Feeding the Older Toothless Horse

Malnourished older horse

Malnourished older horse

Aging horses are unable to glean nutrients from what they eat due to reduced nutrient absorption, lowered ability to digest fiber, reduced gastrointestinal motility, and loss of teeth. New window.

Within the last few decades, a major change in thinking about toothless horses has occurred and horses are living longer as a result of research leading to better ways to feed horses that are dentally challenged.

With more horses living into their 20’s, 30’s and beyond, horse owners are being challenged to make sure toothless or dentally-challenged horses get the proper nutrition they need to remain healthy and active.

New drugs, advanced surgical techniques and better nutrition and dental care are changing the notion of what constitutes a senior horse.

It is important to recognize that there is no predetermined age when an individual horse becomes “old.”

Like people, individual horses age at different rates. As caregivers, we can have an effect on some areas of aging, such as dental and hoof care, but little effect or control over others, such as genetics, previous care and previous use.

Aging horses are unable to glean nutrients from what they eat due to reduced nutrient absorption, lowered ability to digest fiber, reduced gastrointestinal motility, and loss of teeth.

Health problems may arise due to intestinal damage from parasites if the horse has not been kept on a regular parasite control program throughout his life.

Horses may start to show metabolic signs of aging such as endocrine problems, and decreased kidney and liver function. They can also develop pituitary tumors, melanoma and respiratory diseases. Some older horses develop hormonal problems such as hypothyroidism, Cushing's syndrome, adrenal exhaustion and diabetes. These conditions need to be considered when feeding horses.

Consider this

If horses live long enough, they eventually wear their teeth down to the root decreasing the horse's ability to chew hay and grain and making a special diet necessary.

Unfortunately, some senior horses 20+ years start to run out of tooth reserves and become deficient in tooth surface leading to teeth and gum issues that result in loss of teeth. The loss of teeth and resulting problems decrease the horse's ability to chew hay and grain and in most cases, the horse will require a special diet.

All horses eventually wear their teeth down to the root if they live long enough. If a horse cannot grind feed into small enough pieces to swallow comfortably it may cause him to choke.

In aged horses, loss of molars is a primary concern when discerning a cause for weight loss. As time takes its toll on the horse, dentition can become wavy and teeth begin to fall out.

When a horse's teeth do not properly grind his food, the food enters the digestive tract in particles too large for proper breakdown by digestive enzymes in the small intestine and microbes in the large intestine and cecum. In this case, the feed is of little nutritional benefit to the horse.

Receding or missing incisors, another problem common in aged horses, may cause difficulty in tearing grass when grazing. Inadequate intake of forage results and this affects the digestive process, sometimes leading to colic, or in some cases, diarrhea.

These dietary changes are a primary cause of equine diarrhea, especially in older horses. Any time new feed or a supplement is added, a digestive upset can result. Therefore, the owner or manager of an older toothless or dentally-challenged horse needs to increase management considerations for the older horse when making feeding changes.

Supplementing the horse's diet

it is important to provide geriatric horses that are having difficulty maintaining their body condition with highly digestible, high-energy feeds since older horses usually need more protein and fat in their diet than their middle-aged counterparts.

Before adding supplemental fats, vitamins or minerals to the horse’s diet, veterinarians recommend a simple blood analysis to ensure that the horse has proper kidney and liver function. Horses with liver dysfunction will not tolerate added fat in the diet.

Making a soupy mash for toothless horse

Making a soupy mash for toothless horse

Older horses usually need more protein and fat in their diet than their middle-aged counterparts.
© 2012 by Artist Name New window.

Providing feeds with high protein and /or calcium (e.g., alfalfa, beet pulp) can aggravate the kidneys in horses with kidney disease. Having a blood analysis will help ensure the horse’s health and is a cost effective way of determining important dietary considerations for the particular horse.

For horses affected by Cushing's disease, choose feed with low amounts of sugar and starch, which could improve glucose and insulin metabolism and reduce the risk of laminitis and founder.

Research shows that due to decreased feed efficiency, geriatric horses may need to be fed similar to the NRC requirement for yearling and weanlings when it comes to vitamins and minerals.

