Nutrition for the Thriving Senior Horse

Feed, Equine Nutrition

by Steffany Dragon, MS, CESMT

In the past decade or so, the care of the Senior Horse has received considerable attention and rightfully so! There is not much dearer to the heart of a good horseman or horsewoman than taking care of his best friend as he ages.  Thankfully, we have sound science and research that gives us the opportunity to maximize the health and vitality of our Senior friends through nutrition. 

By the end of this article, you will feel empowered and satisfied that you can make a positive impact on your horse’s health today and along his journey to his/her golden years. The way each horse ages is as unique and different as how you might age compared to your friends. Various signs of aging may appear earlier for some than others. When discussing the issues one might start noticing in their Senior Horse (generally from age 15 on up) these are top of the list:

  • Losing muscle mass 
  • Trouble maintaining Body Condition (difficult to keep weight on)
  • Developing more allergies/skin conditions (linked to challenged immune system)
  • Quidding (dropping partially chewed balls of feed or hay from the mouth)
  • Becoming irritable

If you do have a Senior Horse but are not noticing any of these issues, then you are in a great position to prevent them. Certain physiological changes will be taking place as your horse ages whether they are noticeable yet or not. Research proves that as the horse ages, they become significantly less efficient and effective in the absorption and utilization of what they eat.  Just a couple culprits may be worn or missing teeth, or scar tissue in the intestines. Unfortunately, the changes occurring throughout the digestive system of the older horse result in reduced digestion and metabolism of nutrients, including protein, vitamins and minerals. Too bad we as humans can relate, right?

 So, if they are not digesting the feed we are providing, then you might be wondering what the point is to buying a premium feed. Thankfully, we have ways to significantly improve the digestive functioning of the Senior Horse through nutritional innovations that are incorporated into a Senior Feed. Not all Senior feeds are equal however, so we are going to look at the most important nutritional challenges faced by aging horses and how they are addressed. We will also use a comparison between Triple Crown Senior and Nutrena SafeChoice Senior to underscore some concepts. Below we will outline challenges/issues you might expect with your older horse with real solutions. 

Reduced Saliva Production

As horses reach their Senior years, they often chew less and produce less saliva. The digestion process starts in the mouth with both the mechanical chewing of feedstuffs but also with salivary enzymes that break it down. A practical solution to help your horse’s mealtime be more effective, enjoyable and comfortable to him is to simply think of enjoying milk & cookies! You may have already noticed your horse ‘dunks’ a mouthful of feed or hay in his water bucket. Or perhaps where he is boarded, they tell you he is a ‘slob’ and makes his water stinky. He is telling you something! He prefers his feed mushy and his hay wet. Simply spraying his hay down with water and adding water to his feed (also helps any top-dressed supplements stick to the feed) will give him the “cookie-dunking” experience he is after. This will help with older horses who cannot chew effectively and reduce quidding. If your older horse cannot chew hay, soaking Timothy or T&A pellets, cubes or chopped hay will do the trick and Senior Feeds have an option to be used as a complete feed (see feeding directions) if your senior horse can no longer graze or chew forage at all. Some horses prefer dunking their feed or hay their entire lives and I personally am in favor of the added hydration as long as there is another clean water source for drinking. Remember this time of year…Santa is not the only one who loves milk and cookies. 

Saliva is such an important buffer against stomach acid, which otherwise may cause discomfort or even ulcers. Horses only generate saliva when they chew (unlike your family dog who drools when he hears his dogfood bowl). Therefore, it is highly recommended to provide your horse ample amount of chew time grazing or munching hay in a slow feed hay net. I make sure to add a pad of alfalfa to my Senior horse’s daily diet to provide a natural source of Calcium buffer. And he loves it! 

Reduced digestion in the Small Intestine

In the older horse, grains become harder to digest in the small intestine. An important reason for this is because horses slow their production of digestive enzymes with age. These enzymes are important for breaking down feed into components in the small intestine that are then absorbed into the bloodstream to be effectively utilized by the body. Protein for example, must be broken down into Amino Acids in order to be utilized to make muscle. So, this lack of protein digestion leads to one of the visible signs mentioned above- losing muscle mass

When the small intestine cannot effectively breakdown these grains, they pass into the hindgut and you may even see them whole, in your horse’s feces. Feed passing undigested to the hindgut is a common cause of colic or laminitis. Triple Crown Senior has spent a considerable amount of research and time developing a proprietary blend of guaranteed digestive enzymes and ingredients to optimize intestinal tract function, increase the health of the gut lining and even protect against leaky gut syndrome. 

