Feeding Elderly/Aged Horses or Horses with Dental Issues
Just like us humans, horses are living longer and therefore may experience wear and tear on joints and teeth as they age. As grazers, dental deterioration has a direct impact on ingestion, and as daily intake reduces, weight and condition deteriorate. This is a natural life cycle in the wild, but domesticated horses have us to take care of them in their old age, so when the time comes, we must consider options available which will continue to provide digestible fibres and nourishment suited to the equine digestive system.
As ‘trickle feeding herbivores’ horses are born to graze and chew feed over long periods of the day (and night). The adult horse has between 36-44 teeth depending on gender (males may have canine/tushes). Generally, there are 12 incisors and 24 molars divided between the upper and lower jaw. Incisors are used for pulling grasses and plants from the earth, and pre-molars/molars for chewing and grinding down fibrous material into smaller particles ready for swallowing. As grazers, dental health is crucial for condition, weight, health, and survival.
Teeth tend to wear and deteriorate with age, so awareness of dental issues or tooth loss is an important part of equine husbandry and care. Most horses are visited by equine dentists once or twice a year to check for sharp edges, so owners are usually aware when their horse has dental/gum problems or tooth loss.
Older horses who are unable to chew long-fibre such as hay must be supplemented to ensure sufficient fibre intake and prevent weight loss and digestive issues. The equine gut microbiome thrives on a mixed, varied plant diet, and a thriving microbiome supports the immune system, which is crucial to general health, especially as our horses age.
If horses are unable to mechanically break down hay, we must turn to alternatives which will supply his/her daily needs, both in terms of nutrients and fibre, which is the foundation of the diet. Alternative fibre sources will vary depending on country/area/environment, but some examples are; Chopped forage such as hay and alfalfa which is machine chopped (chaff), hay cubes, non molassed beet pulp, grass nuts, fibre husk nuts, mixed herbs, linseed and hemp-meal. A mixture of different types of forage replacers will not only give your horse feed variety but help to keep gut function healthy. Feeds should be spaced out over the day to mimic natural feeding behaviour and keep the horse chewing to produce saliva which buffers gastric acid.
Complete, non-cereal feeds such as TOTAL can also be used as a partial fibre replacer, fed in several small meals throughout the day, and will supply all daily nutrients and varied fibre sources. TOTAL contains a mixture of over 20 plant species, so will help to keep your elderly equine friends in good health and condition throughout their twilight years.
Article written by Linda Bennis BSc (Hons)
Equine Nutritionist and Founder of The TOTAL Horse Feed Concept