How Should I Be Feeding My Older Performance Horse?

Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS-Nutrition

In today’s world, there are organizations or associations where older human athletes can still compete with their peers. In the equestrian world some associations also have divisions based on the rider’s age, but the age of the horse is usually not a factor. It is interesting to note that with the exception of the young athlete, age of the horse is not a consideration when it comes to competition. In the 2012 Olympics, 23% of the horses competing in the 3-Day competition were 15 years of age or older and the oldest was a 20 year old from New Zealand. In racing, the Grand National was once won by a 15 year old while the 2014 Haggin Cup, which is presented to the best conditioned horse finishing the Tevis Cup, was presented to a 17 year old Arabian gelding. The incredible horse that partnered with Charmayne James to win 10 consecutive World Titles in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association was 16 years old when they won their 10th title.

Age is defined as chronological, that is age from birth and physiological age, which relates to physiological function or physical age. Senior horses are generally regarded as 20 years of age or older, but this can vary. Some chronologically young horses may be physiologically old horses depending on prior use, management, care, and nutrition; the opposite is also encountered.

Feeding the older athlete may present some unique challenges, but in general good nutrition is still based on requirements and meeting those requirements. Energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins are essential nutrients required for all horses. Energy and protein intake requirements are much higher than minerals or vitamins.

At this time, there is insufficient data to suggest lowering the energy requirement based on the age of the horse, like that suggested for humans. There is information to suggest digestion and absorption is decreased in older horses. Supplementation of the essential amino acids lysine and threonine has been suggested for older horses to help maintain muscle mass. With a possible decrease in the large intestine activity, there may be a benefit from adding some of the water soluble vitamins to the diet, e.g. vitamin C. Age related dental issues also affect the digestibility of the feed.

In feeding the older athlete, there are some nuances, but ensuring a proper balanced diet is essential and differs very little from feeding any athlete; travel, competition, and new surroundings all influence the horse and can have a negative impact on immunity.

There are several sources of fiber that can be used, and should constitute the majority of the diet. Hay and pasture are the most often used, but beet pulp or soybean hulls are excellent sources of highly digestible energy. There are multiple feeds on the market that are designed for the older athlete. When fed at the recommended intake, they will supply many of the nutrients needed by the horse. Feeding less than the recommended amount may result in less vitamins and minerals being consumed than what is needed by the animal. Adding a quality mineral and vitamin supplement is often a very good insurance policy and will supply nutrients lacking in the diet. Since older horses often have diminished digestion function and reduced absorption of nutrients, it may be advisable to supply a quality symbiotic (prebiotic and probiotic) on a daily or at least a routine basis. Products that have been shown to support the immune system should be considered for this group of horses.

In summary:

  • Ensure a quality fiber source is the basis of the diet.
  • Feed according to the amount of work being performed.This is especially important in determining the amount of energy fed.
  • Feed a quality feed formulated for the older horse.
  • Judiciously use a quality vitamin and mineral supplement.
  • Add a quality symbiotic to the diet.
  • As with any athlete, use electrolytes during hot weather competing, traveling, or any time excessive sweating occurs.

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