We have all heard that forage should be the staple of every horse’s diet. While feeding hay is well suited for many younger and middle-aged horses, things get a little trickier when it comes to feeding senior and retired horses. As horses age, they often begin to lose teeth or develop dental problems. This can make it very challenging for them to successfully chew and swallow the forage their bodies need. Forage contains fiber that is not only essential to their digestive health but also helps them maintain a healthy weight. Weight maintenance becomes an even bigger concern during the winter months.
Dealing With a Picky Eater
Dental issues are not the only reason that you may need to consider alternative fiber sources for your elderly horse. In some cases, older horses become pickier as they age. They may refuse to eat the forage or become highly selective with the types of forage they will accept. For example, some elderly horses will only eat sweeter feeds like alfalfa. Others may refuse to graze on their own and require that hand-picked grass is fed to them multiple times a day in their stalls.
Finding supplemental vitamins that your elderly horse will accept can also become challenging. Some elderly horses may refuse to eat the supplement or only accept certain flavors.
As horses near their second decade of life, their eating habits may become especially quirky. It is not uncommon for an elderly horse to refuse to feed from a hay rack. Some retired horses will exclusively feed from a slow-feed haynet. This becomes especially challenging in cases where the horse refuses to eat scraps from the previous feed. This means the haynet has to be completely cleaned between feedings which can become tedious for the caretaker.
Alternatives to Traditional Hay
Luckily, there are a number of hay alternatives for senior horses that can’t or won’t eat it. Beet pulp is arguably one of the most effective solutions for getting more fiber into a horse’s diet. Adding beet pulp to your horse’s morning meal is one popular way to help them maintain their weight and control their rate of grain consumption. Beet pulp is available with or sans added molasses and its soft texture makes it easy for toothless horses to consume. In addition to these benefits, beet pulp has a high digestibility level and tends to be well-received among even the pickiest of eaters.
Hay pellets are another alternative to traditional hay. Hay pellets can be soaked into soup or gruel to accommodate horses with dental issues. While this option may not please the pickiest of pallets, many horse owners have found great success with hay pellets.
Similar to hay pellets, hay cubes are another great alternative to traditional hay. They can be soaked for a softer texture, making them easier for elderly horses to consume. If you have been struggling to manage the diet of an elderly horse with dental disease, hay cubes are certainly worth a try. Be sure to monitor your horse’s intake when feeding them hay cubes. Many horses tend to eat more hay cubes in less time than they typically would with traditional hay.
Another benefit of hay pellets and cubes is that they tend to contain less dust than traditional hay. This means that horses that consume these products are less likely to inhale particles that could contribute to respiratory issues. This makes them an excellent choice for elderly horses that potentially suffer from heaves. Also, thanks to their compact form, hay pellets or cubes tend to result in less wasted feed when compared to other feed types.
If you have tried all of these alternatives and are still struggling to get your elderly horse to eat, you may want to consider using a complete feed. This feed is specially formulated to provide your horse with all of the nutrients they need. A complete feed is not only fiber-rich, but it is also designed to be fed to your horse in larger quantities with less or no hay at all. For horses with dental disease or missing teeth, this feed can be soaked into a gruel or soup if necessary.
While complete feed is designed to be used as a standalone food source, some nutritionists suggest using it alongside small amounts of long-stemmed forage.
Here are a few other tips to keep in mind as you experiment with various feed types:
- Remember to take things slow with switching feeds. Horses have delicate digestive tracts that may need some time to get used to the change. Try implementing feed changes over the course of a week to give your horse ample time to adjust.
- Don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken. Not every elderly horse has dental issues and all horses are not picky eaters. Many horses will eat harvested, flaked or baled forage for their entire lives with no issue. Just because the senior horse in the next stall is on an alternative diet, does not mean that this option is right for your horse.
- Always remember that help is available. If you find yourself trying feed after feed with no success, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Contact your local veterinarian or reach out to an equine nutritionist for advice on devising a feeding strategy for your horse.
If caring for your elderly horse has become overwhelming, it may be time to consider a horse retirement farm. When you entrust the care of your beloved horse to a retirement farm, you can rest assured that they are receiving the best of care. From fiber-rich, high-quality food to regular dental checkups and vaccinations, a retirement farm provides complete care for your senior horse so they can live out their days in bliss.