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The Senior Horse

It's believed that 1-year of a horse's life is equal to an average of 3-years of a human's

This means that as I type (Oct'18), my connie Murphy is 76, Cookie's 54, MacAttack's 48 and Carmen's 36. No wonder Murf pulls a face when I hoik the saddle out ... (2019 we retired 😉 )

It's estimated that a quarter of the UK’s horse population, if not more, is older than 15 years of age, so compared to us humans, that’s a large proportion of horses over 45 (in human) years old, and I've got three of them.

The aging process brings with it some inevitable changes in horses. Like humans, horses are now generally living longer, with more active veteran horses than ever before, and with many horses still competing and showing at the age of 20 or older.

For the senior horse that has reached the stage of struggling to maintain weight and condition, we'd all think that the obvious action is to increase calorie intake. Wrong! This is all part of the aging process and it's all to do with the teeth. Older horses are less able to chew, usually because with age brings tooth loss, and what back molars remain will be very worn down from their years of service grinding down their forage to the perfect size for transit down the oesophagus to the stomach/foregut. The chewing and grinding forms their mouthful of hay into a perfect sized 'hay roll', with the inner fibres exposed and ready for the starch/protein pre-digestion in the stomach and small intestine. Problems arise when the molars are no longer able to grind the forage down to the right size; the gut will then struggle to digest the starch/protein, let alone the fibre when it reaches the hindgut, and the last thing we want in the hindgut is starch, as it feeds the pathogen gut microbes. This directly lowers the pH of the hindgut, creating acidosis and dysbiosis of the biome, which in itself presents a laminitis risk. All starch needs to have been digested in the small intestine.

The other problem with the forage not being ground down to the right size is that longer strands will sit fermenting in both the small and large intestine for longer, which presents a colic risk.

Pulling this together, if teeth issues mean long fibre can't be chewed properly, the only nourishment they may be getting is from the feedbowl, so they need a fibre source that both teeth and gut can cope with, commonly known as a hay replacer. And this is where pelleted cobs with added Sainfoin are your saviour.

Sainfoin is like alfalfa’s baby sister – it has better protein value, and a higher concentration of methionine and lysine. Where it shines, though, is that it’s higher in tannins – bitters – which enhance the digestive process so the feed can be better digested with more nutrient value. Bitters basically stimulate saliva and the digestive juices into action - think of what happens in your own mouth when you think of eating a slice of lemon, or pickled onions!

Sainfoin is excellent for senior horses, especially when they’ve hit the ‘thin’ stage and we’re now looking at hay replacers. Look to hay pellets/cobs - always soaked - as their forage composition will have been chopped to replicate the same size that the horse itself grinds down with a full set of healthy molars, so oesophagus-ready. Add in sainfoin slowly - remember, it's bitter! Avoid chopped, loose sainfoin as this tends to be just the stems; always go for pellets as you get the whole plant in pellets - all the protein is in the leaves and flowers Start with a small mug then gradually increase – the RDA for a senior on hay replacers is up to 600g/100kg bodyweight.

The signs of ageing result in irreversible changes in a horse's body:

  • Skin and soft tissue elasticity decreases - this causes the typical sunken back of an old horse.
  • Teeth are constantly erupting and eventually grow out of the gums, with the grinding surfaces of the teeth becoming smoother and less efficient.
  • The immune system becomes weaker and much less able to fight disease.
  • Circulation, which delivers nutrients and oxygen to the horse, becomes less able.
  • Liver and kidney problems become more common as a horse gets older, no longer functioning as they used to, nor supporting the immune system to help in fighting disease.
  • And the inevitable - joints begin to stiffen.

It's also all too easy to be bedazzled by the glossy bags of senior feed formulas - if organ function is compromised, many of the 'senior' formulas could actually make matters worse. For example, many senior feeds have increased protein and fat, which are contraindicated for liver function, and some senior feeds contain higher phosphorous and calcium, which are contraindicated for kidney function.

Thankfully, nature has equipped us with an excellent range of herbs to keep the senior equine system working in harmony to maintain good health.

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