the amino acid reserves are restored.

Unfortunately there are several complicating factors in feeding horses with adverse signs of aging:  

  1. When gut inflammation has occurred for a long time (decades) then it may take a year before the gut lining heals and the normal gut microbes restored.
  2. When a horse immediately looses fat as the carbohydrates of grain are removed, the owner will then see the true loss of muscle along the back.  This shocks the owner who instinctively adds back grain which makes fat that only covers up the problem.

When winter brings cold weather and the horse is losing body fat as the gut inflammation subsides an additional food needs to be added without inflammation.  Shredded coconut meal seems to fill this spot well.  

The biggest negative effect of feeding grain daily for years is chronic protein deficiency which I see as the root of almost every health problem horses have.  There are between 1 and 3 billion proteins in every human cell and most of these are destroyed and rebuilt every 2 to 4 days.  There are about 20 amino acids that make ALL of these proteins just like there are 26 letters that make ALL the words in the dictionary.  If some of the letters are missing then some of the words can’t be made.  The same is true of proteins.  Horses with chronic protein deficiency such as “senior” horses with adverse signs of aging need to be supplemented with a variety of amino acids until they look better.  The best source of protein for horses are alfalfa plus soy bean meal.

It is interesting to watch a horse being fed correctly actually become less hungry.  Muzzled horses no longer need muzzles and ponies lay next to the hay.  Let’s paint the picture from the owner’s perspective.  It is winter and the horse is losing back fat reveling the muscle loss along the back bone.  Now the thinning horse stops devouring the hay you paid for.  Conclusion: the horse hates the poor quality hay and because he isn’t eating hay, there is no grass and you stopped feeding grain, your horse will never survive the winter.  You are killing your horse unless you get him back on grain and he perks up.  There – now he has fat again, he is obnoxious again and everyone feels better.

Now let’s look at it from the science point of view.  Your horse no longer has gut inflammation so he feels better hence he is acting more normal and calmer than you have ever seen him.  Because the amount of daily sugar intake is significantly diminished his body has started to convert the body fat into more efficient fuel for the cells.  With this fuel efficiency he is no longer as hungry and only eats what he needs to eat.  Adding the protein sources is helping to restore the lost enzymes, vitamins, hormones, neurotransmitters and connective tissue which all help him feel better.  The stressed and dying cells from sugar dependency are now repairing themselves too.

What Is The Bottom Line?

Most of you want the recipe to successfully feed your horses.  I don’t start there.  Doing things because you are told to do them without knowing why or the consequences is what has gotten you to having unhealthy and old looking horses.  This blog though has started you to think and hopefully encouraged you to investigate all the nutrition blogs HERE.

Step 1 – remove all inflammatory food.  In essence feed only pasture and hay along with water and Himalayan salt (or equivalent).

Step 2 – Add protein sources.  For horses between 1000 and 1400 pounds – 1 pound of soy bean meal daily and 1 flake of alfalfa hay daily (or equivalent in cubes or pellets or mixed in the grass hay).  You can start with small amounts to test the acceptance and the response.  After a year or so you can reduce the total daily amounts.

Step 3 – If necessary, especially for extremely thin horses and very old horses, add 1 pound of shredded coconut daily (CoolStance).  Some need more to get results.

Step 4 – Reduce stress on the horse.  Give them a way to get out of the cold wind of winter or extreme heat of summer. Use blankets, barriers, non-leaking roofs, fans, clipping long hair coats or other ways to obtain a more comfortable living condition.  Remember these horses are old and some are in poor health.  Good nursing care goes a long way.  Fix their teeth so they can chew comfortably or if they have significantly reduced number of cheek teeth then provide food they can swallow (chopped hay or soaked hay cubes).  If they can’t swallow food then they are starving amongst plenty.  

For those who don’t have a “senior” horse yet, do these 4 steps to never get them “old.”

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