Feeding Older Horses

By Gail Sramek BAppSc (Agr) - Consulting Nutritionist to Mitavite

Understanding how horses age and how their needs change can help to improve a horses longevity and well being during its older years. The older horse that has been well cared for can continue to be ridden for many years and often makes the ideal teacher for younger and inexperienced riders.

When we talk about an aged horse there is no specific age which horses suddenly become ‘old’. Some horses are still happy competing in their twenties, and yet there are others that are put out to pasture in their mid-teens.


Symptoms of Old Age

From about 15 years of age horses can start to show outward signs of aging. Sign of aging can be:

  • loss of muscle mass,
  • swaying of the back,
  • dropping of the fetlock joints,
  • drooping lips,
  • hollows above the eyes and
  • the appearance of grey hairs around the eyes and the muzzle.

As the horse ages the inward signs of aging may not be as apparent but are still occurring. The losing and wearing of teeth, immune system decline, the reduction in bone density and joint wear and tear are some inward signs of aging.




Care of the Older Horse

The following can help you in ensuring the well being of our older friends:


Regular teeth check-ups

Teeth can be lost and worn down considerably once the horse reaches its twenties and his/her ability to chew grains, pasture and hays can be compromised.

The teeth will continue to grow until the horse is approximately 20 years of age. As age progresses teeth are lost and abnormal wear patterns appear. The enamel ridges of the cheek teeth become worn, affecting how forage is chewed which can affect the condition of the horse and possibly increase the risk of choke.

Providing regular teeth check-ups for older horses is imperative to ensure teeth wear at the same rate and the teeth are kept in good condition.

If the teeth and chewing is compromised feeding a steam extruded feed such as Gumnuts is ideal. Gumnuts can be dampened down to a mash with cold water immediately prior to feeding.

If the older horse cannot eat pasture or long stem hay, the fibre portion of the ration will need to be provided with chaff and a portion of super fibres. Putting a tub of chaff in a separate feed bin to the main meal, ,that is under cover, will allow the older horse to browse on the chaff as they would graze on pasture in the paddock, allowing them to get their roughage quota. Put some large rocks in the bottom so the horse can’t tip the tub over. Roughage should make up a minimum of 1% of a horses bodyweight. i.e a 500kg horse should be fed a minimum of 5kg roughage per day.



Feed a Steam Extruded Feed

Steam Extruded Feeds are an ideal choice for older horses. Steam-extrusion and steam extruded feeds:

  • Improve digestion in the small intestine to over 90%, reducing the risk of hindgut acidosis.
  • Partially breaks down the starches and proteins in the feed to enhance digestion.
  • Requires more chewing, increasing the amount of saliva produced helping to minimise the incidence of choke and decreasing the acidity of the stomach, reducing digestive disorders.
  • Are a palatable feed
  • Reduces the amount of dust in the feed bin, improving air quality in the stable and helping to reduce respiratory diseases.
  • Destroys natural toxins and bacteria pathogens
  • Reduces the amount of heat, acid and gas produced in the digestion process compared to raw grains and pellets.
  • Can be dampened to a mash if teeth are compromised.

Research has confirmed blood test results, coat condition, level of physical activity and bodyweight are all superior when older horses are fed steam-extruded nuts. 


Provide a good quality concentrate formulated for older horses

Providing a ration that is well digested and balanced for all nutrients is important for older horses.

  • Ideally the minerals should be chelated to improve bioavailability and absorption and the vitamins natural to enhance uptake and absorption.
  • Muscle mass can be compromised in older horses and ensuring a ‘good quality protein’ is fed is of paramount importance. The protein needs to be well digested, provide the correct amount of protein and the correct level of amino acids so muscle and top line can be built and maintained.
  • Older horses digestive system can be compromised. 
  • There is a reduction in saliva production as horses age, which can increase the risk of choke. Feeding a steam extruded nut will promote more chewing, increasing saliva production that may help to reduce the chances of choke.
  • Provide the nutrients such as Vitamin K, to minimise bone density decline, by helping to build strong bone with good geometry
  • For horses with poor teeth, cold water can be added immediately prior to feeding to soften the steam extruded nuts.

Older horses, especially older horses that cannot maintain their condition on a normal ration benefit from a formulation specifically made for our older friends.



Ensure adequate roughage

All horses need to be fed 1-1.5% of their bodyweight in roughage per day. This can be in the form of pasture, hay, chaff or super fibres. During winter or if there is a drought in summer, the pasture levels may drop. If this occurs you will need to handfeed additional roughage to ensure your horse is obtaining the correct level of roughage.

Some owners have the perception that they need to feed Lucerne as the only roughage source to their horses. We suggest feeding a combination of roughages i.e Lucerne and/or clover and grass or cereal based roughages to provide the right level of nutrients to your horse.



Keep your horse in moderate to fleshy condition

It has been reported that older horses over 20 years of age need a higher feed intake during winter months, if maintained out doors to keep them in the same condition as middle aged mares housed in equivalent conditions. Increasing the amount of concentrate and roughage will help to build condition and maintain condition on older horses in the cooler months.

