Feeding Veterans

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A veteran is usually defined as a horse or pony over the age of 15 and whilst some will start to show their age around this time, others are far from hanging up their bridle and settling into retirement. Telissa Blowers, BSc (Hons) Allen & Page equine nutritionist confirms that it is becoming increasingly more common for horses to live well into their 20’s and even their 30’s – which is why it is ever more important to treat each horse as an individual and provide it with a specific feeding plan to suit its needs.

It is important that a veteran’s diet reflects energy requirements for maintaining weight and workload

Unfortunately, ageing is unavoidable (just as it is for humans!) and common signs of equine ageing which your customers may describe can include loss of weight, a drop in muscle tone, stiffness, grey hairs, sunken eyes, poor/lack of teeth and they may even start to develop a thicker coat.

Some horse owners may find that their horse becomes increasingly stiff as it gets older especially when coming out of the stable first thing or when first exercising. Stiffness is often more common during the winter months when temperatures drop, which can mean rugging the veteran horse can be beneficial to keep joints as warm and mobile as possible. For a horse that suffers from stiff joints, keeping its weight ideal is ever more important as excessive weight can cause unwanted strain on the joints.

Keeping a horse active and in work into its later years, is highly beneficial to maintaining all-round health and wellbeing – some would argue keeping the mind active helps keep the body active. However, if the horse is suffering from illness or unsoundness, exercise is not advisable without veterinary consultation. When advising a customer on their individual horse, it is important that the veteran horse’s diet is specified by taking its weight and workload into account, whether it be a stroll around the block or competing regularly. Generally, a veteran feed with a digestible energy (DE) value of around 11Mj/Kg will provide an increase in energy when compared with standard pony cubes and mixes. However, if the horse has been fed on a high energy feed (DE>12Mj/Kg) then it would be advisable to continue feeding a high energy feed, so calories are not lost from the diet, as this can result in a loss of weight and condition.

Offering adequate amounts of good quality forage is particularly important for older horses

The good-doer

Some veteran horses will remain good-doers for their entire lives meaning that beginning to feed a high calorie veteran feed will cause unwanted weight gain. Consequently, recommending a low calorie feed (8-9Mj/Kg) will allow the owner to avoid unwanted weight gain and maintain an ideal body condition score.

In the instance of a horse holding weight a bit too well, it would always be beneficial to advise customers on simple weight management techniques. These can include; using hay as forage instead of haylage, soaking the horse’s hay for around 12-16 hours for most effective calorie reduction (although if this isn’t possible, a little time soaking is better than none at all), strip grazing or muzzling can be used to limit grass intake and finally, any weight loss can be aided by increasing the horse’s exercise.

Joint health can be a concern for veteran owners

The poor-doer

In contrast, weight loss in older horses is not uncommon. Ensuring the older, poor-doer is eating enough fibre is particularly important as he will lose weight if he is not eating enough – in fact, here at Allen & Page, we find this is the most common cause of weight loss in horses. Insufficient fibre in the diet not only leads to weight loss, it can also increase the risk of a horse developing boredom related stable vices, gastric ulcers and digestive upsets, all of which will affect his health and potential when being exercised.

If a horse owner is wanting to add more condition to their veteran, unsoaked hay or haylage contains a higher calorie level in comparison to the soaked variety. Providing a ‘bucket’ feed with a high energy level (DE>12 Mj/Kg) will provide more calories in the diet – although we always advise feeding no more than 2kg of concentrates (dry weight) per meal. We should remember that chaff can be added on top of the 2kg of concentrates as it is simply seen as additional fibre in the diet. If the horse is a particularly poor-doer, providing two or three meals each day allows the horse to digest his feed more efficiently. However, cereal grains should be avoided as they will have a far higher starch level in comparison to fibre and oil based sources. Furthermore, higher starch levels can lead to sharp and fizzy behaviour as well as proving to be harder to digest. A high calorie veteran or conditioning feed that is cereal grain free and utilises unmolassed sugar beet and linseed will be lower in starch and sugar than traditional cereal based mixes and cubes.

Common veteran ailments

As horses and ponies get older, their teeth will naturally deteriorate. Loose, worn or missing teeth can cause great difficulty when the horse is trying to chew and digest forage, which may mean they are not receiving all the essential nutrients that the forage provides. The customer should be careful to monitor their horse or pony’s feeding behaviour as it becomes older. Customers may notice that their horse is spending more time standing in the field rather than eating which could indicate that it is finding grazing difficult – it may be struggling to bite off the shorter pieces of grass. Furthermore, where the horse would once clear up its forage overnight, it may now be starting to leave more and more or in some cases, owners may find that their horse has balls of partially chewed forage spat out and left on the floor – this is commonly known as quidding. Monitoring the number of droppings the horse produces each day is also a good way of monitoring forage intake – a lack of forage in the diet will lead to fewer droppings. Although some of these problems can be solved by treatment from a qualified equine dental technician, having six monthly check-ups throughout its life where possible is ideal.

