Feeding the senior members of our equine family takes thought and preparation to maintain vitality and reduce health problems.
Challenges facing older horses include:
Worn or missing teeth
Attention to dental health is very important for these guys. But even if they have few or no teeth left you can feed them well. Fiber is the name of the game as the horse with poor dentition is going to find it hard to eat hay. Make sure they get enough fiber from other, easier to chew sources such as soaked hay cubes and pellets, plus sugar beet pulp and soy hulls in the diet.
An aging gastrointestinal tract may not digest feed quite as well as it did when they were younger. Pre-cooked feeds such as extruded feed and/or pellets are far more digestible than uncooked plain grains.
Risk of insulin resistance
The gradual loss of neurons in the brain (specifically in the hypothalamus) means an overproduction of certain hormones. The practical result of this for the horse is the development of the condition known as Cushing's disease, along with all of its complications, including the tendency for overproduction of ACTH. ACTH is the hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids, causing the horse to become insulin resistant and to lose muscle mass in the big muscles of the back.
Weakened immune system
The steroid hormones also interfere with the immune system, resulting in a decreased ability to resist infections and a delayed response to healing.
For the horse owner, the most important symptom is the resistance to insulin, as this can cause the horse to become likely to get laminitis and founder. To counteract this acquired insulin resistance, keep starch and sugar out of the senior equine's diet, feed feeds that are high in fiber and add extra calories in the form of fats, which can be found in oil seeds rather than grains.
The loss of muscle mass can be minimized by feeding high quality protein or by giving a supplement with essential amino-acids in it, as this will prevent the breakdown of the muscle tissue.
Give the older horses a good mineral/vitamin supply in the form of a quality supplement. The acquired insulin resistance that the older horse develops can be partially counteracted by extra magnesium and chromium in the diet.
SYMPTOMS HANDLED NUTRITIONALLY BY:
Loss of teeth, hence loss of weight
Soaking hay cubes, or feeding sugar beet pulp or soy hulls
Loss of back muscle
Feeding essential amino acids
Heavy hair coat, no summer shedding
Feeding amino acids, fat and chasteberry
Abnormal fat pads on neck and shoulders
Feeding extra magnesium and chromium
Tendency to founder
Feeding extra magnesium and chromium; also feeding herbals that can help with glucose uptake, such as cinnamon
Poor hoof growth
Feeding extra amino acids, B vitamins and minerals
Digestive difficulty, weight loss
Feeding cooked feeds, extruded or pelleted feeds
Based in Staunton, VA, Melyni Worth, PhD, PAS, works as a consultant and writer in equine nutrition and exercise physiology. Her company Foxden Equine specializes in products that assist horses and riders to attain and maintain athletic performance. Contact her through www.foxdenequine.com