Feeding the Picky Senior Horse

Is your senior horse a picky eater? Be sure he has regular veterinary dental examinations and consider changing his forage or concentrate feed.
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senior horse; old horse; old; senior; keeping senior horses happy
Regularly assess your senior horse’s body condition to be sure his current diet is meeting his nutritional needs. | iStock

Q: I have a 22-year-old Appaloosa gelding that I trail ride on the weekends, and we compete in five or six local shows during the summer. In the past year he’s become more of a hard keeper and, to top it off, he’s picky about his grain and hay. His teeth have been floated and he has no known dental issues. Given his age, would a senior feed or performance horse feed be more appropriate for him?

A: An aging horse’s needs can change considerably over a relatively short period of time, so it is especially important to regularly assess his body condition, appetite, and overall soundness. It sounds like you are doing exactly that because you have recently noticed he is no longer maintaining body condition as easily as he once did. If it has been more than six months since your horse’s last dental exam, it’s time to schedule one with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Older horses often need more than an annual dental exam to catch potential problems early. For example, the progressive and painful condition of the incisors known as equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH), is more commonly diagnosed in senior horses and can result in weight loss if dental pain leads to reduced feed intake. 

Once dental care is covered, you will likely need to increase your horse’s daily calorie intake. Feeding your horse forages and concentrates with higher caloric density can help him gain weight. Higher-calorie forages include alfalfa hay and high-quality grass hay. Incorporating these into your horse’s daily forage ration is a good place to start. Be sure to feed enough forage—at least 2% of the horse’s body weight per day (free choice is ideal)—when feeding for weight gain. Adding a senior or performance horse concentrate feed higher in fat (10% or more) and calories will also help with weight gain.  

Follow the feeding instructions on the tag based on his body weight and activity level, and you can even feed according to a higher activity level if he needs more calories. Some senior feeds have added technologies that benefit aging horses, such as extra ingredients for gastric and immune support, and are worth considering for your horse. When choosing a senior horse feed to provide alongside forage, be sure to select a senior concentrate feed (designed to be fed along with hay) and not a senior complete feed (designed to be fed with or without hay) because senior complete feeds tend to be less calorie dense.

If there is any concern your horse cannot chew and/or digest hay efficiently, then you might need to fully or partially replace his hay with a complete feed. Traditional senior complete feeds intended to be fed as the sole ration are typically designed to be easier to chew and digest. You’ll know it’s time to transition to a complete feed when your horse struggles to maintain good body condition despite having access to plenty of high-quality forage and being fed adequate amounts of a higher-calorie concentrate feed.

When dealing with a picky horse, you may need to get creative and be flexible to find a ration your horse enjoys. If he is particular about his hay, try changing (gradually, of course) to a different variety or to one with a different texture (i.e., softer and less stemmy). If he is picky about his grain meals, you may need to experiment with various feeds that have different textures or grain inclusion rates. Horses tend to prefer feeds with at least some added molasses, and some refuse to eat pelleted feeds but enjoy feeds with more texture from added beet pulp or grains. You could try mixing in a small amount of something a little tastier (i.e., sweet feed) with his pelleted meals.

Every horse is an individual, and your horse’s needs and preferences will likely continue to evolve as he ages. Keeping a close eye on your older horse’s overall health status and making necessary adjustments when needed is the best way to ensure you will have many more good years together. You are certainly on the right track to do just that!


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Written by:

Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD, is a senior nutritionist in equine technical solutions with Purina Animal Nutrition. She consults with veterinarians, professional riders, and horse owners across the United States and is directly involved with new product innovation, research, and technical support at Purina. Vineyard earned her BS in animal and dairy sciences from Auburn University and her MS and PhD in animal sciences from the University of Florida. Her doctorate research focused on the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on immune function in horses. Vineyard is a frequent lecturer on equine nutrition topics, with expertise in omega-3 fatty acids, immune function, and performance horse nutrition. She is an avid dressage rider and is proud to have earned her USDF bronze and silver medals on an off-track Thoroughbred.

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