Horse Journal OnCall: Older Horse with Worn Teeth

Our reader is having trouble keeping weight on her horse.

I have a 24-year-old Quarter Horse gelding I am having trouble keeping weight on. His bloodwork is normal, but his problem is worn-down teeth. The barn where I board can only feed morning and evening, not three times a day as I see suggested on other sites.

It can be difficult to ensure your older horse consumes enough calories.

The barn owners work full time, as do I, so ease of feeding and prep are important. I can make the dry components up ahead of time for them, but need feedback about getting weight on my horse.

Besides beet pulp, senior feed, oil and chopped hay, all made into a softened mush, are there any other suggestions? 

Nutritionist Juliet Getty, Ph.D. responds: You are correct in spotlighting his poor teeth as the crux of the problem. And since he cannot chew hay, he must rely on softened feeds. But this is truly a matter of not enough calories – he simply needs to have forage in front of him at all times. The easiest way to do this would be to provide him with softened hay cubes in large containers that he can nibble on throughout the day and night.

Then, you can provide two “meals” of more concentrated feeds. Beet pulp, senior feed, and oil are fine. Go with rice bran oil rather than inflammation-producing soybean or corn oils. To this mixture, you should also add some ground flaxseeds – about 1 cup per meal. And also consider feeding some copra meal (coconut meal) to boost overall protein quality. You can feed 1 lb. per meal as long as the total meal does not weigh more than 4 lbs. dry. 

The other necessary component of weight gain, in addition to extra calories, is feeding the hind-gut microbial population. These organisms are responsible for digesting fiber and without enough of them, the hay cubes will not be digested completely, leaving him unable to derive calories from fiber. A good pro/prebiotic that offers billions (not millions) of colony forming units (CFUs) would be worthwhile to add to each meal.

You are not likely feeding the senior feed according to the instructions, so he is not getting enough vitamins and minerals. You can go with one of two routes: (1) Eliminate the beet pulp and feed about 3 lbs. of senior feed, along with the copra meal, flax, oil, and probiotic. Or, (2) Keep the beet pulp and other ingredients and add a comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement to the mix.

You can mix all of the dry ingredients together in advance. But provide large containers of moistened hay cubes in the morning and again at night to last him 24 hours. Timothy/alfalfa hay cubes work nicely. 

So, it’s: Forage first, all the time (as hay cubes); Concentrates to provide calories; and Pro/prebiotics to keep the hind gut microbes in good condition.