McKee-Pownall Equine Services | Health Care FAQ

Health Care FAQ

What guidelines can you offer for feeding my geriatric horse?

Feeding the Geriatric Horse

Older horses often have difficulty in maintaining an optimal bodyweight, and suffer from a gradual loss of body condition as they age. This can be due to many factors including:

  • Severe weather conditions (extreme cold, poor grass)
  • Social factors (bottom rank, not allowed near feeder)
  • Chronic pain (arthritis, laminitis, abdominal pain)
  • Intestinal parasite damage
  • Decline in organ function (pituitary, liver, kidney)
  • Abnormal dental conditions (loose/infected teeth, smooth teeth, inadequate dentistry)
  • Cancer
  • Inadequate diet and feed schedule

If an older horse is suffering from loss of condition, these factors should be investigated.

Treating Feeding Problems

Dental Exam

A thorough dental examination and correction of abnormalities is paramount, since no diet will help if the horse is unable to eat it.


The deworming program should be reviewed.

Internal Factors

  • Musculoskeletal Pain:Should be addressed with anti-inflammatories and joint health supplements
  • Chronic Abdominal Pain:Should be investigated by checking for stomach ulcers and internal tumors
  • Cushings disease and Metabolic Syndrome:Usually characterized by obesity and excessive haircoat but can also affect very thin animals

Blood testing can be used to diagnose these conditions, as well as liver and kidney failure, and low thyroid function.

External Factors

External factors can also play a major role, and are often easily addressed. Such factors include:

  • Extreme weather
  • Management
  • Inadequate shelter
  • Competition from pasture-mates

Feeding Options

High-Energy Feeds

Many high-end feed companies make excellent senior diets that are palatable and calorie-rich, in both concentrate and "complete" (no hay required) forms.

Individuals with no functional teeth can be maintained on a complete diet that is well-soaked into a gruel format. These feeds are typically 12-15% protein, less than 1% calcium and .45-.6% phosphorus. They are often pre-cooked or extruded to increase digestibility.

Additional calories can be provided via corn oil, introduced gradually up to 2 cups/day, rice bran products, and beet pulp. High quality hay can be provided in the form of cubes for those who are unable to chew long-stem forages, as they are prone to choke and poor digestibility.

Horses with Disease

Horses with cushings or metabolic syndrome should not be given feeds which use molasses as an appetizer (such as sweet feed), since the sugars will exacerbate insulin resistance.

Feeds high in calcium, especially alfalfa hay and beet pulp, should be avoided in horses with kidney problems, and high carbohydrate/low fat rations are appropriate if liver disease is present. Live bacterial/yeast supplements (plain yoghurt, commercial products) can increase palatability and enhance digestion.


Older horses have reduced immune function, and may benefit from additional vitamin C (10 gm twice a day), B (4 gm brewers yeast twice a day) and E (40 000 iu daily) supplementation. Check the label of your senior feed carefully since these are often added.

Don't forget to add lots of carrots, apples and TLC to keep up their appetites!

More Information

Please contact McKee-Pownall Equine Services if you wish to discuss management and health assessment of your older horse.