Sunday, July 24, 2011

Horses: Care of Older Horses - Poor Old Mac

One of our horses, Mac, is about 35 years old. A major problem these days is keeping weight on him.

Horses will let you know whether or not they are getting enough to eat. Their health and body condition will let you know if you need to make changes.

Common sense and a watchful eye are an owner's best assets when it comes to owning horses.  

Our horses are doing pretty good, most full and round, but Mac has been losing weight. And yes, it seems to be happening too quickly. Changes in his feeding was needed, so I started feeding him more hay away from the others. 

Increasing the feed for him was my first step in trying to put weight on Mac, but that only worked so-so. So my next step was to separate him for the others completely.

Since horses have a strict social order, and poor old Mac is low on the pecking order, I figured by increasing the hay that I put out that maybe he'd get more to eat. But since that didn't produce the results that I wanted and he still wasn't looking good, I knew that I needed to separate him for the others. They simply weren't letting him eat enough to keep him healthy.  

So increasing his hay was my first step, and then separating Mac from the others was my second step. The next thing was that I've had to take a hard look at his feed. It's been my experience that bringing a horse back to health is a tough row to hoe.

As for feeding a horse, well obviously the most natural food for a horse is pasture. Good quality pasture is what all horse owners want. And yes, most older horses will do great on good quality pasture all by it's self.  

If the grazing is good, than life for a horse is great. But if grazing is so-so, then you'll have to supplement their pasture feed with hay.

Hay is the basic food of domestic horses. 

Of course buying and storing hay is important. Bales should be green and dust and mold free. They should be kept dry and subsequently reduce the chance of getting moldy. Feeding moldy hay can cause colic faster than anything else, and hay that's too dry and dusty can cause respiratory problems.

I've seen some folks pull apart a flake of hay before giving it to their horses, and yes I've even seen some folks soak hay in water before feeding it to their horses. Obviously precautions can be taken as you see fit.

My biggest concern about feeding hay is mold. Moldy hay colics horses, and knock on wood that it hasn't happened yet  - thank God.

Many of the common types of hay are found here in Northern California. We actually have a variety to pick from. Alfalfa hay, orchard grass hay, orchard grass/alfalfa mix, Timothy hay, and oat hay are all available here.

For me, I like to feed alfalfa because of its high protein. Seems like most folks around here feed a straight alfalfa, oat hay, or orchard grass/alfalfa hay. I know that we have Timothy hay around  this area, but I've heard its expensive and usually reserved for race tracks.   

Alfalfa is sold by the bale, but it's also available in cubes and pellets. Since horses are grazers by nature, feeding hay works out real well to fill a horses their need chew and graze. 

Watching Mac yesterday, I watched as he ate the hay that I gave him. At first he seemed normal, but then I watched as small clumps of chewed hay fell out of his mouth onto the ground. 

I've only seen this twice before, but I knew what it was. And yes, it usually happens to older horses. These chewed hay clumps are called “quids.” Quids happen because of dental deterioration like tooth loss of broken teeth which inhibits a horse’s ability to chew his hay.

The way a horse chews his food actually wears down his teeth unevenly. Most horses need their teeth "floated" by a Veterinarian. Some sooner than others, but usually once a year or so.

When a Veterinarian "floats" their teeth, he actually files off the sharp points that form on the molars. If the teeth aren’t floated regularly, the inside of the mouth can become cut and sore which can make eating very difficult.

To make matters worse, the teeth of old horses can become so worn down that a horse can’t bite off grass or chew properly. When that happens, then hay by itself cannot provide enough nutrition - especially for hardworking ranch horses, pregnant or nursing horses, young horses, and of course older horses like Mac.

So one problem with just feeding hay to an older horse is that he might not get all of the nutrients he needs. Second an older horse may have problems with its digestive system not working as well as it used to. In this case yes it's important to feed good quality hay - but also a supplement is probably needed.

So to avoid weight loss problems, the question becomes what do we feed the older horse?

Well for an old horse like Mac, who doesn’t have good enough teeth to chew hay properly, I take pelleted alfalfa and mix it with COB, then soften it with a little water and molasses to make it into a mash. 

