Senior Feeds: Not Just for Old Horses

Senior Feeds: Not Just for Old Horses

The off-track, "hard keeper" Thoroughbred is often a prime candidate for a senior feed diet.

Photo: iStock

Don't balk at the S-word on the feed label—it might be just what your adult horse needs.

An anxious and ambitious new horse owner just adopted her first off-track Thoroughbred, a gangly 16.2-hand, 6-year-old bay gelding with a perfect star and four white socks. After he ships into her boarding barn, she quickly calls an equine nutritionist for feeding advice. Her new project seems to eat eagerly, but the adoption center labeled him as a “hard keeper.” 

Imagine her shock when the nutritionist recommends a senior horse feed. “What place could a senior feed have in my horse’s feeding program?” she wonders aloud. She—and you—might be surprised to find out just how useful a senior feed can be in younger horses.

The "Senior" Formula

Age is more than just a number. Although we’re often quick to classify a 20-year-old horse as “old,” many remain healthy and active well into their mid- to upper 20s. Over the last two decades, research in this area has exposed several unique age-related physical changes and diseases that have led to the development of a feed category known as senior feeds. These target all types of older horses, from the active senior to the retired pasture pet. 

Nutritionists consider many ailments that come with age. Age-related physical changes can be common in senior horses, including loss of body condition and muscle mass. Dental impairments can make it difficult for horses to consume enough fiber, which is crucial for gastrointestinal health. Diseases, such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (equine Cushing’s disease) and recurrent airway obstruction (RAO, or heaves), can lead to specific dietary restrictions. Knowing all this, senior feeds are typically formulated to be easily digestible with high-quality ingredients. Because hyperglycemia (elevated blood glucose levels) and hyperinsulinemia (elevated blood insulin levels) are components of Cushing’s disease, it’s important to feed a limited amount of sugar and starch, as they can further increase blood glucose. The guaranteed analysis and ingredients for a bag of senior feed will likely include the following:

  • Moderate calories, mainly from fat and fiber sources;
  • High-quality protein sources for muscle condition;
  • High fiber to allow for dental issues; 
  • Increased phosphorus due to possible declines in horses’ ability to digest;
  • Increased vitamins for immune support, such as vitamin E or C; and
  • A processed form, either pelleted or extruded, to help increase nutrient digestion.

When dental issues limit the amount of forage a horse can consume, some senior feeds also provide the necessary daily fiber they need (complete feeds). These are designed to be fed with or without hay in amounts necessary to ensure proper gastrointestinal health and function.

Case(s) in Point

Let’s take a look at ways you can incorporate senior feeds into nonsenior horse diets:

“I once worked with a trainer who had a 6-year-old Warmblood gelding in basic dressage training,” says Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS, of Liburt Equine Nutritional Consulting, in Smithtown, New York. “The horse had frequent bouts of colic, and his overall muscle tone was simply not developing as it should have been. In addition, this horse was dealing with some allergy and coughing issues. I recommended she switch his diet from the pelleted maintenance feed he was getting to a beet-pulp-based, high-fat senior feed. The senior feed was less dusty, which helped with the coughing. After taking a few weeks to change the diet completely, the issues with colic virtually disappeared, and he actually started to gain some weight.”

As a nutritionist, I often recommend a senior feed for off-track Thoroughbreds in their new careers as sport horses. Thoroughbreds are notoriously hard keepers, sensitive to dietary starch and sugar, and commonly have ulcers or other digestive issues. My own Thoroughbred came to me in March 2015 in poor condition with a body condition score of 3 (on a 9-point scale). Eating a senior feed and good-quality forage, he was able to gain weight and muscle without adverse behavioral effects and, after eight weeks, was at a healthy weight.

The New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program website (horseadoption.com/­thoroughbred-training-tips) sums up feeding these horses well: “Talk to your local feed store, and select a high-fiber, high-fat, low-sugar, low-starch feed—if you stuff me with sugar and starch, I’m going to behave like a 5-year-old that just ate a whole box of Twinkies.”

Editor's note: When the author's horse came to her with a body condition score of 3, she put him on a senior feed to gain weight. Even after three weeks, you colud see a noticeable difference in his condition.

Photo: Courtesy Kristen Janicki

Going Senior-Blind

Walk into any large commercial horse barn, and you’re likely to find the scenario above: a senior feed being fed to a nonsenior adult horse. What’s up with that? 

It’s true; there are numerous benefits to feeding grain formulated for seniors to those shorter in the tooth. “Just because a product is labeled ‘senior’ doesn’t mean that your horse has to be elderly to consume it,” says Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS, of Liburt Equine Nutritional Consulting, based in Smithtown, New York. “The most important thing here is to evaluate the horse’s dietary needs, then look for a guaranteed analysis that takes care of those needs—forget about the name on the bag!” Let’s break down a typical senior feed tag and discuss its potential benefits for other horses.

