The health and wellbeing of older horses are important issues for horse owners as these horses are often viewed as valued family members.
There are many different criteria used to determine when a horse is considered an "older horse". One of the most important criteria is when we find that changes in the horse's ability to chew pasture or hay mean that certain feed options are no longer an option and we need to consider alternatives for our old friend. One of the most common signs that our horse is having trouble chewing is what is known as quidding, i.e. spitting out unchewed hay. Examination by a veterinarian can then confirm that the condition of the teeth requires adjustments to the fibre sources.
Alternative options for raw fibre sources
Here is a small but fine selection of alternative raw fibre sources for horses with limited chewing ability.
There are now a variety of feeds for older horses that can be fed as a complete feed. These feeds are equipped with sufficient fibre to maintain intestinal warmth and provide the energy required for a balanced diet, as well as the necessary proteins, minerals and vitamins. Such feeds usually also contain additional prebiotics and probiotics to help improve gut health. For horses with extremely bad teeth, these feeds can also be made into a pulp to make consumption even easier.
Grass pellets or lucerne products
Grass pellets or products made from dehydrated alfalfa are also good sources of fibre for older horses because they require minimal chewing. (However, the ingredients are not to be regarded as a fully balanced ration, which is why they should rather be seen as additional feed.) They can also be soaked to form an easily consumable gruel for horses with limited chewing ability.
Diet balancer products go well with these types of products because they provide the extra amino acids, minerals, and vitamins necessary for a balanced diet.
Beet pulp is a highly digestible source of fibre and a good source of calories. Beet pulp is not a balanced ration, but it can be added to a diet to provide energy. Beet pulp pellets or beet pulp can also be soaked for easier consumption.
Soy husks are also a good, easily digestible source of fibre. However, soy husks are more likely to be used as part of feed for older horses than they are to be offered as a separate product.
Know when to change your diet
Monitoring the body condition score and the topline evaluation score can help determine what changes in overall nutrition a horse may need. For example, a decreasing body condition score tells us that our older horse needs more calories. The loss of muscle mass indicates that we need a better amino acid profile in the animal's diet.
Salt and water requirements
Senior horses also need access to salt, preferably loose salt, as well as free access to fresh, clean water. Water temperature is important for older horses, as water that is too cold can cause discomfort with badly worn teeth and limit water intake, which can contribute to other problems such as colic.
As you can see, not only is the provision of a suitable source of crude fibre an important management tool for healthy older horses. They also need special attention in other ways so that any indications of malnutrition can be responded to quickly. However, if we take care of it, our old friends will have long and happy lives.