In cases where dental loss is extreme, remember that the feed can even be mixed with warm water to make a mash. If your older horse is unable to chew hay, then most likely he will be able to eat the mash you make for them. And as I said before, I like to add molasses to make it that much more attractive for the horse.

Of course Feed Manufacturers make the very same feed in concentrated complete feeds that are ready to go.

When people talk about concentrated or complete feeds, they're talking about whole, rolled or cracked grains, sweet feeds which is grain mixed with molasses, and manufactured feeds like alfalfa pellets and cubes.

Yes, today feed companies take a lot of the work out of making a mash by providing feeds specially formulated for every stage of a horse’s life.  And yes, often an old horse will do a lot better on a complete feed than on a high protein hay like alfalfa.

Fact is that old horses need concentrated feeds to supplement their hay. And yes, these complete feeds are available almost everywhere.

To help you find the right complete feeds for senior horses, you may want to look for these nutritional elements listed below when you buy the needed feed for your older horse: 
  • Check for increased protein. This will provide proper amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, for metabolic functions, muscle maintenance and hoof quality.
  • Check that there is an elevated fat content. This will provide extra calories, with the benefit of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
  • There should also be yeast cultures and direct-fed microbials, which are more commonly known as prebiotics and probiotics. This supports nutrient digestion.
  • There should also be organic trace minerals. These are more highly bioavailable than traditional trace mineral sources.
  • Check for enhanced calcium and phosphorus levels to help guard against losing minerals in their bones.
  • Check for texture. A manufactured Complete Feed like say Senior Feed should be a soft, high fiber pellet that is easily chewed.
  • Molasses for weight gain.
Even though many concentrated feeds have many of the nutrients needed for your horse. I like to put out mineral and salt block all year round. 

Today there are a number of choices including, but not limited to, salt blocks, mineral, vitamin, and even blocks for fly control. Most think that summer is the only time for salt blocks, but we should remember that mineral blocks during the winter months help horses produce more energy to fend off the cold.

Then there's the question as to how much food does the average horse need versus an older horse?

Well again, a horse's health and condition will help with knowing if they are getting enough feed. As a rule of thumb, an average size 1000 pound horse would need about 20 to 25 pounds of feed a day.

If your older horse is taking in less, than he should be eating the same in a complete feed supplement - like say a senior horse feed. Of course, the amount of feed a horse needs will also depend on such things as size, breed, age, and activity.

In cold weather, a horse living outside needs more food just to keep warm. Where I may feed alfalfa and maybe oat hay in the summer, during the winter months I feed straight alfalfa while at the same time increase their feed to help them stave off the cold.  

Most say more feedings per day is better than just one feeding a day because horses are grazers. And yes, most say keep to a regular schedule. But being practical, most folks feed a morning and night feeding.

Now as for an older horse that you're trying to keep weight on, well then three to four feeding of a complete feed is not out of the question. Right now Mac is being fed three times a day to start. If he needs more to get the weight back on him, well then I can certainly increase his feedings to four times a day until he gets his weight back up.

Another important part of keeping horses in good condition is making sure fresh water is available. This is sometimes overlooked and really shouldn't be. Horses drink from 5 to 10 gallons a day, and clean water should be available at all times. 

Because of the heat, horses take in two to three times more water in the summer than they do during the cold winter months. But that doesn't mean that a horse can go without water in a cold winter. A horse that doesn't get enough water is more liable to have impaction colic in the summer or winter. And again, colic is something to stay away from.

The hardest part of being a horse owner is knowing that if Mac's condition gets worse, or if he suffers in some way, then it is my responsibility to put him down. Friends, that's something that I'm trying to avoid.

As horse owners, it is our responsibility to do what we must so that our horses live a comfortable life. It's our responsibility to see that our horses get enough food, clean water, and warm dry shelter. An older horse like poor old Mac does need some extra care, but that's part of the deal I made with him when I got him.

Living up to my end of the deal is the Cowboy way!



Story by Tom Correa

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Tom