The decline in dental condition that occurs naturally may mean some older horses require soaked feeds

If these issues are age related and unable to be cured by good dentistry the horse will benefit from a change in diet to provide the nutrition it needs in a form that is easier to eat. In fact, one of the most important qualities of a feed for veterans is that it is easy to eat. A veteran horse with poor teeth is more at risk of suffering choke and colic, simply because it is not able to chew properly, so this may cause the food to become lodged in the mouth. Recommending a soaked partial or total forage replacement is beneficial as an alternative source of fibre that can easily be chewed and digested.

A soaked feed is also advisable for customers who have a horse who is reluctant to drink enough water throughout the day especially when travelling, staying away at a show and during the winter months. By feeding a soaked feed, the owner ensures that their veteran horse is increasing its water consumption, keeping it hydrated and aiding its digestive system to function normally.

Veteran horses and ponies are notorious for being fussy feeders – with age, it is common for their appetite to change – just as it does in humans. Some feeds contain a blend of herbs which, after extensive trialing, have proven to be extremely palatable to horses and ponies which means even the fussiest of feeders will want to tuck into the feed regardless of the number of teeth they have. Sadly, some horses will suffer from veterinary conditions such as Cushing’s disease, which can cause appetite changes and limit what they can eat. This means that their favourite food might now be a thing of the past and horse owners are struck into panic over what to feed. This is why an assumption can be made that veteran feeds are more palatable due to containing ‘tasty’ ingredients to tempt the horse into eating.

Veterans need to be fed according to weight and not age

Based on current research, it is recommended to feed a horse with laminitis or Cushing’s disease a ‘bucket’ feed with a combined starch and sugar level below 10%. It is important to remember that when advising the customer on feeding, that some of the specific veteran feeds will include molasses to make the feed far sweeter in order to tempt the horse. Unfortunately for veterans who suffer from the likes of Cushing’s disease or laminitis, molasses should be avoided as this increases the sugar content of the feed. Feeds containing cereal grains should also be avoided as this, in turn, will increase the starch level of the feed.

As horses age they produce less of the starch digesting enzyme, which means starch is able to enter the hindgut. Microbial fermentation of this starch creates an undesirable acidic environment within the gut that increases the risk of laminitis and colic developing.

What to expect in a veteran feed

Additional tasty ingredients are not the only thing you can expect to find within a specific veteran feed. Ideally, when feeding a veteran, a specific veteran feed would be used as these will generally provide an elevated protein level as well as elevated levels of some vitamins such as vitamin E and vitamin C which are important anti-oxidants especially for those on limited or no pasture. As horses become older, their ability to digest protein becomes less efficient and many will benefit from an increased protein level. Elevated levels of protein and vitamins will also be crucial in maintaining a veteran’s normal muscle function and repair as well as helping to maintain the horse’s circulatory, nervous and immune system function. It is also believed that an elevated protein level decreases recovery time after exercise thus helping horse owners keep their veteran in an active routine.

When feeding a horse, ensuring it gains a balanced diet inclusive of essential vitamins and minerals is key to all-round health and vitality. Veteran feeds will also often contain prebiotics and probiotics that are useful in promoting good digestive health by increasing the hindgut microflora population, which in turn reduces the risk of harmful bacteria in the gut.

Good quality veteran feeds will be high in fibre and low in starch and sugar with the energy coming from a fibre and oil based source, as this will mimic the horse’s natural diet.

Linseed is a feed ingredient commonly found in veteran feeds as a high-calorie source that is ideal for those who, despite having a high calorie bucket feed already, are still struggling with their weight. Linseed can also be added as an additional supplement to a ‘bucket’ feed – it can be found in a micronised or oil form. When recommending additional linseed to a customer, it is worth bearing in mind that linseed oil has been found to alter the taste of the feed so it may not be most suited to a fussy feeder! Linseed is also a brilliant source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are thought to have an anti-inflammatory property and when balanced with Omega 6 fatty acids, are crucial for maintaining digestive health and coat condition.

Maintaining a healthy veteran, inside and out, is a tricky task and it is crucial to provide the customer with correct and specific feeding recommendations to ensure their horse’s needs are catered for.

Gaining all of the relevant information about the horse before recommending a feed is of the utmost importance because, as we have discussed, some horses with veterinary conditions need specific feeding and management so their health does not deteriorate further and discussing with the customer why a certain feed has been recommended for their horse will help to put their mind at rest. Our nutrition helpline is not only open for customers but also for stockists and suppliers who perhaps have a customer in store and would like guidance to ensure the best feed is recommended. If this is the case and you would like some friendly, helpful nutritional advice then call our helpline on 01362 822902.