As a whole, horses are living longer than they did 50 years ago. Many horses lead healthy and useful lives well into their twenties or even longer. However, health problems tend to crop up in horses that have been around for several decades. When a number of maladies hit at the same time, owners are faced with finding diagnoses and making management changes to keep their equine pals on the right track. Here is a summary of one senior horse's situation and how his owner sought advice to solve her horse's problems.
Timber, a Thoroughbred gelding in his early twenties, has recurrent gas colic that is becoming more frequent as he gets older. His owner, Marty, has talked to her veterinarian who advised giving Timber an equine antacid and a probiotic. Marty thought these helped a little, but Timber still had a lot of discomfort and gas. Marty had him tested for food allergies and found her horse was sensitive to barley, oats, and soy, common ingredients in many commercial feed products.
Timber is ridden three to four times a week on a moderate exercise regimen. Marty has been giving him about five pounds per day, split into two equal feedings, of a commercially available feed designed for aged horses. He has access to good timothy/orchard grass hay in his stall and is turned out on pasture most of the time, but an all-forage diet doesn't deliver the calories necessary for this horse to maintain body condition. Marty feels he needs some grain, but isn't sure what to give him. She would also like to keep the nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) level as low as possible. She asked Kentucky Equine Research (KER) for some help and Dr. Kathleen Crandell, a KER equine nutritionist, responded.
Dr. Crandell: "Perhaps the gas problem may be in the hindgut and not the stomach, which is why Timber doesn't respond to ulcer medications. There are products on the market to help with hindgut acidosis. Using one of these products to buffer the hindgut may provide your horse with some relief from his gassiness."
KER explains: Subclinical acidosis is a condition in which the pH of the horse's hindgut becomes too acidic. Subclinical acidosis might be the underlying cause for mild to moderate colic signs of unexplained origin, poor feed efficiency, and subsequent weight loss. Research has shown that products designed to buffer the hindgut can effectively maintain proper hindgut pH. This allows for optimal digestion of nutrients in forages and concentrates, creating an environment in which dietary energy can be absorbed efficiently.
Dr. Crandell: "Trying to find a commercial feed that does not contain soy (soybean meal or soy oil), oats, or barley is a real challenge. I have evaluated your horse's current diet to look at how well the combined ingredients meet the requirements of the horse. If you would like to try an alternative to a commercial feed, I have some suggestions for a diet that could really work well for Timber as long as he doesn't mind eating a mash (it would have to be fed wet). I used alternative energy sources to keep the NSC low and yet provide extra calories. It is not as easy as scooping up a portion out of a feed bag, but it does consist of easily available feed products."
KER explains: Commercial feed products work well for horses and ponies of many ages, life stages, equestrian disciplines, and levels of performance. However, when horses have unique problems with metabolism, allergies, disease, or other conditions that make commercial feeds unsuitable dietary elements, alternatives can often be found.
Dr. Crandell: "Some of the main ingredients in this alternative diet are alfalfa pellets, sugar beet pulp, and wheat bran. It also contains fortification that I'll explain in a moment. Along with pasture and timothy/orchard grass hay, this ration should provide Timber with the nutrients and energy he needs to maintain condition and perform moderate exercise."
KER explains: Alfalfa contributes energy, protein, calcium, and a host of other nutrients to the diet, and has been shown to act as an important buffer of gastric acid, lowering the chance of stomach irritation and ulcer formation. Beet pulp, known as a "super-fiber," contains a high level of fermentable fiber as well as some calcium. On a calorie-by-weight basis, beet pulp supplies nearly as many calories as oats. It is easily digested and is used as an energy source to support body condition without overloading the diet with starch. In addition, soaked beet pulp takes on a soft texture that is easily chewed, making it ideal for older horses. Wheat bran is a rich energy source because of its abundant digestible fiber. It is extremely palatable to horses and may encourage picky eaters to try a new or unfamiliar feed form. The high level of phosphorus in wheat bran is balanced by the calcium provided by the alfalfa and beet pulp.
Dr. Crandell: "Since Timber is an older horse, adding some vitamin E would be recommended, and I have included that by incorporating a vitamin E supplement in the ration as well as a vitamin-mineral supplement. The ration also includes salt, though if you have clean salt available for free-choice consumption, the horse will normally take care of his requirement by himself."
KER explains: Older horses may have declines in immune status, digestive efficiency, and other functions.
Oxidative reactions are common results of aging, muscular exertion, and other metabolic processes. As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E protects cells from the destructive effects of free radicals. Vitamin E also supports immune function.
Mineral and vitamin fortification such as that provided by a supplement should be somewhat higher in rations for senior horses than for a standard maintenance horse feed to account for a possible age-related decline in digestive efficiency.
Dr. Crandell: "The current recommendation for horses suffering from allergies is to give some type of omega-3 supplement."
KER explains: Interest in omega-3 fatty acids has heightened among nutritionists studying all species in recent years, and equine researchers have begun to study their effectiveness in horses and ponies. Of particular interest may be the inflammatory benefits linked to omega-3 fatty acids.
KER's take-home message: Recurrent colic, excessive gas, allergies, declining digestive function, and advancing age are health conditions that may be challenging for an owner to manage. While most horses thrive on commercial feed products, owners of horses with special conditions may need to be somewhat creative in coming up with feed management solutions that will support the horse's general health.