Feeding Older Horses

Often as horses age, they lose weight due to dental problems – teeth wear down from a lifetime of chewing hay, misalignment, deterioration. One of the best things that you can do for your horse’s health is to have his teeth examined regularly by your veterinarian, as part of a yearly health checkup. Just like with people, preventative care is the best. And horses that are in their teens and older will benefit greatly from dental care. Your veterinarian can make recommendations on the care and feeding of your older horse.

At Equine Spirit Sanctuary, we have three older horses (around 30 years old). All three are in good physical condition, maintaining their weight well. One has had regular dental care for most of his life and his teeth are in good enough shape that he can still eat hay as his primary roughage. The other two like to chew hay, but their teeth are so worn down in back that they cannot chew it well enough to swallow it, so after chewing on a mouthful of hay, they’ll drop big wads of it out on the ground. These two are maintained on a diet of mash.

Basic soft diet mash for our older horses:
40% beet pulp pellets
30% alfalfa pellets
30% equine senior pellets (we use Purina Senior)

This is mixed twice daily, with water to make a soft mash. I mix up the next feeding immediately after feeding (mix dinner after feeding breakfast, mix breakfast after feeding dinner). That allows several hours in between feedings for the mixture to soak. I mix about 1/3 of the pellets with 2/3 water to get the desired consistency – not too watery, but not too thick. I mix this up in a big tub, then divide it into individual feeding pans for each horse. Just before feeding, I add any supplements (Platinum Wellness Joint supplement to one horse’s, Dac oil, any medications or other special needs). The basic mash can be fed in small amounts every couple of hours to a horse that is very thin and needs to put on weight. For maintenance, they get two regular meals of day and one small meal in between. For one horse, the amount of pellets (prior to mixing with water) is about a 1 pound coffee can full of beet pulp, 2/3 can alfalfa pellets, and 2/3 can equine senior). This amount is adjusted depending on the size of the horse and frequency of feeding.

The mash pellets are available at most feed stores. You can also buy shredded beet pulp, which will soften to feed in a short time (10 minutes max). The shredded costs a bit more than the hard pellets, but soften much more quickly. The hard pellets contain minimal sugar, less than the shredded, so if a horse has had founder or other metabolic issues in the past, the pelleted beet pulp is preferable.

There are other things can cause an older horse to lose weight, regardless of what he is being fed. Things like ulcers, metabolic disease (Cushings, insulin-related disorders, thyroid tumors). Your veterinarian can best advise you on these things.

Feeding your horse a diet that he can readily chew and digest is important, but it’s just a part of the overall picture. An old horse does not have to be a thin horse. He can be fit, healthy, comfortable and happy with the appropriate care. After a lifetime of service, these old guys deserve to be treated with a little extra love and attention, not just turned out to pasture and forgotten about.