Older Horse: From Too Fat to Too Thin

A once-heavy senior horse is struggling to hold condition after dental work. Our nutritionist weighs in.
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Older Horse: From Too Fat to Too Thin
Once your horse is back to his ideal weight you might be able to switch back to hay and your ration balancer. | Photo: iStock

Q. Earlier this year my 20-year-old Morgan was overweight and had fat pads. My veterinarian was concerned about metabolic disease and directed me to put him on a restricted diet to help him lose weight. I stopped giving my horse beet pulp and senior feed and, instead, fed him grass hay and a ration balancer, which he didn’t really like.

Recently he stopped eating his hay. I now have an underweight horse. He was due for his annual dental visit last week, which showed he had an abscess under a tooth and cheek ulcers. Since the dental he has been on the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) firocoxhib and antibiotics, but he’s eating no better. My veterinarian says he should be eating better and that he needs to gain weight, because he’s now significantly under his ideal body weight. What should I do?

Via e-mail

A. The first thing I would suggest is to have your veterinarian reassess your horse’s mouth to ensure the antibiotics are working and that the dental work didn’t cause any additional issues. Infection is a highly metabolically demanding state, and to fight it the body needs a lot of calories. Any efforts you make to help your horse gain weight will be less effective if he has uncontrolled infection. He might also need different medication to manage his pain.

Feed Options

On the nutrition front you can do several things. Chances are it either hurts to eat or he thinks it’s going to hurt to eat, so you need to address that issue not only through veterinary treatment but also by changing what he eats.

You could try soaking his hay as this will act to soften it and will make it easier to chew. Steaming also softens hay and creates a very pleasant aroma that many horses find enticing. You can rent hay steamers for short periods of time, which you could do while his mouth is recovering. Your vet should be able to help you with the logistics for this.

Another option is to switch out some or all of his hay for hay pellets. You can feed the pellets fed wet until his mouth no longer hurts, which will hopefully only be a few days. Pellets are far easier to chew and typically better digested than hay. However, because pellets take less chewing, they can result in horses standing around for longer periods of time with nothing to eat. If you decide to keep feeding hay pellets after his mouth has healed you might look in to an automatic pellet dispenser. These feeders can be programmed to dispense a predetermined amount of feed at a set time, reducing boredom and choke risk.

You mention you used to feed beet pulp and senior feed. You might want to consider adding these back into the diet, because they are more calorie dense than the hay or hay pellets. That means he won’t need to eat as much feed to consume the same daily calorie intake, which is beneficial if eating is painful. If you feed less than the recommended amount of senior feed, you will need to keep the ration balancer in the diet to ensure his vitamin and mineral needs are met.

Many senior feeds are complete feeds, meaning that they can be fed as the only thing in the diet, with no need for additional forage. This is something else you could consider in the short term, although it’s more expensive than feeding hay pellets, beet pulp, and the ration balancer.

Try feeding several small meals throughout the day rather than two large meals, especially when feeding wet feeds in summer. Not only will this lead to better digestion, but heat can make wet feeds spoil quite quickly, and a horse with little interest in eating might leave feed sitting around.

Medications and Supplements

With the antibiotics and NSAIDS in the diet you might want to ask you veterinarian about products to help reduce the risk of gastric ulcers, and consider feeding a good pre/probiotic to support the hindgut microbial populations. Keep in mind that with the stress your horse been under with his teeth he might already have gastric ulcers. Research has shown live yeasts can help stabilize the hindgut environment and offer the bonus of improving feed utilization. They help existing bacteria to get more out of the diet, and this is beneficial for weight gain. Look for products within the region of 50 billion CFU (colony-forming units, a unit used to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample); less than this might not provide a benefit.

Keep a Close Eye

Keep a careful eye on your horse’s weight, because once he is pain free he might gain weight back quite quickly. Slow steady weight gain is best. Once your horse is back to his ideal weight you might be able to switch back to hay and your ration balancer. You don’t want to find yourself back where you were battling fat pads and worries about metabolic disease. Also talk to your veterinarian about anorexia related to metabolic disease—some metabolic horses will lose weight rather than gain it. If you do that and he starts to lose weight again it would suggest that there is something else going on besides his teeth and you should have your vet back to investigate further.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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