Tips for Maintaining Senior Horses' Weight

Aim to keep your senior horse a body condition score of 5 to 7 on the 9-point scale.

Photo: iStock

Senior horses comprise a unique portion of the equine population, often harboring special dental and dietary needs. So, they sometimes need more help maintaining their weight than they did during their younger years. Fortunately, there are steps that can help older equids stay at a proper weight through their golden years.

During the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas, Mary Beth Gordon, PhD, director of equine research and new product development at Purina Animal Nutrition, shared how veterinarians, equine nutritionists, and owners can alter senior horse diets to maximize health and longevity, especially in the face of ailments common for this demographic.

Gordon spent a significant portion of her talk on weight loss. She noted that some older horses lose weight when offered poor- to moderate-quality hay.

“Horses were genetically designed to take poor-quality forages and thrive, which is one reason why so many horses can become overweight; however, chronic pain, poor dentition, or just ‘being old’ may impair a horse’s ability to absorb adequate calories (energy) and nutrients from forage,” Gordon said.

“Part of the reason is that as horses age they suffer ‘inflamm-aging’ which is a chronic, low-grade inflammatory state that predisposes them to age-associated diseases and increased mortality risk,” she added.

A gradual decline in immune function, called immunosenescence, goes hand-in-hand with inflamm-aging. A poorly functioning immune system puts horses at risk for infection and disease, as well as a decreased responsiveness to vaccination.

As scientists have recognized the presence of inflamm-aging and immunosenescence in older horses, they’ve studied diets that could minimize the impact of normal aging phenomena. Gordon suggested the following ways to help keep weight on senior horses:

  • If the senior horse has poor dentition, is quidding (dropping mouthfuls of poorly chewed hay from his mouth), or just unenthusiastic about consuming forage, replace his forage with complete feed and consider soaking it into a mash using warm water prior to serving.

    “Forage can simply be too variable in composition and quality for some senior horses,” she added.
  • Consider using a prebiotic product composed of “yeast fermentates” that have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • For thin older horses still in light activity, simply supply more energy. This can be achieved by feeding a good-quality forage (e.g., alfalfa) together with a senior feed additive that contains both fat and fiber.
  • Older horses with equine Cushing’s disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction or PPID) with muscle wasting can benefit from an amino acid supplement to support muscle health.

“Although weight loss is common in older horses, bear in mind that not all horses are thin,” she said. “Many senior horses are still easy keepers capable and willing to eat hay. In these cases, ensuring they maintain appropriate condition—preferably a body condition score of 5 to 7 (on the 1 to 9 scale)—by offering good-quality forage fed at 1.2-2.0% body weight can be sufficient. Especially when offered alongside a mineral supplement or ration balancer pellet.”

This won’t apply, of course, to older horses on the other end of the body condition spectrum. Instead of needing more weight, some are affected by a condition called equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), which is associated with obesity, regional fat deposition (e.g., neck and tailhead), insulin resistance, inflammation, and laminitis.

“Most horses diagnosed or presumed to have EMS are overweight,” Gordon explained. “The first step in terms of management is weight loss. This often requires taking horses and ponies off pasture or finding ways to substantially restrict intake.”

Drylots, grazing muzzles, and slow-feed haynets are beneficial not only for senior horses with EMS but also for those that are overweight and easy keepers. Such tools will keep horses happier while controlling their intake and avoiding “hangry horse syndrome.” Other tips for senior EMS horse diets include: feeding grass hay instead of legumes, soaking hay to remove excess sugar, and offering a mineral supplement or ration balancer if hay is soaked (minerals can be lost during the soaking process).

To conclude, Gordon reminded all session attendees, “There is no such thing as a healthy fat horse!”

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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