Aged Horses Have Special Needs
STILLWATER - Requests for recommendations about nutrition and feeding guidelines for older horses are on the rise. Aged horses seem to be growing in popularity, particularly among hobby horse enthusiasts, said Dave Freeman, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service equine specialist.
"That's the reason for the increased number of requests, and the reason why feed manufacturers have increased the number of formulations designed specifically for older horses," Freeman said. Nutrition is extremely important to combat loss of weight and condition as a horse ages. The natural aging process causes older horses to become less active, less efficient in digesting foodstuffs and have a reduced appetite. Aged horses also are stressed more easily.
"Horse managers should take a three-prong approach to nutritional management: optimize intake, optimize digestion and reduce animal stress," Freeman said. Palatability of the ration is important. Horses prefer immature pasture forages rather than stemmy, mature grass. Similarly, different grain formulations and the physical form of grain mixes influence the desire to eat. Many older horses prefer pelleted or extruded forms of grain mixes rather than whole grain diets.
"This desire may be related more to dental condition than anything else, as extruded or pelleted feeds may be chewed more easily," Freeman said. Also, older horses may not want to eat as much at one time as younger animals. "Commonly fed levels of fresh, high-quality grain may need to be split into more frequent feedings throughout the day if grain cannot be left in feed bunks because of competition from other horses," Freeman said.
Since depressed appetite may affect the adequate intake of nutrients, it is recommended that total rations provide at least 12 percent protein, 0.3 percent calcium, and 0.25 percent phosphorus. "Be aware that energy density requirements may increase, so more grain as a portion of the diet may have to be fed," Freeman said. "The inclusion of fat-added grain mixes is another popular way to increase energy intake without feeding large amounts of ration."
Some horse managers who do not use commercial grain products designed for older horses meet additional nutrient needs by feeding more legume hay as a portion of the forage, or by switching to a grain mix formulated for horses in heavy states of production or growth. "At some point, older horses will lose their pecking order in the herd," Freeman said. "Younger horses may drive them away from feed, or they many not eat as readily as other horses."
Freeman recommends older equines be grouped with less competitive horses, or be split off into a separate group comprised entirely of aged horses during feeding periods. Environmental extremes also will increase stress. Older horses should have access to shelter that provides adequate protection from cold, wet or excessively hot weather.
Health programs also must be maintained. Hoof care and frequent health examinations become increasingly important as a horse ages, as does dental care. "Good dental care can affect intake, digestion and stress reduction," Freeman said. "Loose, damaged teeth, uneven wear, sharp points and missing teeth are common occurrences in older horses."
An equine veterinarian can provide advice on specific dental care needs and the frequency of examinations after an initial inspection of the horse. Freeman said some equines age well with respect to dental needs, while stablemates of similar age may need dental care several times a year.
Additional information on equine management is available on the Internet by accessing http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/exten/ or in hard copy form by contacting the local Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service office, usually listed under county government in local directories.