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Feeding the older horse or pony over winter

The winter months mean management changes for many horses and ponies and those in their “senior years” may sometimes need a little extra support to ensure they emerge from winter full of the joys of spring! Whether you have a “20 going on 2 year-old”, or an aged veteran with poor dentition we are here to help with feeding management strategies that can help you to see them safely through this winter.

You’re only as old as you feel!

Improved knowledge, veterinary care and nutrition mean that horses and ponies are living much longer and our perception of what defines an old horse has changed. Although many senior mixes and cubes are available, not every senior horse or pony needs them, especially those that hold their weight well. If you are feeding less than the recommended quantities of a veteran mix it will mean that your OAP is missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. To counter these shortfalls, adding a supplement or balancer to top up on essential nutrients is advisable.

For the older horse or pony that has no specific problems the main priority is to continue to feed a suitable ration according to their bodyweight and workload and to ensure that the ration is balanced. Any of the Dengie fibre feed products such as those from the Alfa-A or Hi-Fi ranges may be fed to a senior horse and, as they all contain alfalfa, they provide good quality protein and can help to support muscle tone. To provide a balanced ration a Dengie Vits & Mins Supplement or Balancer may be used according to workload.

Confined to Barracks?

Stabling over the winter months is not always the most “comfortable” situation for the older horse. Confinement to a smaller space may result in stiffer joints and poor ventilation in the stable may result in respiratory problems, which is a common problem for older horses and ponies. Dengie Performance+ Balancer contains added glucosamine for joint support and a prebiotic for digestive support as well as a broad-spectrum of vitamins and minerals to provide a balanced diet for the veteran horse.

Senior Specific Problems

Poor dentition, weight loss, PPID (formerly known as Cushing’s disease) and laminitis are just some of the problems that a veteran horse may face. In practice this means that they require a more specialised ration all year round, but for those with poor teeth the winter months can be particularly challenging as the reliance on conserved long stem forage increases. Monitoring bodyweight and condition by regular use of a weigh tape and body condition scoring is good practice for any horse owner, but it is especially important for those with veterans as changes can be spotted quickly and appropriate alterations to the ration made.

Poor Dentition?

As horses age their teeth can become worn and loose, a problem that is usually first noticed when a horse drops partially chewed feed from its mouth which is termed “quidding”. For horses that quid, feeding long stem forage like hay and haylage can become a problem and poorly digested feed can lead to further complications including impaction colic, a common problem in older horses. As a 500kg horse can eat around 6-8kg or more of forage in the winter months alongside grazing, it is not surprising that as soon as they start to struggle with forage they may lose weight.

It is vital to remember that a horse needs fibre to maintain digestive health and fibre intake should still equate to at least 1.5% of bodyweight; a 500kg horse would therefore require 7.5kg of a fibre-based feed per day. When horses can no longer manage long stem forage the next step is to try a short chop hay replacer product, such as Dengie Hi-Fi Senior which combines short chop high temperature dried grasses and alfalfa. Horse owners often ask if feeding such a large quantity of feed in a bucket is alright as the general advice for feeding horses is to keep bucket feed to a minimum. However, because Hi-Fi Senior and for that matter the other Alfa-A and Hi-Fi products are fibre sources, it is like a haynet in a bucket and therefore completely safe to feed in bulk – in fact the horse was designed to eat this way!

Soaking feed to a mash or gruel consistency can also help make it easier to consume. Adding Dengie Alfa-Beet to the ration is an ideal way of softening it as well as providing extra calories for those horses that need to gain weight. Dengie Alfa-Beet combines alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet with a convenient 15-minute hot soak or 2 hour cold soak. There may come a time when an old horse cannot even manage short chop products. At this stage it is advisable to use an entirely soaked hay replacer ration that can be made up of soaked Alfa-Beet and High Fibre Cubes. It is equally important to weigh the cubes before they are soaked to ensure an appropriate quantity is fed.

Made from high temperature grasses Dengie Meadow Grass with Herbs and Grass Pellets are also ideal for those that struggle to chew.

Weight Management

Just because a horse is old it does not necessarily mean that they are going to be thin. However, if your veteran does start to lose weight it is important to ascertain the reason why and not just to put it down to “old age”. Run through a checklist including dental check, vet check and worming check to identify any problems. Also check your horse’s diet; in particular, are they eating as much hay as they used to? It may be time to consider moving onto a more senior specific or higher energy feed. However proceed with caution with senior mixes as many wouldn’t be ideal for veterans that have problems like laminitis or PPID, both of which require a low sugar and starch diet. Alfa-A Oil is Dengie’s highest calorie fibre feed and has a calorie level equivalent to a conditioning mix or cube but without the high starch levels. This makes Alfa-A Oil suitable for veterans that need weight gain but require a low sugar/starch ration and it can also be fed alongside Dengie Alfa-Beet if extra condition is needed.

PPID and Laminitis Care

The dietary management of a horse or pony with Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID, also know as Cushing’s Disease) should be based on a low sugar and starch diet, just as for horses prone to laminitis. Unfortunately, one of the main problems associated with the PPID is that horses tend to be more prone to laminitis due to changes to the balance of hormones that occurs. This may mean that you may be doing everything right with regard to their diet and yet laminitis can still occur.

Feeding according to weight and dental condition is also an additional consideration for horses and ponies with PPID and laminitis. For those that maintain weight easily, a low calorie, low sugar and starch product, like Dengie Hi-Fi Lite or Hi-Fi Molasses Free, is suitable. For those that struggle to maintain weight Dengie Alfa-A Oil, Alfa-A Molasses Free and Alfa-Beet are all suitable feeds.