Q: My horse will be 18 years old in the new year. At what age should a horse start on senior feed?
A: There’s no correct age to start using a senior feed. Some horses never need a senior feed even into their late 20s, while others benefit from a senior feed in their early teen years.
It’s interesting to look at what defines a senior horse. You can look at age in a couple of different ways. There’s the actual age of the horse based on birthdate, and there’s also physiologic age, which relates to physiologic function. Several researchers have used 20 years as a cut-off for determining that a horse is a senior. Most of us can think of a horse or a human who seems older than their years and vice versa.
Geriatric is another term more commonly thought of when think older people. Horses can be geriatric, however the term specifically relates to diseases of the aged.
I think when it comes to deciding whether you need to feed a senior feed physiological age is more important than actual age.
If your older horse is struggling to maintain condition despite eating plenty of good quality forage, you might need to consider adding a senior feed to his diet. I strongly recommend that your senior horse be seen by your veterinarian in this situation. I’ve had clients whose older horse dropped weight quite suddenly and it turned out to be because the horse was suffering from hock pain. He was not lame but after a lot of testing he did show slight lameness on flexion tests. After being placed on appropriate medication he regained the lost weight. Similarly, there could be a dental issue that needs attention. No dietary changes will be as effective as they otherwise might be if these underlying problems are not also addressed.
If your veterinarian has determined that there are no other underlying issues that need to be addressed, consider that it could be that your senior horse’s digestive tract is no longer as effective at utilizing the nutrients available in the current diet. While relatively little research looks specifically at the nutritional needs of the senior horse, what does exist suggests that, in some cases, senior horses might require slightly higher dietary protein, as well as some trace minerals.
When you look at commercial senior feeds you’ll find most utilize easily digestible sources of forage, such as beet pulp, and have slightly higher protein and trace mineral values than feeds designed for other adult horses at maintenance. Senior feeds are usually complete feeds, meaning they contain all the forage a horse needs and therefore are designed to be fed without hay. Some are not complete, though, so read the feeding directions. Which version your horse needs will depend on your horse’s specific needs and his ability to eat other forage sources. Make sure you feed the amount as directed by the manufacturer or your horse will likely miss key nutrients.
If your senior horse can chew regular roughages and maintain condition on long-stem forage, then there’s no reason to switch to a complete senior feed. Providing a feed that complements your current forage and provides quality protein and supporting micronutrients, such as a ration balancer, will be adequate.