Feeding and Maintenance of the Geriatric Horse
Horses over 16 years of age are considered senior citizens. Poor dentition, arthritis, and age-related diseases such as liver or kidney
insufficiency or pituitary dysfunction (Cushing’s Disease) may cause weight loss in these older horses.
Forage (fiber) in the form of quality pasture or grass hay or mixed alfalfa and grass hay is the main focus of feeding any
horse but worn or missing teeth may prevent the older horse from chewing and digesting pasture and hay as effectively. Most
senior feeds are designed as complete feeds with high fiber and may be fed alone. Washed beet pulp supplemented senior concentrates
provide soluble fiber that attracts water into the feed and tends to moisten manure. Fiber can also be provided in pelleted form
but choke is a worry if the old guys aren’t chewing normally. Pellets may need to be soaked, or a sizeable rock placed in the feed
tub to prevent bolting of feed. Soaked alfalfa cubes in limited amount may be palatable for old horses with few teeth who can’t eat
hay at all. Alfalfa/molasses feeds are made from stemmy alfalfa and may not be as digestible for older horses. Concentrates should
not include more than 3% molasses.
Fat may be added to provide energy in the underweight horse. Begin feeding 1/4 cup canola oil or Triple Crown’s balanced oil twice
daily (working up to 1 cup twice daily if needed over three weeks time.)Do not use in older horses with liver disease. Always add
at least 400 IU Vitamin E twice daily with the oils. Most Senior feeds are at least 8 % fat. Stabilized rice bran as a fat source
does not seem to be as palatable for many horses.
Old horses with dental disease may not chew effectively and weight loss and diarrhea may result. A dental exam under sedation with a
full mouth speculum, mirror, and light is required to diagnose dental disease in older horses. X-rays may be necessary to define root
infections or periodontal disease. Loose or diseased teeth may be extracted and periodontal pockets treated.
Treatment of arthritis with anti-inflammatory pain relieving drugs may be needed, but horses must be eating and drinking well to handle
the medications. Regular slow exercise is important to maintain bone and muscle strength in older horses. Inactivity in older horses leads
to decreased bone density (osteoporosis), and they have lessened ability to rebuild bone.
Older horses with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) known as Cushing’s Disease may have
abnormal blood glucose, insulin and
cortisol metabolism. They are prone to laminitis (founder), decreased bone strength and delayed shedding
in the spring. Physical signs
and blood tests will identify these horses. Feeds should be less than 10% Nonstructural Carbohydrate (NSC=starch and sugar). Alfalfa hay
and unprocessed beet pulp should be avoided for older horses with liver or kidney disease requiring a reduced protein diet. Prescription
medication (pergolide) is required to treat this disease.
In cold weather, increase feed about 30%, primarily in the form of hay, fed at least three times daily. Offer warmed water twice daily
as well as free access to cold water. Provide shelter as needed from cold and wind in the winter and from direct sun in the summer.
Protect the older horses from younger, more aggressive eaters.
Sample Diet for Healthy Geriatric Horse in Light Use (1000 pounds)
Grass hay or mixed alfalfa/grass hay 4 pounds three to four times daily
Vitamin/mineral salt with extra phosphorus (Ranch-O-Min 1011 fed 1/2-1 Oz twice daily in feed
Regular white salt block available
Specific joint therapy or anti-inflammatories if needed
If Underweight, may add:
1/4-1 cup canola oil in feed twice daily
400 IU Vitamin E twice daily in feed
Very old horses and old horses with serious loss of teeth may need increased amounts of senior concentrate like Triple Crown Senior, Sound Starch Senior or Purina Senior. These are complete feeds and up to 5 pounds three times daily may be used in place of hay and concentrate diet.
A handful of well soaked alfalfa cubes may be added twice daily.
*Do not use an added vitamin-mineral supplement when feeding a total of 5 pounds or more of any balanced concentrate.
PPID (Cushing’s Disease) diet
Grass Hay Tested to be sure low NCS: up to 6 pounds twice daily
1/2-2 pounds Low Starch senior concentrate ( Sound Starch Senior, Triple Crown Low Starch, or Purina WellSolve), begun at 1/2 pound twice daily and working up as needed.
Corn oil 1/4 cup twice daily up to 1 cup twice daily for thin horses if liver okay
Vitamin E 400 mg twice daily
No sweet feeds or alfalfa/molasses
Pergolide to treat the pituitary gland disease directly
Anti-inflammatories and other treatment for laminitis if needed.