Feeding Geriatrics, Athletic Horses

Feeding Geriatrics, Athletic Horses

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

David Pugh, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, ACVN, of Auburn University, spoke at the AAEP's Horseman's Day on Geriatric Nutrition. He said a geriatric is a horse over 20 years of age. "Just like us when we age, horses have problems," said Pugh. "Horses' intestines, eyes, and so on wear out. Because of the care people are providing, the potential exists for a horse to live into its 30s and 40s. I know of one stallion who is 45, and they still collect (semen from) him!"

Pugh said a body condition score tells us a horse's long-term energy intake. "I want a horse at 5-6 on a 1-9 scale," he said. "By definition, a 5 is a horse I cannot see the ribs, but I can feel them.

"Every geriatric needs an oral exam twice a year because of potential molar loss," said Pugh.

Feed for geriatric horses needs to be easy to chew and swallow. Choke is a major problem. Feed also needs to be palatable, dust-free, and provide enough energy to keep the horse at a body condition score of 5 or better. While older horses need protein, crude protein levels shouldn't exceed 12-16%. Make sure there is enough fiber for normal gut function, with adequate vitamins and minerals. (See article #4983.)

Nutrition for Athletic Horses

Nutrition is important for optimizing athletic performance in horses, said Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, at Horseman's Day. He said the main consideration is whether the diet meets the horse's nutritional needs, meaning adequate water, energy (calories), fiber, minerals (e.g. calcium), and vitamins. "For athletic horses, energy is the most important nutritional consideration," said Geor. "Energy is a measure of a feed's potential to fuel body functions."

The main sources of energy are:

  • Fermentable carbohydrates--dietary fiber or roughage that cannot be digested by the horse's enzymes, but can be fermented by microorganisms in the large intestine;
  • Oils and fats;
  • Hydrolyzable carbohydrates--simple sugars and starch digested by the horse's enzymes in the small intestine, yielding (mostly) glucose;
  • Protein--not primarily fed as an energy source because metabolism of protein to usable energy is inefficient.

The traditional diet for horses includes oats, corn, and barley. Starch (a hydrolyzable carbohydrate) is a primary component of these. Digestion of starch (mostly in the small intestine) provides glucose, an important energy source for an athletic horse. There is evidence that the horse has a limited capacity to digest and absorb starch from the small intestine. When starch is not broken down or absorbed there and escapes to the large intestine, rapid fermentation by bacteria can cause lactate accumulation, excess gas production, and increased risk of colic.

The ideal amount of dietary fat for horses has not been determined yet. Conventional horse feeds are low in fat, but fat is highly digestible and palatable. For example, greater than 90% of vegetable oils are digested in the small intestine. And, Geor added, there is no substantial change in digestibility of other nutrients even when greater than 10% of the total diet by weight is fat. The suggested upper limit of adding fat to the diet is 100 grams (a half-cup) of oil per 200 pounds of body weight per day, up to 2 1/2 cups per day for a 1,000-1,100-pound horse. If oil is added to a ration, then additional vitamin E should also be added at the rate of 200 IU vitamin E per cup of oil added. (See article #4982.)

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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