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Feeding Elderly Horses and Ponies -

Do we really need special feeds for older horses and ponies?
By Nicola Tyler B.Sc. (Hons), Senior Nutritionist, TopSpec Equine Limited

Before we can answer that question we need to define what we mean by elderly in the equine sense. Just like humans horses vary enormously in the rate at which they age. Some horses may be retired at sixteen and show clear signs of aging whilst others may remain fit, active and in work into their twenties or even thirties.

It would seem reasonable to say that on average one could consider a horse to be old at either twenty years of age or when he shows signs of aging, whichever comes first.

What are the signs of aging and how should they influence what we feed?

From a feeding point of view the most important sign of aging is the state of the horses teeth. It is common to find older horses with teeth problems including missing teeth and excessively worn teeth. Whilst an annual visit from a good equine dentist or vet is essential to correct uneven wear and misalignment they cannot replace badly worn or missing teeth.

Horses and ponies with these sort of dental problems are not able to chew long fibre properly and should not be fed straw or straw-based chops because they will not be broken down adequately before entering the gut and could cause impaction colic. Even hay can become a problem for elderly horses but it is very important to maintain good levels of fibre intake not only to aid digestion and keep the hindgut stable but also because fibre digestion provides internal warmth for horses. Luckily the modern horse owner is blessed with a host of alternatives to hay or haylage. Chopped forages such as Dengie Alpha-A or Spillers Readigrass are ideal sources of fibre but should even these become hard to eat high fibre nuts such as Dodson and Horrell's pasture nuts can be soaked for one to three hours before feeding to provide an excellent forage substitute. Soaking the nuts not only makes them easier to eat it also eliminates the risk of whole nuts being swallowed and causing choke. In the old days we often used to turn to soaked beet pulp for our pensioners and it remains one of the best value for money forage substitutes available.

If your horse is still coping with hay then it is important to remember that because the fibre has not been chewed effectively it cannot be digested efficiently. This means that your horse will not be absorbing as many nutrients from the hay as he could when he was younger and so extra nutrients must be supplied from either forage substitutes or hard feed.

Elderly horses will have been exposed to dust and spores for a long time and may have some airway disease. As they age the mucous secretions from the airway linings become thicker and therefore harder to get rid of so it is advisable to soak all hay and dampen all feed from this point of view as well.

The best way to minimize problems caused by airway disease is to keep horses turned out in good weather but again there is a second and very important reason for doing this. As horses age they naturally become less active. This in turn will lead to muscle wastage, poor circulation, weakening of bone, stiffness and possibly arthritis. Exercise will help to slow these changes so allow horses as much turnout as possible even turning them out for a hour or more in the depths of winter will help, providing they are kept warm and dry with an appropriate rug. Light ridden exercise will also benefit sound animals.

Because old horses and ponies will have been exposed to parasites for a long time one invisible effect of aging that could occur is damage to the gut wall. This results in a reduced area of gut wall to absorb nutrients, which in turn means that the horse will obtain fewer nutrients from his forage and hard feed than he could before. This situation is often made worse by other invisible changes to a horse's internal systems and metabolism.

Old age may also reduce the strength of a horse's immune system so the ration must contain optimum levels of micronutrients and probiotics substances may be beneficial.

It would be wrong to be dogmatic about the nutrient requirements of old horses because there has not been a wealth of research in this area. There is however sufficient evidence that both protein and phosphorus utilisation is impaired to recommend that elderly horses need a higher level of these nutrients than would be supplied in horse and pony nuts for example.

A slight increase in calcium level may also be beneficial and there is a little indirect evidence that vitamin C and folic acid should be included in the ration of elderly horses and ponies.

Special feeds for old horses and ponies are therefore not just a marketing gimmick, the combined effect of some or all of the results of aging plus the possibility of chronic disease does justify a gradual change from a working (or breeding) product to one designed with aged horses and ponies in mind. In addition to paying particular attention to all the nutrients mentioned above the product should contain nutrients in their most-available form and ideally some substances with a probiotic effect to help digestion as well as the immune system.

It may not be necessary to feed any concentrates to elderly horses at grass if grazing conditions are ideal and providing they can eat enough and chew it reasonably well.

However, hay or haylage alone will not provide enough nutrients for old horses and forage substitutes are unlikely to, so concentrates must be provided to supply essential nutrients. Coarse mixes are popular for old horses and two good products are Dodson and Horrell's Sixteen Plus or Spillers Golden Years. If you prefer to feed nuts remember to soak them until they are all soft. If you do not feed the full recommended rate of compound feed remember to top up with a fully comprehensive supplement.

An alternative way of feeding old horses and ponies is to use a balancer. The small pellet size of most balancers is ideal for old horses and eliminates the need to soak the feed. Most balancers have raised levels of protein, calcium and phosphorus and they may include one or more probiotic substances. The best balancers also have concentrated levels of micronutrients in highly available forms. They can be used to balance forage or forage substitutes, allowing the horse in old age to have a more natural way of feeding, with lots of forage and very little concentrate. This is particularly useful for overweight pensioners and those prone to laminitis. For those at the other end of the scale the addition of soya or corn oil to their ration will help them to gain condition, which is particularly important in winter to help keep them warm.

Nicola Tyler B.Sc. (Hons) TopSpec Equine Limited Advice Line 01270 624095 TopSpec products that are suitable for feeding to older horses and ponies include: -
TopSpec Feed Balancer
TopSpec.comprehensive supplement