Raise your hand if you've heard the following statement before (or, as all of us here at The Horse have, more times that we can remember): Forage should be the basis of all horses' diets.
Feeding hay—one of the most common forms of forage horses consume—is all well and good for most younger to middle-aged horses, but it can be slightly trickier when it comes to our senior citizens. As I'm sure many of you have experienced, older horses often develop dental issues or lose teeth, making it difficult for them to successfully chew and swallow the forage that contains the fiber that's so important to both their digestive health and weight maintenance ability. And, especially going into winter, that latter factor is important.
Old often have dental issues or lose teeth that make it difficult to successfully chew and swallow the forage that contains the fiber that's so important to both their digestive health and weight maintenance ability.
And damaged dentition isn't the only reason you might need to seek out another fiber option for your aging horse: Some older equids just get pickier with time.
Take 21-year-old Dorado, for instance. He's always been a bit fussy. The last few years, however, it's just gotten a bit obnoxious. This spring and summer, he's been refusing to eat his hay unless the timothy is in his slow-feed haynet (not the hay rack!) and the alfalfa (which he really would rather not eat at all, but the long-stem hay is more acceptable than the pellets or cubes ... those are 100% inedible *insert eye-roll emoji here*) is in a bucket on the other side of the stall. And all the left-over "scraps" (more like about a third of the hay, regardless of how much he starts with ...) he's deemed inedible from the previous feeding (whether they're still in the net or have somehow ended up on the ground) have been removed from said haynet before its refilled. And the haynet must be hung in one particular corner of his stall. And the gaping hole he's made in said haynet is positioned to the front for easy access.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to hay for those seniors that either can't or won't consume the flaked forage. One that was effective for getting more fiber into Dorado for many years was beet pulp. It was very effective in getting fiber into him and helping keep his weight up. Beet pulp comes with or without added molasses, soaks into a nice soft texture that's easy for toothless horses to consume, and has a high digestibility level.
Beet pulp soaks into a nice soft texture that's easy for toothless horses to consume.
Photo: The Horse staff
Another alternative to traditional hay is hay pellets, which can be soaked into a gruel or soup for horses with dental issues. Although my one experience feeding hay pellets—both soaked and unsoaked—was an epic failure (the mare would not touch either preparation to save her life…) I've heard great things from several friends and acquaintances about adding hay pellets to their older horses' diets with great success.
Like pellets, hay cubes are another alternative to consider, and these can also be soaked to accommodate a horse with dental issues. I've had mixed reactions to feeding hay cubes—some horses love 'em, some won't touch 'em. But, they're certainly worth a try if you're managing an older horse with dental disease or a picky attitude.
But remember: "If offered voluntarily, most horses will consume more hay cubes in less time than hay, so owners should measure and monitor their horses' intake," TheHorse.com author and equine nutritionist Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, cautions.
Janicki also says that hay cubes and pellets typically contain less dust than hay, meaning horses are less subject to inhaling particles that could contribute to respiratory disease—this is a good thing for older horses potentially suffering from heaves. Additionally, she says, offering hay cubes or pellets generally results in less wasted feed compared to hay.
And if all else fails, consider a complete feed. These are formulated to provide all of a horse's nutrient needs, including fiber (generally obtained via forage), and are designed to be fed in larger amounts (compared to a lower fiber grain mix) with little to no hay alongside. (Still, nutritionists often suggest offering small quantities of long-stemmed forage even if you are feeding a complete feed as a sole source of their forage … unless they tend to choke on it—then don’t!) And, complete feeds can be soaked into a soup or gruel if need be. I personally don't have any experience maintaining a horse on a solely complete-feed-based diet, so I'd love to hear from readers that have!
A few things to remember:
- Go slow when switching feeds! Just because a senior horse might have eaten it all throughout his life doesn't mean his digestive tract is used to it. Aim to make any and all feed changes over the course of a week or so.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. If something's not working or if you're unsure what the best plan for your older horse is—especially going into winter—ask your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist for help in developing a feeding plan.
- If it's not broken, don't try to fix it. Not all senior horses have dental issues, and not all of them are picky eaters. Some horses will eat flaked/baled/harvested forage until the day they die with no problem whatsoever. So just because the senior horse down the aisle is on a diet rich in fiber alternatives doesn't mean you need to transition your horse off hay if he's not showing any signs of trouble.
How do you get fiber in your older horses? Do you have any tips for other owners who might be having trouble with their senior horses' forage consumption? Please share your experiences below!