There may also be increased concern for metabolic issues in the older horse, so lower levels of non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) are a very important consideration when choosing a feed. Triple Crown Senior has 11.7% NSC while SafeChoice Senior feed has 20% NSC. Triple Crown Feed also took the added step to ensure all of their feed is CORN FREE. If we decrease the amount of calorie packed carbohydrates in your horse’s diet, then what do we replace them with? Fiber (which is digested in the hindgut) is one super and safe option. You will notice the higher content of Fiber in Senior Feeds for this reason.  For example, Triple Crown Senior has 17% Crude Fiber and SafeChoice Senior has 16%.

This sounds like a great solution; however, most Fiber contains much fewer calories on a per pound basis than… let’s say, corn or oats. Didn’t we just state above that maintaining weight on older horses can be a challenge? Yes, but again…we’ve got solutions!  

There are two ways to address this:

  1. Use a High Quality Fiber ingredient. Beet Pulp fits the bill here. This unique fiber so  is almost as calorie dense as oats. This is why most Senior Feeds include it. Unlike the pelleted version in SafeChoice Sr, Triple Crown Senior provides it shredded, giving your horse the digestive benefits of long fibers. In addition, Triple Crown guarantees the same amount of high quality fiber from Beet Pulp in every bag with fixed formulas. SafeChoice Senior does not.
  2. Make up lost calories with another safe calorie source: Fat. This isn’t the type of fat you expect from fast food joints, rather it is Fat from high quality flaxseed meal, fresh ground flax or vegetable oil, and stabilized rice bran in preferred Omega Fatty Acid 3:6 ratios. Both Triple Crown Senior and SafeChoice Senior have higher fat levels, 10% and 8% respectively to achieve this. With the correct ratio of Omega Fatty Acids, your horse will benefit on the inside with decreased inflammation and visibly bloom with a shiny coat.

Tip:  Adding corn oil to a horse’s feed is generally a thing of the past. Why? The Omega 3:6 ratio is far from ideal and can actually cause inflammation. When working with trainers trying to get their horses conditioned on a very tight budget, I would switch them from Corn Oil to Canola Oil at the very least. My personal favorite source for adding even extra Omegas for my horse’s skin issues is Triple Crown Naturals Golden Ground Flax, formerly known as Omega Max. 

          [If you like the idea of high fiber, high fat and low starch feed, check out Triple Crown’s other diets.]

Insufficient Vitamin and Mineral Absorption

Organic minerals are important because they offer increased bioavailability and they improve mineral absorption without negatively interacting with other minerals. Good to Know: In the list of ingredients in premium Senior Feeds, you will not only see the Oxide and Sulfate forms of the mineral (Iron Sulfate) but you will also see “Iron Amino Acid Complex”, or “Zinc Methionine Complex”, which is indicative of this higher quality organic (and much more expensive) form of the mineral.
In addition, Triple Crown Senior feed added a new innovation in slow-release organic minerals to copper, zinc, and manganese, making them available at the right time for absorption in the small intestine. You will see it listed in the ingredients for example, as Zinc Hydroxychloride. All of that may sound rather technical but advances in the area of mineral absorption and its journey to your horse’s feed bucket will be of great benefit to your horse’s health and worth the added dollar! 

Reduced Hindgut Efficiency & Immune System

The hindgut is not immune to the challenges of aging. Speaking of “immune”, having a healthy gut lining through the digestive tract and a robust number of beneficial bacteria are critical components of a healthy immune system. In order to create and maintain an optimum environment in the hind gut of the horse, premium feed companies have added pre and probiotics to their premium and super-premium feeds. No surprise, Triple Crown Feeds not only went beyond the minimum effective strains and colonies but also took a proactive approach to protecting gut health in a few innovative ways: 

  • Triple Crown Senior contains a patented strain of Bacillus subtilis, a unique, naturally occurring probiotic that helps maintain a horse’s appetite while assisting in protecting against Clostridia and Salmonella, two harmful bacteria and cause of diarrhea. 
  • In addition to hydrolyzed yeast based prebiotics that other feed companies also utilize, Triple Crown Senior strategically added Mannan Oligosaccharide (MOS) prebiotics because they are unique in neutralizing various forms of mycotoxins, toxic compounds from mold that may be found in hay.
  • Last but not least, Triple Crown feeds have the health of your horse’s hindgut covered with a new combination of zinc and butyric acid that actually strengthens the lining of the gut, to further improve nutrient absorption and create a stronger barrier against pathogens and parasites.

Even the fact that you are reading this article means you are committed to achieving the BEST health possible for your horse. A quality Senior horse feed truly does have ‘bells and whistles’ but sometimes that is what makes all the difference.