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Senior Horse

When does a horse become senior?

Traditionally horses became 'veterans' at fifteen although with good management and better veterinary care, horses and ponies are now living healthy and active lives well into twenties and even thirties. In fact, many competition horses do not reach the peak of their career until their late teens. Like people, horses age at different rates and there is no 'correct' age at which a specific 'senior feed' needs to be introduced. The most suitable dietary management will depend on the individual's clinical and/ or metabolic status and ability to maintain condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Signs of Ageing
    • Greying of the coat
    • Loss of muscle tone leading to a 'pot-bellied' appearance and/ or drooping and swaying of the back
    • Deepened hollows above the eyes
    • Tooth degeneration
    • Stiffness and osteoarthritis
    • Dull skin and coat
    • Loss of skin elasticity
    • Increased susceptibility to illness and infections as result of declining immune function
    • Loss of condition (in some horses and ponies)
  • When age is just a number…
    • Like people, some horses and ponies are certainly 'young at heart'. Healthy horses and ponies in good body condition can be maintained on a 'standard' adult ration appropriate to their level of work and breeding status.
    • For clinically healthy horses prone to weight gain see topic on the Good Doer.
    • For clinically healthy horses prone to weight loss see topic on the Poor Doer.
  • Feed & Management Tips
    • Feed according to body condition score
    • Not all senior horses are prone to losing weight. In fact, reduced activity may, particularly if coupled with increased access to pasture may result in weight gain
    • Feed ad-lib forage or forage replacers where ever possible
    • Total forage intake (including grazing and hay/ forage replacers) should not be restricted to less than 1.5% bodyweight (dry matter) per day
    • Feed approximately 1.2-1.5 times (20-50%) more haylage than hay by weight to account for higher moisture content
    • Avoid high starch/ cereal based feeds for ponies, natives and those prone to excitability. High starch diets are not suitable for horses/ ponies prone to/ suffering from laminitis, PPID, colic, tying up or gastric ulcers
    • The most suitable feed may not always say 'senior' on the bag - speak to a nutritionist for more advice
    • Horses/ ponies with poor teeth or osteoarthritis of the jaw may need soaked feeds and/ or hay replacers
    • Cushingoid/ PPID horses and ponies need similar nutritional management to a laminitic. Higher levels of amino acids (to support muscle mass) and in theory, supplementary antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium may be helpful. For more information see topic on Cushings's Syndrome.
    • Osteoarthritis in the neck and forelimbs may lowering the head to eat/ graze or pulling hay from a net painful - try feeding from raised buckets or mangers
    • Like people, older horses may suffer from sensitive teeth making them reluctant to drink very cold water
    • Oil can be fed at up to 100mls per 100kg of bodyweight per day, providing a starch free source of additional calories that does not require additional chewing. However, simply adding oil can unbalance the diet so you may prefer to choose a feed that already contains a higher level oil that if necessary, can be soaked to make a mash
    • Add any addition oil gradually (approximately 100ml per week) and ensure the diet provides an additional 100iu of vitamin E for every 100mls of oil fed - speak to a nutritionist for more advice
    • Anecdotally, some horses become fussier with age and may frequently change their feed preferences. Adding grated apple/ carrot, sugar beet, mint, fruit juice or fenugreek (which smells of curry!) can help to tempt reluctance appetites. In fact one study, fenugreek was ranked as the number the one flavour preferred by horses closely followed by banana and cherry (fresh cherries are poisonous to horses)!
    • Joint and/ or digestive supplements may be helpful in some horses - if you are still competing under FEI rules check that all feeds and supplements are BETA NOPS approved
    • Avoid turning arthritic horses/ ponies out on steep, uneven or heavily poached pasture
    • Older horses may find it harder to regulate their body temperature and in cold weather, may need more access to shelter and warmer rugs. Extremes of temperature are likely to affect appetite and therefore keeping horses/ ponies cool in summer months may be equally important (Cushingoid horses/ ponies may need clipping)
    • Keep an eye on herd dynamics - older horses may be more susceptible to bullying resulting in reduced food/ water access
  • Tips for Feeding Hay Replacers
    • Look for feeds that can be soaked to make a mash for those no longer able to chew short chop fibre
    • Un-molassed sugar beet can typically be fed at up to 0.5kg per 100kg bodyweight per day (dry weight) as a partial hay replacer
    • Avoid straw based products for poor doers, Thoroughbreds and horses prone to gastric ulcers or colic (particularly impaction colic)
    • Avoid dried grass products for laminitic and Cushingoid horses/ ponies
    • Divide the total ration into as many smaller servings as possible
    • Feeding hay replacers in large quantities can be daunting, particularly as we are taught to feed 'small meals'. However provided the horse/ pony is not prone to colic and the starch content is low, larger quantities are generally acceptable
    • Dividing hay replacers between several buckets may helping to encourage 'grazing' behaviour
  • Body Condition Score (BSC)
    • Body condition score regularly, aiming to maintain a score of 5 out 9. Whilst body condition scoring does not assess muscle development/ topline, a loss of muscle mass in older horses can sometimes be mistaken for lack of fat mass.
    • 'Inflamm-ageing', similar to that reported in people (a pro-inflammatory state involved in ageing and age related disease), has been shown to be exaggerated in obese horses
    • Excess weight gain increases joint & respiratory strain 
    • Weight loss may be indicative of a social (bullying) or medical problem where the horse/ pony is unable to digest or absorb nutrient or access food