Winter Feeding for the Senior Equine – Tips and information on diet options for your aging horse to help keep weight and stay warm as winter approaches. By Dr. Tom Shurlock of British Horse Feeds.
It is naturally assumed that, as your horse grows older, it will put on or lose weight. The senior equine will need a specialist diet to maintain condition and at the same time you will need to modify its feeding regime as activity declines, and the form of its feed as teeth will increasingly become a problem.
Horses have also been shown to have a muscle fiber shift away from an aerobic profile and a decline in aerobic capacity, and a reduction in maximal heart rate. However, as with humans, older horses (20+) have the ability to perform in athletic events but, as with senior humans, training and type of athleticism will be different to that of younger horses. Short hard bursts of energy will increasingly be beyond the older horse but sustained, moderate exercise should cause no problems. Diet should reflect this. We need to be looking more at fermentable fibre, perhaps reducing reliance on cereal feeds.
The dentition of a horse need not be regarded as deteriorating, with age, to a point where the animal cannot handle fibrous material. Recent research has shown that molar occlusial angle and the number of dental abnormalities did not affect digestibility, water balance or faecal properties to any great degree, and was also not apparently age related.
So far, then, it would seem that the senior equine does not need any special treatment. However changes do occur with age, and these are primarily due to a decline in physiological effects. As the horse ages, a number of processes begin to slow; or more accurately the rate of generation of these processes falls. For example wound healing takes longer and immunological functions decline. And with these come changes in the horse’s ability to maintain his body heat, as metabolism becomes a little less efficient and so we provide specialty feeds, such as a veteran mix, to provide added vitamins and trace minerals to bolster metabolic processes, and highly digestible nutrients to give that metabolism something to work on.
But then in winter we need to go a bit further, because shorter days and colder weather means we are less inclined to go out. It means exactly the same to your horse. However, unlike ourselves where lights, central heating and a change in our routine allow us to adapt, the horse potentially, and the veteran especially, has a more difficult time.
Shorter days mean less feeding time and, for an animal that requires an almost continuous intake, less intake. Less intake means less energy and colder days require the horse to generate, or retain more heat. To a certain extent this is offset by a general reduction in activity, but this in itself can cause problems as activity generates and maintains deep body heat, and the energy we feed for activity may not be ideal for heat generation.
For the veteran, intake can be a problem at the best of times. Although poor dentition is not directly responsible, coupled with reduced appetite (in part due to a reduction in the natural rhythms and secretions of the gut) we are in danger of underfeeding, and so feed needs to be offset with a more specialist diet that compensates for these limitations, such as a good veteran mix and the provision of super fiber. However these may be needed all year round and changes may be needed during the cold winter months.
The major challenge over winter is to maintain body heat within the Zone of Thermoneutrality – the environmental temperature range within which a horse can maintain its core body temperature without resorting to extreme methods; that is shivering or sweating. For a mature animal the lower temperature is around 7 degrees C, but for the veteran it can be considerably higher.
Insulating the veteran is the first step. Stabling, or a good coat, is a physical step we can take, but feeding up during autumn will add a layer of fat beneath the skin – the best insulation you can get. Feeding a good veteran feed will help build up and provide that insulation, as well as those extra nutrients which are essential to bolster metabolism.
The second step is providing heat. Feed Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet as warm mashes. Cold feed and water will chill the gut and energy will be expended to combat this.
The third step is to increase the amount of fermentation in the hindgut. This will generate more heat, this heat will help maintain deep body temperature, and provide more absorbed nutrients to metabolize. 80% of metabolizable energy is used to maintain body temperature in the senior equine during winter and this can be supplied with super fibres. Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet are both super fiber providers and can substitute some of the less fermentable forage. This increases the energy density of the diet.
As your veteran will tend to spend less time feeding, increase the energy density by increasing the amounts of Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet (high proportions of fermentative energy) to provide the energy to keep warm! Protect your horse through stabling or with a blanket against the additive effects of cold, wind and wet.
Provide super fiber (Speedi-Beet, Fibre-Beet) to generate heat in the gut and more metabolizable nutrients. Soak product in hot water to then feed warm, and if possible provide warm drinking water to warm the gut. Try to ensure your senior equine enters winter in the best condition possible. A little extra fat not only acts as insulation, it also mobilizes energy and heat, quickly giving you time to adjust your feeding regime.
Copyright Dr Tom Shurlock, 2016