Feeding the Senior Quarter Horse

Feeding the Senior Quarter Horse

As your horse ages, his dietary needs change. Here’s how to determine if it’s time to switch your older horse to senior feed.

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From AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena

When is it time for senior horse feed?

Due to improvements in veterinary care and nutrition, horses routinely live to 25-30 years of age, some into their 40s. It’s not uncommon to see horses in their late teens and 20s performing at high levels. The key is that we need to treat horses as individuals. So when is a “senior” feed required?

For many owners, the answer is to start them around 15-16. Others say 20, and some never switch to senior feed.

Even if the calendar indicates it might be time to start treating your equine partner to senior feed, the time to switch to senior feed is when your horse can no longer maintain good body condition on a normal hay and grain diet.

Signs that a senior horse may need a senior diet include:

  • Reduced energy and stamina.
  • Weight loss.
  • Poor topline condition.
  • Declining hoof quality and hair coat.
  • Dropping feed while eating, may be a sign of dental issues.
  • Loose stools.
  • Quidding – dropping partially chewed hay out their mouth while eating.

As the horse ages, nutrient absorption and utilization decrease due to breakdown of the digestive system. Research has shown that senior horses experience poor nutrient absorption, which occurs particularly with phosphorus, vitamins and protein. Enzyme production may also decrease.

What should you look for in senior horse feed?

When we look at a senior diet, there are some key points to consider. You want to choose a feed that is:

  • Highly digestible to accommodate a less efficient digestive system.
  • Look for higher and improved protein quality to make up for small intestine inefficiency.
  • Does the feed contain higher fiber, and can it be fed as a complete diet, to make up for decreased large intestine efficiency, and possibly replace hay if the horse has dental problems?
  • Higher fat helps provide added safe calories.
  • Enhanced vitamin and mineral fortification are needed because of loss of digestive efficiency.
  • Use of pre- and probiotics in senior feeds can aid in gut health and the digestion of fiber.
  • Does the feed have the ability to be served as a mash? Not only are senior feed mashes highly palatable, but they also help keep the senior horse hydrated.

Does my senior horse need calories or protein?

There are common questions that come up as horses age and their bodies change:

  • Does my good old horse need more calories (energy) or more protein?
  • He is out on good pasture and is holding his weight, but his hair coat looks dull and he has lost muscle mass. What should I do?
  • He looks a little thin, should I add some fat/oil to his diet?

These are all apparently simple questions, but actually we need to look at the nutrient supply and purpose a little closer. The key energy sources for horses are:

  1. Calories from fat/oil.
  2. Digestible fiber (structural carbohydrates).
  3. Starch and sugar (non-structural carbohydrates).

If a horse is thin, that tells us that the horse needs more calories to maintain fat cover measured by the body condition score system. Those calories can be added from:

  • Extra fat/oil,
  • Extra digestible fiber, or
  • Additional starch and sugar.

Some ways to add calories are:

  • Vegetable oil, which contains 2.25 times the calories per pound of carbohydrates. It’s a safe way to add calories.
  • Switching to a highly digestible fiber source (better-quality forage, added beet pulp etc.) can also add calories of digestible energy.

It takes 2 to 3 or more pounds of added feed to add 1 pound of gain, depending on the feed.

Adding calories alone will not bring back the muscle mass. This will require added protein, but the focus should be on essential amino acids, which are the monomers that make up proteins. Focus on lysine, methionine and threonine, which are the first three limiting essential amino acids. If a horse is getting adequate crude protein, but the protein is of limited quality and is low in one or more essential amino acids, the horse will not be able to utilize it fully to maintain or restore muscle mass. This is why it is essential to know the quality of the protein in feeds, particularly these first three limiting amino acids.

A common situation is an old horse retired to a grass pasture. It may be difficult for the horse to consume enough to maintain body condition, thus the horse loses weight. The grass pasture may also be low in crude protein and certainly low in essential amino acids, so the horse also loses muscle mass.

The good news is that this can be reversed with the use of a well-designed senior horse feed, like Nutrena's SafeChoice Senior, to provide both calories and essential amino acids.

Why SafeChoice Senior?

SafeChoice Senior gives your old friend what he needs to make every year golden. It’s specifically designed for older horses over the age of 15, especially those suffering from unexpected age-related weight loss, exhibiting sluggishness, experiencing issues with muscle or coat quality, or having difficulty chewing their hay. Learn more at www.nutrenaworld.com.

About Nutrena

AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena is one of the world's largest equine nutrition companies, feeding more than 1 million horses per day. 

AQHA is pleased to have Nutrena’s continued support of AQHA members and professionals alike. Nutrena is the title sponsor of the 2022 Nutrena West and East AQHA Level 1 Championships, the pinnacle events for Level 1, Rookie and walk-trot competitors around the world. Nutrena contributes to AQHA members through events and initiatives such as the Nutrena Don Burt AQHA Professional Horseman and AQHA Professional Horsewoman of the Year awards; AQHA Select World Championship Show, presented by Adequan® (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan); Farnam AQHA World Championship Show; the AQHA Ranching Heritage Young Horse Development Program; and the AQHA Ranching Heritage Challenges. Nutrena also matches contributions from the Ride the Pattern Clinics, hosted at AQHA world championship shows where proceeds go directly to the AQHA Professional Horsemen’s Crisis Fund.