Feed a high quality protein, 14%. Add vitamin C to the diet, if the horse shows signs of a compromised immune system (supplementation of vitamin C at 5 to 10 grams a day). B vitamins can be fed for pituitary tumors (Cushing's disease) and liver disease. A good source of vitamin B is brewer's yeast; it improves feed utilization and health of the gut microflora.

One commonly used practice is to feed older horses beet pulp in some form. Beet pulp is a highly digestible fiber source. It is sometimes incorporated into commercial feed or can be bought separately to be wet down and fed to the horse.

One difficulty in feeding a geriatric horse with no teeth or with very severe tooth damage is maintaining efficient movement of feed through the horse’s digestive system to prevent lack of motility.

To counteract this issue, veterinarians recommend adding some long stemmed soft leafy alfalfa hay to the horse's diet. often in a series of small piles that encourage the horse to “graze.” Although horses without teeth may have difficulty actually eating the hay, most horses want to chew on fiber and much of the soft leafy alfalfa will be easily swallowed by the horse, thereby providing fiber for better digestion.

Read the feed tags carefully on specialized horse feeds to understand the nutrients they contain.

For horses that are losing weight, wetting down the horse's grain with vegetable oil to increase their fat intake helps keep a consistent weight and provides energy.

Supplements containing extra vitamins and minerals should be added carefully to the horse's diet since some nutrients are stored in the body. Over time, an excess of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can build up and cause a toxic reaction. Horse owners can side step this potential problem by feeding their horses commercially prepared concentrates and supplements designed for use with specific brands of feed.

When chewing is difficult, “soups” of pelleted feeds may be fed. Only “complete” pelleted feeds which are designed to be fed without hay should be used since many pelleted feeds are only grain substitutes and do not contain the proper mineral balance to be used as the major or sole source of nutrition for the horse.

Dr. Juliet Getty, author of Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, suggests feeding hay cubes. They can be broken into small pieces and moistened enough that the horse can easily eat them. Dr. Getty suggests offering the soaked hay cubes free-choice. You can even place them in a slow feeder and mentions several feeders that are available: The Natural Feeder, Freedom Feeder, Nibble Net, Work 4 Feeder, Texas Haynet, etc.

For an older, toothless horse, soak timothy/alfalfa cubes in enough warm water to make a soupy consistency (at least 1/2 gallon of water per lb feed) to prevent choke) for 30-60 minutes, then "squish" them with your hands to make sure no hard portions remain.

Shredded beet pulp

Shredded beet pulp

Mix moistened beet pulp with the hay cubes as a way to provide water soluble fiber and some extra calories for your horse.
© 2017 by Sandstein New window.

Many horses do very well on these "processed" roughages and can return to normal or near normal manure production, a sign of a more normally functioning digestive system.

You can also mix moistened beet pulp in with the hay cubes as a way to provide water soluble fiber and some extra calories for your horse.

Also, mashes made with a complete pelleted feed plus water at 1.5 to 2 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight, for the horse that can no longer chew its feed. Bran mash is not recommended; it is too fibrous, bulky, and inverts the Ca:P ratio.

Depending on weather conditions where you live it may be necessary to give horses only what the horse can easily consume in one meal. Soaked forages can spoil quickly during hot weather and will freeze solid in winter.

Some commercial "older horse feeds" use chelated vitamins, a process where vitamins are attached to proteins, making the vitamins more available to the horse.

Make sure the older or tooth-challenged horse gets to eat his ration and the boss horse is not cleaning up all the feed. Ration changes should be made gradually (over a minimum of five days) to prevent digestive disturbances.

Know what you are feeding your horse

Read teed tags carefully on specialized horse feeds to understand the nutrients they contain. This information will help you determine if the feed is a “complete” feed for your particular horse.

Of course, your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist will have helpful information about the needs of horses on special diets.

Most commercial feed companies have information about the nutritional value of their products, the amounts to feed, and general guidelines to help horse owners determine what will work best for their particular horse.

About the author

EquiMed Staff shares a common goal of helping you improve your horse's health. The staff work together to develop unique web-focused content that answers the most common questions of horse owners. EquiMed staff written content is updated frequently to incorporate the best practices within the equine healthcare industry. Thanks for visiting!

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