Weight Gain for Older Horses

There are a number of ways to add calories to an older horse's diet to help him keep his weight up.

Photo: iStock

Q. I have a 25-year-old Thoroughbred gelding that had a stroke in March 2008. Following a year of rehabilitation after losing the use of his left side, he is living a normal life again and is able to walk, trot, canter, and play in the pasture with the other horses. He did lose his sight in his left eye, though, and the left side of his mouth droops. He has always been a "hard keeper."

Currently I have him eating 4 3/4 pounds of senior feed morning and night (with about 10-12 hours between the feedings), a scoop of comprehensive wellness supplement twice a day in his feed, and all the timothy hay he wants to eat. When he is out in the pasture he has timothy hay available and some grass in the pasture, though when it's wintertime and the grass is not great, we do put out fresh hay every day for him. His teeth are checked at least twice a year and he is up-to-date with deworming and his dental work. Ideally, he still needs to gain another 50-100 pounds. Do you have any recommendations?

I am in contact with my veterinarian, who saved Bert's life when he had his stroke. We make sure that my horse has everything that he needs to live a comfortable life, but is there anything else I should discuss with my veterinarian about Bert's weight, or do you have any other recommendations to try?

Vernona Kreitz, via email

A. First of all, kudos to you and your veterinarian for giving Bert the opportunities he needs to live a full and comfortable life. However, I do think there are a few changes you could make to your geriatric horse's diet to improve his body condition. The easiest way to increase calories in his diet is to add fats; they have more than double the calories per gram than either carbohydrates or proteins. An often-palatable fat source is corn oil added to your horse's grain. You can begin with one to two ounces of corn oil per meal to see if your horse will eat his feed with the added oil, and if he finds it tasty, you can work up to two cups per day. Don't give the oil by syringe if he does not like it; instead you can try another type of oil, although research shows that horses prefer corn oil to other types. Another fat source that horses often like is rice bran, which comes in powdered or pelleted form and can be mixed in with the grain.

In addition to adding a fat source, you can increase your horse's senior feed ration. A good way to do this is to feed an extra meal during the day that contains the same amount of feed or less than the other two meals.

Other products used as weight builders include the popular beet pulp, a byproduct of sugar manufacturing. While beet pulp is a good source of fiber, it contains fewer calories than fats or cereal grains. Beet pulp should be soaked before feeding, as inadequately soaked beet pulp can cause choke (esophageal obstruction), which older horses are already prone to with their significant dental attrition (they cannot always adequately chew their food). I would, therefore, recommend adding more senior feed or corn oil instead of the beet pulp.

Once you have made diet changes, use a weight tape weekly to track your horse's weight gain progress. As you know, good dental care for the geriatric horse is essential, and ideally he should have his teeth checked every six months. Make sure your horse is able to chew and swallow his hay and that he is not simply spitting out balls of hay (quidding). If he is not actually consuming his hay, you will need to supply all of his nutrition with senior feed and the added oil.

Many old horses have a condition called equine Cushing's disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, a hormonal [endocrine] disorder that is most often caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland) that causes them to lose muscle mass, so you might want to talk to your veterinarian to determine whether your horse should be tested for this disease. I wish you continued good times with this clearly beloved horse.

About the Author

Michelle D. Harris, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM

Michelle D. Harris, VMD, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She completed an internship in large animal medicine and field service at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Massachusetts Equine Clinic, then returned to Penn Vet for a residency in large animal internal medicine. She is now a small animal practitioner at Pets First Veterinary Center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

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