It’s a struggle horse owners share with their equine seniors: What to feed older horses to gain more weight?
In horses, skinny and seniors seem a natural pair.
Until you see 40-year-old Sarge’s video.
At 40 years of age—roughly 120 in human years—Sarge, an appaloosa was rescued from a kill pen when he was 35. Compare his pictures below.
Sarge before credit: horse and man
Sarge after credit: horse and man
Moral of the story: old horses aren’t supposed to be skinny. Although some broodmares may look thin on the topside, the fats may hang below.
Now, if you want to know what to feed older horses to gain more weight, know first why your senior is losing weight. Or isn’t gaining.
Start by classifying what kind of feeder your horse is. Normally, old feeders fit into two categories:
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Could your Horse Be Geriatric?
We know them as the hard keepers or horses with clinical problems.
“A geriatric horse is actually a sick old horse. So, I think it’s most relevant for horse owners to classify individual aged horses based on how well they maintain condition,” says Joe Pagan, PhD, president of Kentucky Equine Research to the Horse, a publication for equine healthcare.
How to put weight on a horse in poor condition can be challenging. They have special needs. Still, even geriatrics can get all the help they need to pack on some pounds.
Rule out any Health Problems
The first wise move is to have him undergo a physical exam, including a complete blood profile to rule out any serious health concerns. Cancer, for instance, causes horses to lose weight all over.
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Could your Horse be a Regular Senior?
Except for the dip in the back, lips, thinning top line and less bounce to his step your main concern is your horse doesn’t look plump.
Could it be from insufficient calorie intake?
Could it be psychological or environmental?
Our bodies change with age, as do horses. Aside from their diet, caring for senior horses differ from younger horses too.
The bottom line: understand the root of the problem and you’ll know what to feed older horses to gain more weight.
We’ve highlighted the four most common underlying issues here. When you find your problem, read what experts say about the solution.
- The Issue: Chewing Problems
Horses may live long enough, but their teeth fall out with age.
When it comes to good equine dental health, prevention is key. So, have your horse undergo a regular dental care every six months.
Otherwise, your horse may suffer from these dental problems that interfere with their appetite:
- Crooked or broken teeth can lead to further infections
- Malformations can cause an overbite or underbite
- Molar loss or gaps between teeth
- Sharp points on teeth make every bite hurt
- Loose incisors
- Recovery from teeth extraction
What to Feed: “You can use senior feeds that can be soaked to make a mash. I’ve also found that using soaked hay cubes works really well,” says Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, of Rutgers University in New Jersey
“Feeding a mixture of soaked hay cubes and soaked senior feed seems to hold them very well.”
If you want to plan how and what to feed older horses to gain more weight when they are tooth-challenged, these other tips have proven to be helpful:
- Replace part of the grain with a high-fat level of 6-10% and fiber sources such as beet pulp or long stemmed leafy alfalfa
- Feed small but frequent meals to make chewing easy. Divide your horse’s entire meal for the day into three to four portions. Remember, don’t give more than 5% of their total body weight in any given feeding.
- Equimed suggests feeding your hose pelleted feeds, hay cubes or chopped forage
- Feed him separately if he’s a shy feeder. Dominant horses in group feeding can make him uncomfortable.
- The Issue: Metabolic Syndrome
Early studies reported older horses are less efficient in processing their meals than their younger counterparts. But this is inconclusive.
What is more evident is that metabolic syndromes such as Cushing’s disease affect nutrient absorption in horses by as much as 50% decrease.
What to Feed: Let your vet and equine nutritionist work out a meal plan. With this issue, they know better what to feed older horses to gain weight.
While Cushing’s or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) can’t be cured, there are ways to manage its effects:
- Eliminate grains and replace it with low-carb/high-fat diets like molasses-free beet pulp
- Limit legumes like clover and alfalfa
- Use supplements as necessary to cover up for mineral deficiencies
- The Issue: Your horse is cold and hungrier
During winter, horses burn more energy to keep warm.
That goes to say you have to increase their portion as the weather gets colder.
As temperature drops, it’s not just what to feed older horses to gain weight, but how much.
According to the Natural healthy horse, here’s a good rule of thumb: For every 10 degrees F it is below freezing (32 degrees), increase your horse’s hay ration by 10%.
What to Feed: Surprisingly, the best horse feed for older horses during the cold season isn’t hay.
“Hay is fermented in the hind gut by bacteria, and that produces a lot of heat. That byproduct heat can warm the horse from the inside out. The idea of feeding more grain isn’t really all that effective. They are going to eat the grain and shiver to make heat, ” added Pagan.
Furthermore, these steps are highly recommended:
- Give your horse adequate access to water. Horses tend to drink less water when they need more in winter. A minimum of 10 to 12 gallons per day will do for a 1000 lb. horse.
- Hay cubes, bran mash or beet pulp can be a good substitute for hay
- Natural healthy horse’s suggested formula is to make your senior comfort food.
- Mix 2 parts alfalfa pellets, 1 part steamed oats, 1 part beet pulp and 1 part wheat bran
- The Issue: My Horse is Lonely
Psychologists have proven that horses can read human emotions.
Amusingly, they even respond and can recall a smile or a frown.
That said, they respond positively to positive people. As social creatures, horses also long for company and space as humans do.
Sadly, one study suggests that traditional stables make horses depressed. In many older horses, this may wreak havoc in their appetite and overall health.
The point is, they have feelings. They could be emotional eaters.
True story: Horse lives longer with a Friend
Donnie McAdams wanted to dig a hole for horse Waco, a 31-year-old retired harness racer.
He was barely eating when he met him in 2008. He too asked what to feed older horses to gain more weight.
But no, he wasn’t sick. He was sad.
MacAdams recalled, “I just talked to him one day for about a half an hour, and got him to accept the fact that I ain’t goin’ anywhere, I’m your buddy. It’s been going on now for eight years.”
Now, he’s turned 40 and in good shape, outliving other horses he was never able to outrun.
Their inspiring story was featured by CBS News.
Your horse may simply be depressed and is losing interest in life or in any foods.
What to Feed: Freshwater and adequate supply of their favorite roughage will do apart from your tender love and care.
It won’t hurt to find ways to keep your horse happy too like giving them a purpose or scratching their back once in a while.
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What to Feed Older Horses to Gain More Weight: Add More Fat
Overall, there are a few changes you can make to improve your horse’s health and weight. The easiest is to increase their calories by adding in more fat from these sources.
Several experts recommend vegetable oil in addition to an older horse’s diet.
Aside from the high calories, vegetable oil is digestible if given gradually, like one to two cups a day.
On the other hand, experts from Equus suggest horses have a taste for corn oil. As with any other oil, introduce corn oil slowly to your horse’s diet starting with a quarter cup per day.
Most older horses benefit from eating rice bran. Not only is it a good source of fat, it’s rich in fiber and Vitamin E too.
Lucerne hay has 16-20% protein more than grass hay. However, this excessive amount along with its high calcium can be hard for the kidneys.
The Kentucky Equine Research rules out that adding Alfalfa can be helpful depending on your goal. To be safe, mix 50% Alfalfa with other high-quality hays.
When it comes to what to feed older horses to gain more weight, there’s no one size fits all. What has worked for one may not work for you.
Whatever plan you choose to develop bear these in mind:
- Track your horse’s progress. Take some before and after pictures and do some weighing.
- Take things gradually. Putting on weight on a horse quickly is an impossible feat for any horse at any age.
What’s most important is you choose to do your best to make him comfortable at this stage.
Your best hope is to have your horse, age gracefully.