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The Senior Horse

It’s true: getting older is inevitable and chronological age can only move in one direction. But whether horse or human, feeling old is not inevitable.

There's no single path on which any of us age, whether horse or human, which means we can only determine only very approximately when old age comes. After all, in our human world there are people in their 80's running half marathons, yet someone at 50 may struggle to get up the stairs. Lifestyle, genetics, chronic diseases - all factors are important and have an individual impact.

So how do we assess biological age? Well, the scientists say it's an indicator that reflects the degree of deterioration of the body. But how do we assess wear and tear? After all, organs age in different ways and there can be a lot of parameters: joint mobility, metabolic rate, cognitive functions, visual clarity, and let's not forget stress which is a huge issue for the aging process ... And for each of them, the readings will differ from person to person, horse to 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 three of them live with me!

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 usually all to do with the teeth. Older horses are less able to chew, because with age brings tooth loss, and those back molars which 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 - all starch needs to have been digested in the small intestine - 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.

The other problem with the forage not being ground down to an appropriate gut-friendly 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 grass cobs with added Sainfoin are your saviour.

Sainfoin is like alfalfa’s baby sister – it has a higher concentration of methionine and lysine, and generally a higher amino acid pattern than alfalfa for protein metabolism. Where it shines, though, is that it’s higher in tannins – bitters – which have a stabilising effect on the horse's intestinal environment, so the feed nutrients can be better broken down. 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 you may be looking at 'hay replacers'. Look to hay 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 the 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.

Many older horses may also experience a malabsorption disorder, meaning that they’ll absorb fewer nutrients from their feed. For this reason you may have to feed more nutrients than the RDA; this applies not only to the amount of roughage, but also the daily minerals/trace elements.

It may also be tempting to feed an older, thin horse with large amounts of concentrated feed as quickly as possible, but try to resist as it’s really not the best way to go - grain shouldn’t be used to gain weight; it’s only intended to help support them when the temperatures drop below zero and the older horse needs extra energy to keep warm. Only add if weight can no longer be maintained through a pure roughage diet - i.e. hay, haycobs, sainfoin, as real weight gain through muscle mass takes time, exercise and fibre-based feeding.

However, it can be useful, especially in cold winters, to provide a portion of ‘quick energy’ via a concentrated feed, as the older horse has to use a relatively large amount of energy for their central heating, usually obtained from the digestion of plant fibres in the large intestine. Soak half a litre of crushed barley with the hay cobs, and no more than 1.5-litre per day, half for ponies. Always start small, i.e. half a coffee mug, and increase very slowly over several days. Remember - if you feed too much grain, the risk of laminitis and IR increases, as older horses can no longer adequately regulate their blood sugar levels.

Also, don’t be tempted to add oil, as this will do more harm than good. Irrespective of age, liquid oil can’t be digested by the equine gut due to the lack of a gall bladder, and also interferes with the digestion of other nutrients. You can, however, add ground oil-seeds, i.e. linseed/hemp/sunflower seeds, as the fatty acids get into the horse in a usable form and the other nutrients are also digested without any problems. Again, they shouldn't be used to gain weight or generate energy, but essentially represent building materials for regeneration and are used by the horse to produce sebum in order to keep the coat water-repellent and thus save energy again.

Spirulina is also beneficial as it not only has an excellent detoxifying effect, but also a high proportion of essential amino acids.

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.