Horses aged 16 years and over are described as veterans. Horses like humans, age at different rates depending upon their genetics and their environment. Many horses, if they have been well managed in terms of effective worming and dental care, and correctly fed in terms of their work and breed and not over worked, will maintain good condition until extremely advanced age.
Some of us though will have horses whose management may not have been optimum throughout their earlier years. Their digestive systems may have been damaged by worms or ulcers and their vital organs will be in decline.
While horses do not tend to suffer heart and circulatory degeneration that their human counterparts do, the kidneys, the liver and the skin are subject to reduced function. The immune system too will weaken. Ageing may be evidenced by reduced exercise tolerance, stiffness when first leaving the stable or when work is commenced and general “creakiness”. Legs may swell when standing in the stable, there may be increased susceptibility to infections, dry, scaly skin or dandruff, eye problems (running or crusty eyes) and difficulty in maintaining weight.
As a result, old horses have different nutrient requirements compared to younger ones. It becomes very important that small quantities of proteins of high biological value (12-16%) sources are fed in order to provide the necessary nutrients without causing stress to the liver and kidneys that process protein.
This means that the feeds must have good levels of the essential amino acids particularly lysine and methionine. Soya, Lucerne in small quantities, and supplements that contain specific amino acids are appropriate. Minerals, particularly copper and zinc and vitamins, especially the antioxidant B’s, C and E may also be required in higher proportions due to aged digestive systems that do not function as well as in their younger days. Equilibrate CHF is recommended.
As winter approaches the quality of grass pasture is generally declining and cooler temperatures mean that our horse must expend more food energy on maintaining body temperature. The result is that there is less food energy to be converted to fat that insulates the body. The consequence of this is that the thinner the horse becomes, the harder the metabolism must work in order to maintain core temperature. This means that even more of the food energy is expended on doing so which in the most obvious form is seen as shivering. Short periods of shivering are not a problem and this is the body’s natural response to feeling cold, but prolonged shivering is debilitating.
There are several ways of helping to combat weight loss or maintain weight. The use of rugs on cold nights or when there is prolonged rain and wind when horses are turned out are one way. However generally, the horse copes very well with cold temperatures, though not with wet and windy conditions. But the wearing of rugs reduces the horse’s ability to self insulate, which occurs when the small muscle at the base of the hair rises in response to cold and traps warm air. Therefore if rugs are to be used, a light-weight rain resistant rug that resists rain and wind is preferable to New Zealand type rugs or heavily insulated turnout rugs that have been designed for European conditions where temperature over winter are consistent within a few degrees day and night. This is unlike South African conditions, where in some regions, diurnal temperatures range from several degrees below zero to the mid twenties during the day. One also needs to consider whether, if rugs are to be used that they can be consistently put on and removed as the weather dictates. A rug that is not timeously removed when there is an unseasonal or sudden increase in temperature can result in the horse sweating. Sweating as everyone knows is one of the racing jockey’s methods of rapidly reducing weight!
If the horse cannot be rugged when the weather suddenly turns cold because you are at work and the groom is busy with other duties, then the horse may become chilled. A further consideration is breed. Cold bloods such as Frisian and Warm-bloods are more resistant to cooler conditions than are Thoroughbreds; and Arabs are particularly hardy. Rugs can however reduce your feed bill to a small extent.
The more natural way is to feed more. High fibre feeds such as grass hay, teff and oat straw /hay, chaffs (chopped hay, straw or Lucerne) are appropriate because the digestion and metabolism of fibre requires more energy which “warms” the horse than does the digestion of soluble carbohydrates. Therefore feeding fibre produces more body heat, so increasing the fibre content of the ration should be the first avenue when needing to combat weight loss.
Sugar beet is also a useful feed (available in SA as Speedybeet). It is known as an intermediate feed because it is composed of approximately 50% soluble carbohydrate that is digested in the small intestine and 50% insoluble carbohydrate that is digested in the hindgut or caecum. Horses that have irreversible dental damage should be fed highly digestible feeds and soaked chaff and grass pellets. If the horse does not respond to more fibre in the diet, or continues to lose condition then feeding a commercial ration that has been formulated for veterans or consulting an equine nutritionist is advisable. Commercial feeds for aged horses have been processed in various ways in order to increase their digestibility. Terms to lookout for are: extruded, macronised and micronized.
Another cause of weight loss in old individuals is chronic low grade pain caused by arthritic conditions. The use of natural supplements with anti-inflammatory and pain reducing properties such as Equilibrate MSM: Glucosamine and CHF is preferable to steroidal or non steroidal anti inflammatories, which can have side effects. Creaking and clicking of aged bones and joints respond well to the above.
Probiotics: Equilibrate BB are also useful for “aged” systems by improving the overall digestion of feeds.
Weepy, tearing eyes respond to supplementation with vitamin A and skin conditions are usefully treated with good levels of vitamin B’s and vitamin E found in COMPLETE AND CHF.
By ensuring we take the best possible care of our old companions we can hope for an extended work life and a healthy retirement.
Feeding the sick horse
Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Vol 4 Issue 2, June 2005
Feeding dentally challenged horses
Clinical Techniques inn Equine Practice, Vol 4, Issue 2, June 2005
Diet and health of the older horse
Journal of Equine Science, Vol 23,Issue 4, April 2003
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