EQUINE - Feeding the Veteran

16 Jan 2017

One of the most common problems in the older horse is loss of condition. Your faithful friend, who used to get fat on a good view, becomes harder and harder to maintain in good condition, especially over the winter.  The cause of this weight loss, in many older horses, is usually due to a combination of factors. Feeding the older horse is easier once we understand the digestive changes that occur as the horse ages.

Dental issues

The majority of older horses have some kind of dentition problem.  As the horse ages the grinding surfaces of his teeth gradually wear down, and whilst the teeth continue to grow in the older horse, the wear usually becomes more rapid than the replacement rate. Their incisors become more sloped and because of this, older horses can struggle to tear and rip at fibrous stuff, including grass. Many suffer from lost or broken teeth and of course abscesses can become an issue. Pain from dental problems can lead to loss of appetite.  Quiding can occur but also food may not be adequately ground before reaching the rest of the digestive system.  Older horse’s teeth should be checked twice a year and any problems dealt with accordingly.


Studies have shown that the geriatric horse (20 years or older) has decreased digestive efficiency. The biggest problem is that the ability to digest fibre decreases and as this should be 70-100% of the diet, it can become an issue.   This decrease in the ability to digest fibre can be due to the fact that the horse finds it hard to chew forage properly but it is also due to the fact that older horses have been shown to have a less varied and less efficient population of microorganisms in the hindgut. This means that a less efficient fermentation process takes place so less nutrients are extracted and absorbed.  It has also been shown that the ability to absorb protein and phosphorus are also compromised.  Due to these and other inefficiencies of digestion the older horse can be lacking in key nutrients, unless we alter our feeding strategy.  Diets for the older horse should take in to account three main factors; chewability, digestibility and  palatability.

Chewing and grinding

As already discussed, the older horse can have some issues with chewing his food. Consequently it is imperative to provide him with good quality grazing whenever possible. It would also be wise to source softer, less mature/less stemmy hay.  The grab test is a useful tool. Grab and squeeze a handful of hay and if it hurts your hand then it is probably too tough for your old friend. To assist him even more, it may be necessary to provide your horse with short chopped, dried grass type products as a partial or even full hay replacer. Soaked high fibre nuts and beet pulp can also add to your horse’s fibre intake. Some veterans/geriatrics  with major dentition problems do very well on large tub trugs full of a mash of chop, beet pulp and high fibre nuts with not a stem of hay in sight. 

Feed digestibility and palatability

It is advisable, with a veteran that is losing condition, to use a feed designed specifically for veterans. These feeds are normally able to be made in to a nice mash, which helps with any problems with chewing and also aids water intake. Cereals (Barley, wheat, maize, oats) in feeds for veterans should be cooked and flaked or extruded.  The heating process makes them easier to digest and therefore the nutrients more available.  A key constituent of a veteran feed would also be high oil levels.  Oil will greatly increase the energy content of the diet without adding volume and will be easily digested.  As mentioned earlier, veteran horses can struggle to digest protein. It is therefore important that a good quality protein source be included in a veteran feed. The best way of achieving this is to use soya.  Other components that can help with the digestibility of the feed for a veteran include the use of a yeast (e.g. Yea-sacc  1026® ) and/or prebiotics.  Palatability can be improved by using flavourings and palatants to encourage intake in even the fussiest of veterans.

Quality veteran feeds

Essentially if you are looking for a specialist feed for your veteran/geriatric the following key constituents should be considered;

Easily digestible fibre – Sugar beet, grass nuts

“Mashable” – This is important for veterans with dentition problems

Contains quality protein – Hipro soya, full fat soya or micronized full fat soya

All cereals are cooked/extruded to improve digestibility

Good high levels of Vitamin E as an antioxidant to help with immunity

High oil levels (high in Omega- 3 preferably)

Flavouring or palatants to help with fussy/finicky feeders

Yea-sacc  1026® or equivalent to help with hind gut digestion

Also bear in mind that every horse is an individual and to use what works for your horse and for your individual situation. With a little thought and TLC the majority of veteran horses can lead a long and comfortable retirement. 


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