If you’re not sure what condition score your horse is have a look on the condition score chart on the Mitavite website and try condition scoring your horse.

Is your older horse in a moderate to fleshy condition? Try increasing the concentrate and roughage fed if he needs more weight. If you’re not sure, give Mitavite a call or send an email to discuss your horses ration.



Not all older horses struggle with being too thin. Some horses are good doers. Horses kept in an obese condition increases the susceptibility of these horses to lameness, laminitis and insulin resistance.

If your horse is putting on too much condition feeding a ‘complete without roughage’ feed, try a nutrient balancer such as Promita, or a nutrient dense supplement such as Super Amino 66, that can be fed at lower rates but will still provide your horse with the nutrients he needs for wellbeing.



Keep Joints Well Maintained

There is a strong relationship between the development of osteoarthritis and the onset of age.

Osteoarthritis contributes to poor performance and lameness in horses of any age, although it is often seen in the joints of older horses. Some research and reports have quoted:

  • 55.4% of horses that were older or equal to 15 years of age were treated with NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) due to osteoarthritis.
  • 62.2% of animals older or equal to 20 years of age, and
  • 65.3% of animals older than 25 years of age were treated with a NSAID.

Feeding joint supplements that may improve circulation and reduce inflammation such as Performa 3 Oil can be beneficial for joint maintenance.

Arthritis is a disease often found in the older horse. Oils high in Omega 3 fatty acids, specifically the longer chain fatty acids DHA and EPA only found in fish oil, and have the combined effect of improving condition, enhancing circulation and reducing inflammatory responses. Cartilage degradation and the pain and inflammation associated with degenerative joint diseases such as arthritis may be reduced with Omega 3 supplementation such as that found in Performa 3 Oil. Try feeding up to 200mls to your older horse for joint maintenance.

Rugging your horse in the winter months when arthritis is more prevalent can help in addition to regular light exercise that helps to keep the joints supple.



Feed to Build and Maintain Strong Bone

In humans the minerals and collagen found in the bone are removed more rapidly than new bone tissue is put down as they age, compromising its structural support.



Providing bone supporting nutrients in the diet can help to minimise the effects of bone density decline. In addition to ensuring there is adequate levels of Protein, amino acids, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese, Vitamin K is also needed for good bone development and re-building.

The latest studies on bone growth in horses, humans and other animals has revealed that a protein, osteocalcin needs Vitamin K1 and Vitamin K2 to bind the minerals and protein in bones together. This may be beneficial in helping to improve bone density. Recent research in horses and other animals suggests that supplementing with Vitamin K1 and Vitamin K2 at recommended levels, and thereby increasing bone density, can reduce shin soreness in young race horses, the incidence of developmental orthopaedic disease in young horses. There is an array of information on how Vitamin K1 and K2 is beneficial to humans in improving bone geometry, especially those suffering from osteoporosis. Bonafide is added to Gumnuts to aid in improved bone density for older horses.



Immune function decline

Immunosenescence is the term given to the immune system losing competency with age. Reduced immune function in other species increases susceptibility to infections increases the risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases. Chronic inflammation markers may also be increased with the onset of aging.


Loss of Muscle Mass

Muscle mass can be compromised in older horses and ensuring a ‘good quality protein’ is fed is of paramount importance. The protein needs to be well digested, provide the correct amount of protein and the correct level of amino acids so muscle and top line can be built and maintained.

Muscle mass can be enhanced by feeding a well profiled feed or an essential amino acid supplement (Super Amino 66), that contains a ‘good quality protein’. Some herbal extracts and botanical extracts may have a natural anabolic effect.



Loss of efficiency to correctly thermoregulate

Aging may affect the ability of the horse to regulate its body temperature. This can be a problem in hot and cold climates.

It is important older horses are kept in a moderate condition throughout their life. Cold weather can have a dramatic impact on the condition of older horses if their nutrition is compromised. Energy requirements for the horse increase over winter (approx. 5% for each 1oC drop in temperature that is below 15oC) so additional concentrate and roughage will need to be fed.

This can be done simply feeding a balanced, well profiled ration such as Gumnuts and adequate roughage and by increasing the amount of concentrate fed and adding in additional biscuits of hay to the ration as the weather cools. The graph below shows the energy obtained by different feeds during digestion. Adding 1-2 additional biscuits of grass hay to the diet of your horse in winter will help to warm him on the inside.



When riding older horses additional care needs to be taken not to overheat them and to cool them down in a controlled manner. Try clipping long coats in summer, apply cool water after exercise and provide shade and fans if needed.

It is important that we look after our older friends in their golden years to help minimise clinical conditions such as gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and respiratory problems that are more commonly associated with aging. Continual monitoring of your horses weight and condition, regular worming and teeth checks combined with feeding a well profiled concentrate and Omega 3 supplement such as Performa 3 Oil, with adequate roughage will help your aged horse to maintain a healthy condition and continued well-being.