One in every five horses in the US is now above twenty years old. An increase in age is usually accompanied by enhanced risk of a senior horse developing a number of health problems such as dental disease, colic, equine Cushing’s disease (or pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction) and weight gain (or loss). Luckily, nutrition can help in controlling these problems. As Megan Shepherd, a qualified vet and an assistant professor at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine says, age is just a number, not a disease.
Shepherd spoke about the right feeding plans for senior horses during the Association of Equine Practitioners Convention (2016) held in Orlando, Florida from December 3rd to 7th.
Balancing Energy and Intake of Calories
While it is the recommended practice to evaluate and deal with issues to do with body condition score (BCS) whatever the age of the horse, weight management is especially crucial for senior horses. Shepherd advised that a score of five out of nine is ideal when it comes to the seniors. She added that horses without metabolic problems may have a BCS of six to cater for any weight loss in the future as a result of illness. If the horse is arthritic, a BCS score of four is satisfactory since it means there is less weight applying pressure on the joints.
Overweight and inactive seniors have fewer energy requirements when compared to hard keepers that find it difficult to control weight. Hard keepers generally benefit from diets with higher fat content with additional calories. On the other hand, overweight horses or easy keepers often do well with diets that are based on forage with an additional ration balancer.
Water is the most critical aspect of a horse’s diet. Making sure that a senior horse can readily access fresh water helps to minimize the risk of colic. Increased intake of forage increases a horse’s water requirements, particularly in winter. Look at the source and the water temperature. Shepherd advises horse owners to ensure that water is ice-free and it even can be warmed from time to time if it is possible. Horses that are suffering from pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (or PPID) have a tendency to drink more water which means they urinate more. As a result, this increases their water requirements.
High-quality forage must form the foundation of a horse’s diet. In case forage alone is insufficient to sustain the energy requirements of a senior horse, consider adding beet pulp, fat supplements, or commercial feed for seniors so that calorie intake is increased.
Normally, if forage is able to cater for the energy needs of a horse, it also meets the horse’s protein requirements. But shepherd proposes adding a ration balancer to the diet of horses that eat forage only. This ensures that they have eaten enough minerals and vitamins. When a horse drops balls of chewed hay (known as quidding), it is advisable to substitute pasture or long stem forage with cubed or soaked pelleted forage. Shepherd added that quidding is associated with dental problems; therefore it is important to take proper care of the teeth of your senior horse
Other vital nutrients
Horses that are suffering from PPID may become insulin-resistant. This means that their cells do not respond in the normal way to the insulin hormone. You, therefore, need to balance the diets of such horses carefully in order to control the intake of sugar and starch. Vitamin E is a strong antioxidant. A horse that has PPID has reduced antioxidant capability in the part of the pituitary gland known as the pars intermedia. Such a horse may benefit from being fed a vitamin E supplement. The horse may also be affected by advanced oxidative damage because of the increase in the formation of free radicals. Shepherd pointed out that as a result, it may be beneficial to give such horses more vitamin E than what is recommended.
For those horses that are suffering from joint disease, the inflammation can be reduced by giving them omega-3 fatty acids, especially marine-based DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
The Bottom Line
Irrespective of the stage in life that a horse is in, customize the diet to fit his health need and activity level. Do not forget to provide the basics like high-quality forage and clean water. You also need to enlist the services of a qualified horse nutritionist to guide you when you are planning the other part of the diet of your senior horse.
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