Just because driving and competition days are a thing of the past, the care of an older horse, pony or donkey still needs thought and consideration through the changing seasons. Jane Buchan looks at maintaining health and condition in the older generation. First published in Carriage Driving - January 2018
When Do You Feed a
If your horse or pony looks good and is performing well then there may be no need to change his feed at all; you will soon know if he starts to lose weight and condition that it is time to change. As a horse gets older, his digestive system becomes less efficient at digesting the nutrients in the diet. Veteran feeds are then ideal for those who have previously looked good on a high fibre, low energy feed, like a “cool mix”, but who now need a little extra to maintain weight and condition. Most veteran feeds provide sufficient nutrients to support light to moderate work but each horse is an individual and may need a different approach.
Overweight Older Horses
During the spring and summer months, the quality of the grass improves and the days become warmer, both factors which influence how well our older horses and ponies feel and look. One of the most common misconceptions, when feeding good-doers, is that a handful of mix or cubes is a good as a token feed. Coarse mixes and cubes are designed to be fed in greater quantities and a handful will not provide your horse with a balanced diet but will provide him with a few extra calories that he doesn’t need!
For those who hold their weight too easily, a low calorie diet, like forage plus a nutrient-dense balancer, will be necessary. A balancer will provide your horse or pony with a concentrated level of nutrients to ensure that a balanced diet is provided, without the associated calories of a mix or cube. The recommended quantity of a balancer will provide less than a quarter of the calories that a mix or cube would provide whilst achieving a balanced diet to ensure that good health and condition are maintained.
Even if your horse or pony has never had laminitis in his younger years it does not mean that he is still not vulnerable now that he is a little older and wiser. There are many different causes of laminitis but poor feeding management is one of them. Nutrition-related laminitis can be caused by a starch overload from cereals or by a fructan overload from pasture. Starving laminitics, or feeding them only a handful of mix and a slice of hay because you feel sorry for them, will not provide them with essential vitamins and minerals.
Feeding a balancer or low starch, high fibre cubes will ensure that your horse receives a balanced ration to help him recover from the disease. If more calories are required for weight gain, oil is a very safe addition to the feed and provides more calories than cereals. It is also essential that plenty of fibre is provided to maintain healthy gut function and also help keep the amount of hard feed required as low as possible.
Cushing’s Disease (PPID)
Cushing’s disease, now known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), is most commonly associated with older horses and ponies and stems from the growth of a tumour on the pituitary gland situated in the brain which causes hormonal disturbances. Although dietary management will not cure a horse or pony with PPID, it can help by giving the horse a chance of a ‘normal’ healthy life. Horses suffering from PPID exhibit a number of symptoms from a coarse wavy coat, excessive thirst coupled with excessive urination, increased appetite without corresponding weight gain, loss of muscle and top line and, most importantly, they are more susceptible to laminitis.
For those with secondary problems, like laminitis, it is important to feed a diet low in starch and fructan, as already discussed. On the other hand, conditioning feeds may be more appropriate for those who are struggling to maintain weight and condition as long as there are no apparent signs of laminitis. Correct nutrition is vital to provide support to the weakened digestive and immune systems and it may also be worth considering the use of prebiotics and probiotics, especially if the animal is receiving medication. It is also important to feed small regular meals, as the horse can be sensitive to surges of glucose from a large meal, with which he may not be able to deal so effectively when suffering with PPID.
Although weight loss is usually associated with the onset of winter, some older horses struggle to maintain weight and condition all year round. Feeding a conditioning feed is therefore the most effective option. These provide more calories per kilo even than senior feeds, enabling meal sizes to be kept manageable whilst still delivering higher energy levels for weight gain. These feeds are highly digestible and fully balanced and therefore a more cost-effective option than adding barley etc to an existing diet.
For those who need help maintaining condition yet who must avoid cereals/starch, feeds whose calories come from oil and fibre should be sought. These may include those formulated for equines prone to other issues, which are also managed by controlling starch intake, such as gastric ulcers and muscle-related issues.
Loose and worn teeth can make it difficult for our oldies to chew properly, causing them to drop bits of food and not be able to digest and absorb the vital nutrients supplied by their feed. This may be one reason why a horse or pony is not thriving even if you are feeding him the correct diet. A cereal meal, fed as a mash, can provide essential calories in a very easy to chew form, whilst cubes can also be made softer by moistening with water or sugar beet to make a soft palatable feed.
Short chopped forage is generally easier to chew than hay or haylage and there are now several grass, alfalfa, oat straw and beet pulp-based products which can wholly or partially replace the hay ration to ensure fibre intake is maintained. These should be fed separate from any hard feed, like a haynet in a bucket, and a selection can be provided to encourage natural foraging behaviour and, therefore, increase overall fibre consumption. This is important to maintain gut health, which is so important for digestive efficiency.
As the older horse’s digestive tract is not as efficient in dealing with change, it is more susceptible to disruption so adding a prebiotic to the diet will help the horse adjust more easily to any dietary change, like a move to spring grass. Prebiotics help by supporting the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut which are involved in fibre digestion and B vitamin production as well as keeping harmful bacteria at bay. By keeping the gut healthy we can help combat any disruptions and keep our veteran horses and ponies happy and healthy for longer.
For advice on feeding your older equine, contact Baileys Horse Feeds on 01371 850247 or visit www.baileyshorsefeeds.co.uk.
First published in Carriage Driving - January 2018