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Old Horses, Cold Weather, and Forage IntakeBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 9, 2016

Fresh grasses provide old horses with much of the nutrition they require to maintain health. As pasture quality wanes in the autumn, owners of old horses often begin to worry about providing sufficient forage, especially if dental problems make hay-chewing difficult. Horses with missing or diseased teeth frequently chew grass more easily than hay. Consider these three strategies to increase fiber intake as fresh pasture becomes scarce.

Use pelleted or cubed forages. Horses that cannot get nutrients from hay because of poor dentition often do well on hay pellets or cubes. These products are usually made purely or partially from alfalfa (lucerne) hay, though pellets and cubes made from grass hays, such as timothy, are available.

“Horses generally find hay pellets and cubes palatable,” noted Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutrition advisor with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). These products can be dampened just prior to feeding to soften them. “Pellets and cubes can be soaked using different amounts of water to suit an individual horse’s preference, as some horses can be finicky about the wetness of a feed.” Cubes might have to be broken apart and moistened thoroughly in order for horses to get the most out of them.

Consider the use of chopped forage. Several companies offer alfalfa and timothy hay in chopped form, with individual pieces of forage only a few inches long. Chopped forage is easier for horses to chew and swallow. “These products are sometimes coated lightly with a vegetable oil, such as canola oil, which serves to reduce dust. For horses with weight-maintenance issues, the canola oil is an additional  source of calories,” explained Whitehouse.

Find a well-fortified complete feed. A “complete” feed contains rich energy and fiber sources, and these are designed to be fed either without hay or with very little hay (1-2 lb; 0.45-0.9 kg). Complete feeds are typically pelleted or textured. Fiber sources include beet pulp, alfalfa meal, and soy hulls, all of which are readily fermented in the hindgut. Complete feeds, when offered without long-stem forage, are meant to be fed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, which will usually be 1-2% of the horse’s body weight, said Whitehouse.

Many horse owners are not familiar or comfortable with feeding this much bagged product. While they may be hesitant, owners should remember that because the horse is not eating hay, the deficit must be filled with another source of energy, in this case the complete feed. The total amount of complete feed offered should be split into three or four meals per day.

Dental dysfunction in older horses is usually progressive, occurring slowly over time. In addition to annual or semi-annual dental examinations, paying careful attention to chewing habits and body condition will often provide clues as to when alternative forage sources are necessary. Quidding is a telltale sign of dental problems, and occurs when a horse takes a bite of forage, wets it with saliva, rolls it within the mouth, and then spits it back out.

When a horse begins to show signs of quidding, it is best to move on to chopped or cubed hay, both of which have intermediate fiber length. When chewing these becomes more difficult for the horse, pelleted forage, which has the shortest fiber length is the next choice.

Additional vegetable oil can be added to any or all of these forage sources. “Choose an oil with a favorable fatty acid profile such as canola or soybean oil. Alternatively, stabilized rice bran could be added to the ration,” suggested Whitehouse.

Do you have question about how to properly nourish your old horse? Contact the KER nutrition advisors for a complete nutritional inventory of your horse’s diet. Start here!