It’s a well-established fact that horses are living longer than they have at any point in history. While once only a few horses could expect to live to much older than twenty, now most horses are active and running around until well beyond that age.
While this is undoubtedly good news for horses, it does present them (and their owners) with a few problems. As a horse ages, their metabolism begins to decline, and they become less capable of digesting certain key nutrients. These might include protein and fibre, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. What this means is that older horses have slightly different dietary requirements to younger ones; the food that they eat should ideally be easy to digest, low in starch and packed with high-quality protein.
What causes a horse’s digestive system to decline over time?
For example, a worm infection, even once cleared, can leave long-term markers on an animal’s gut, which render it less able to absorb the key nutrients that it needs to thrive. If your horse has suffered an infestation at some point in its life, then it will likely be less capable of digesting protein and other nutrients. This is another reason to be vigilant with anti-worm medication.
Dental problems can also adversely influence an animal’s powers of digestion. If a horse has missing or damaged teeth, then it will be less able to chew and digest its food. Cushing’s disease is one of many other conditions which can adversely impact your horse’s powers of digestion.
What can be done to help a horse digest its food?
By feeding a horse high quality protein, we can help it to properly maintain its muscle mass. This allows it to move around more easily, but it also helps it to maintain its cardiovascular systems, and thereby reduce the chance of heart disease, stroke and other serious conditions.
The term protein refers to a broad category of amino acids, which are used by your horse’s body to create and maintain tissue. But not all protein is created equally. Some varieties are more easily absorbed than others. This is especially so in older horses. The dietary enzymes which help to break proteins apart are less plentiful in the small intestines of older horses than younger ones.
This means that simply feeding your horse higher doses of difficult-to-digest protein can be counterproductive – it can place a severe load on the kidneys, and thereby increase the likelihood of a number of different diseases.
Protein is needed more at certain times of a horse’s life than others. When a horse is very young, it will need to create a large amount of new tissue in a very short space of time, as it grows into its adult body. Moreover, a pregnant mare will need to consume a lot of protein in order to help build the body of the foal.
Exercise must also be supported using protein. When a horse exercises, its musculature becomes covered in microscopic tears which must be repaired using amino acids. If a horse is exercising and consuming the right amino acids through diet, then they’ll be able to maintain and grow their musculature. If they aren’t, then they’ll experience muscle loss. This risk is especially so in older horses, who are able to undertake less exercise, and are less able to digest and process protein.
What are the risks of forage?
You might think that you’ll be able to get more protein into your horse’s diet by simply switching to a different sort of forage. Unfortunately, forage can introduce unwanted substances into your horse’s diet, which can end up doing more harm than good.
Feeds which are high in carbohydrates can have a negative impact on your horse’s health. Even if they’re still active (even at competition level), they’re unlikely to need to levels of sugar present in some feed. As your horse ages, you might consider gradually replacing their dietary carbohydrates with oils. These can help to provide your horse with energy without the negative side-effects of sugar. Moreover, many of the acids found in oils can help to stave off cell death, and thereby preserve the function of your horse’s body and brain.
You might spot dental problems early by keeping a lookout for giveaway behaviours. If your horse should begin chewing, then this might indicate that eating hurts – likely because of poor dental health. You can help to make hay easier to swallow by soaking it or steaming it, or by replacing it with an alternative like short chop alfalfa. When the problem gets very severe, and your horse is incapable of taking hay on board, then you might turn to an alternative like soaked sugar beet.
Older horses are also more prone to suffering respiratory allergies as they age, and so it becomes even more important to ensure that hay is clean and free from allergens. This will help to reduce conditions like recurrent airway obstruction.
Unfortunately, while some amino acids can be synthesised by the horse’s body, many cannot. This means that the latter category must be taken on board through diet. Unfortunately, much of the feed we give to our horses are quite low in this sort of amino acid. Sugar beet, oatfeed and barley generally don’t contain enough of them.
For this reason, it can be useful to supplement the diet of an older horse with additional protein. One popular option is Equitop Myoplast, which contains eighteen amino acids, including ten essential ones. This helps to provide the body of an older horse with all the protein it needs, without all those unhelpful substances that might contribute to obesity and tooth decay. This supplement carries the endorsement of Olympic gold-winning equestrians, and has helped many horses to enjoy long, happy lives. Perhaps your horse could also benefit from it!