Calories Calorie content varies among senior feeds, but it typically averages around 1,200-1,300 calories per pound. Fat and fiber contribute most to total calories, which also keeps sugar and starch levels lower. Veterinarian Pedro De Pedro, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, now an assistant professor at Ross University's School of Veterianary Medicine, in St. Kitts, West Indies, likes to recommend senior feeds for just that reason. “A senior feed contains lower levels of soluble carbohydrates (e.g., sugar and starch) and higher fiber, allowing the gastrointestinal tract to perform better,” he says. 

A peek at the ingredient list will show highly digestible fiber sources such as beet pulp, soybean hulls, and alfalfa meal. Rice bran, flaxseed, and soybeans provide great sources of fat. Horses that benefit from such ingredients include those that:

  • need lower levels of soluble carbohydrates due to risk of laminitis or metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance;
  • are prone to muscle conditions such as tying-up or PSSM
  • are nervous or “hot”;
  • have digestive issues (e.g., ulcers, colic);
  • are primarily performance horses. De Pedro says feeding a senior feed can increase a horse’s stamina, meaning he’ll be able to perform for a longer period before fatigue sets in; and
  • are hard keepers or need to gain weight. Liburt says, “I find that senior-types of feeds often fit the bill for hard keepers, or very skinny horses that need to build muscle and gain weight no matter what their age.” 

Protein A senior feed’s crude protein can range from 12% to 14% and should be formulated with high-quality sources such as soybeans and distillers’ dried grains. Both are digestible sources of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, necessary to help support tissue development and repair, including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Types of horses that can benefit from this include:

  • Performance horses, especially at the beginning of a training program or after a layup. Liburt likes to recommend a senior-type feed specifically for younger horses beginning their training (2 to 8 years old, depending on breed, discipline, and training schedule). “A senior feed will provide a consistent protein source that will help support growth and muscle development,” she says. 
  • Horses consuming a lower-protein forage. Grain-derived forages, such as oat hay, typically contain less than 10% crude protein and won’t provide the amino acids needed to satisfy daily requirements.

Antioxidants The fat-soluble vitamin E and water-soluble vitamin C serve as antioxidants, which defend against cell damage. Vitamin E is derived from dietary sources such as vegetable oils. Although equids can synthesize vitamin C in the liver, there are possible benefits to supplementation in the diet. Horses that potentially benefit from additional antioxidants include: 

  • Performance horses. There is evidence that vitamin E supplementation can help reduce oxidative damage in skeletal muscles during exercise, especially for horses in heavy work or training. Also, endurance-type exercise might increase the horse’s need for vitamin C beyond what the liver can produce. 
  • Frequent travelers. Vitamin C supplementation enhances the body’s antibody response to vaccines, which can mean less chance for illness developing in horses shipping or trailering frequently for shows, trail rides, racing, or sales. 
  • Horses prone to tying-up or exercise-induced myopathy benefit from higher dietary vitamin E levels;
  • Sick horses. Those affected by diseases (e.g., strangles, influenza) or any condition that compromises the liver’s ability to function properly (e.g., hepatitis) might benefit from additional vitamin C.

Beyond the guaranteed analysis, the form of the feed itself can help horses get the most out of their grain. Pellets and extruded kibbles are more digestible than whole grains, can prevent horses from sorting ingredients with their lips, and typically have a longer shelf life than sweet or texturized feeds. 

When Senior Feeds Don't Fit the Bill

Although it might sound like you can offer senior feeds to any variety of horses, they do have their limitations. Senior feeds won’t meet certain horses’ nutritional demands and shouldn’t be used exclusively unless instructed to do so by a veterinarian or nutritionist. These horses include:

Young, growing horses Youngsters require detailed levels of amino acids and minerals, such as lysine (an amino acid that will limit growth and development), calcium, and phosphorus, for proper development. While some senior formulas do contain added lysine, it might not be enough to meet a growing horse’s requirements. Young, growing horses require about a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, and most senior products on the market today contain at least a 1:1 ratio. So, meeting the growing horse’s daily requirements with these feeds, even when accompanied by a good-quality forage, could be challenging.

Performance horses in heavy, intense work “Activities such as Quarter Horse racing and barrel racing require quick energy and, therefore, more soluble carbohydrates in the diet,” says De Pedro. Sugar and starch not only serve as the primary carbohydrate source for these activities but also help replenish muscle glycogen (the storage form of energy) afterward. Depending on the individual formulation, senior feeds might not be able to provide the necessary calories or soluble carbohydrates vital for this type of performance. 

Take-Home Message

Although apprehensive, our new horse owner found that her OTTB gobbled up every morsel of senior feed in his bucket and over time showed vast improvements in his topline, body condition, and coat shine. Performance horses, those with special dietary needs, such as tying-up, and “hard keepers” like our bay gelding example will benefit from these specialized formulas with lower soluble carbohydrates, higher fat, and digestible fiber sources. Work with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist to see if a senior feed is the right choice for your feeding program. 

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More