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Ask the Vet: Forage for Senior Horses

What forage options are available for hard-to-keep senior horses?

October 20, 2014

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In our Ask the Vet column, Dr. Lydia Gray answers your horse-health questions at HorseChannel.com/AskTheVet. Got a question for Dr. Gray? Send it to hc-editor@i5publishing.com and use subject line "Ask the Vet."

Feed Tub Q: I know senior feeds contain a forage replacer for horses with difficulty chewing and digesting hay, but it doesn't seem enough. What other forage options are there for the hard to keep senior horse?

A: You are definitely on the right track! Senior feeds, also known as "complete” feeds, are called this because they’re like getting hay and grain together in a bag. That is, they contain a source of forage for a healthy hindgut AND a source of vitamins, minerals, protein, and other essential nutrients so that your horse’s diet is complete.

In order to be "complete” though, these feeds must be fed in the amount recommended on the bag. As an example, Nutrena’s Safe Choice Senior Horse Feed recommends that for a 1,200lb horse in light work getting no hay or pasture, 16-18 lbs of the product be fed! While this may seem like a huge amount of "grain,” remember that complete feeds aren’t just grain, they’re forage and grain. And since horses need 1 to 2% of their body weight each day in food—which works out to 12 - 24lbs in our example—the manufacturer’s feeding recommendation falls right in the middle of that range, giving you the freedom to feed more or less depending on how your horse looks.

So if he’s a hard keeper as you suggest--maybe a 4 or 4.5 on the Body Condition Scoring scale instead of the ideal 5--then you may want to give more than 18 lbs of this brand of complete feed per day. You’ll also want to divide the total amount fed per day into multiple feedings. So let’s say you end up feeding 20 or 21 lbs. You could give 7 lbs in three feedings or 5 lbs in four feedings. Since horses are trickle feeders and for a host of reasons do better when they have food in their stomachs all the time, I recommend small meals frequently.

Another thing you could do to help your horse that has difficulty chewing long-stem forage such as hay and pasture is wet or soak the complete feed. This particular brand only needs three minutes of soaking before it’s ready to be fed; others may need longer.

Once you’re confident that your horse is getting 100% of his protein, vitamin, and mineral daily requirements by feeding his senior or complete feed correctly, you can begin to supplement the diet with additional, tasty, easy-to-chew forage sources for extra calories. Great choices include straight beet pulp, hay cubes or pellets, or chopped hay. Since some chopped hay has been fortified with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, be sure to read the bag so you know which kind you’re giving. And any of these can also be soaked to make chewing easier.

Also, don’t be afraid to add proven ingredients that aid in digestive efficiency, such as prebiotics, probiotics, enzymes, and yeast. These can make a big difference in how much nutrition horses are able to extract from their feed, especially seniors and hard keepers. Fat is another great add-on to the diet of horses who need extra calories. My own horse loves the taste of his powdered fat and will eat it right out of my hand!

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