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Nutrition: geriatric

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Podcast: Nutrition: geriatric


Effects of old age

  • The horse can become less efficient at digesting and utilizing feed, ability to thermoregulate may be compromised and organs related to the digestive tract may start to fail.
  • Horses are usually considered old over 15 years and geriatric over 20 years.
  • There is no set time when the effects of old age become apparent.

Print off the Owner factsheets on All about wormsCaring for the older horse, Dental care and Feeding the older horse and to give to your clients.

Reduced digestive capability

Factors contributing to a reduced digestive capability

  • Dentition: the horse may wear his teeth down completely, they may become loose and fall out or require removal Teeth: extraction. Uneven wear can also occur Teeth: abnormal wear. All can make chewing difficult and painful. The horse may be unable to chew some long-stem forage, hard cereals or pellets Feces: maldigestion - dysphagia.

Print-off the Owner factsheet on Dental care Dental care to give to your client.

  • Worm damage to the intestinal wall Tapeworm infection Lungworm infection: cumulative low grade damage can occur over a number of years which may reduce the absorptional capabilities of the intestinal wall. Less efficient absorption of nutrients may lead to weight loss and poor condition Horse: poor condition.

Print-off the Owner factsheet All about worms All about worms to give to your client.

  • A decrease in stomach acid and enzymes is probable in the older horse as studies in other monogastrics have identified these changes. The breakdown of nutrients may be less efficient which can result in weight loss.
  • The older horse can be prone to episodes of diarrhea Diarrhea: parasitic which can disrupt the microbial population in the hind gut. Fiber digestion and vitamin B synthesis Nutrition: vitamins may be compromised as a result.
  • A study of the digestive capabilities of the older horse has been carried out. The reduction in digestive capability was given as a precentage decrease:
    • Fiber = 75%.
    • Protein = 15%.
    • Phosphorus = 12%.
  • A subsequent study found that protein Nutrition: protein and phosphorus Nutrition: minerals were more efficiently absorbed than the previous study had found.


  • Quidding when eating concentrate ration.
  • Balls of chewed forage on floor.
  • Weight loss.
  • Poor coat Horse: poor conditionand hoof condition Foot: overgrowth - poor condition.
  • Increasing frequency of colic Abdomen: pain - adult and/or choke.
  • Episodes of diarrhea Diarrhea: parasitic or loose feces.
  • Loss of appetite.

Nutritional requirements

  • Protein requirements Nutrition: protein are greater than for younger, adult horses. Compound feeds Nutrition: commercial feeds designed specifically for older horses contain around 14% crude protein compared to 10-12% that would be found in a standard ration.
  • The concentrate ration should contain about 0.45% phosphorus Nutrition: minerals and 0.6-1% calcium Nutrition: minerals.
  • A higher energy Nutrition: energy intake will probably be necessary to maintain condition. 110-120% of normal adult maintenance requirements may be required.
  • Compound feeds Nutrition: commercial feeds designed specifically for older horses generally contain 4-6% oil. If straights are fed, oil can be added to increase the energy density of the ration.
  • If oil is added to straights, vitamin E should be supplemented. This will have been increased in higher oil concentrate feeds.

Feeding management strategies

General guidelines for the geriatric

  • Use highly digestible forage: soft, leafy, early cut hays. Avoid forages that are highly lignified
  • If long stem-forage cannot be chewed effectively use short chops. Hay can be chopped manually or commercially prepared products are available. These usually contain varying proportions of grass hay, oat straw, dried grass or alfalfa.
  • Any cereals should be cooked to increase the digestibility of starch so that a greater proportion is absorbed in the small intestine.
  • Cereal meals are available that can be made into a mash which is easy to chew and swallow, reducing the risk of choke.
  • Fats and oils are energy dense and can be useful when appetite is limited or horse is underweight.
  • Divide the concentrate ration into many small feeds to promote efficient nutrient absorption.
  • Probiotic Nutrition: probiotics or prebiotic supplements are advisable after illness Nutrition: sick horse, antibiotic therapy Therapeutics: antimicrobials or episodes of diarrhea Diarrhea: parasitic.

The effect of organ failure and other diseases on nutritional requirements for the geriatric

  • Kidney failure Kidney: renal failure requires a low calcium diet Nutrition: minerals (0.45%) to prevent kidney or bladder stones Bladder: calculi. Advisable to avoid sugar beet and alfalfa which contain good levels of calcium.
  • Protein Nutrition: protein and phosphorus Nutrition: minerals should also be reduced so advisable to avoid alfalfa and wheat bran.
  • Liver failure Liver disease: overview requires a low protein and low fat diet although it is important to meet essential amino acid requirements. A high carbohydrate diet should be used to promote weight gain.
  • Horses and ponies with liver failure Liver disease: overview are often deficient in vitamins B and C. Supplementing these vitamins is advisable - 20 g of ascorbic acid for 500 kg horse/day is reported to have been beneficial for horses with chronic infection.
  • Supplementing with ascorbic acid has also been found to be beneficial for stimuating the immune system in horses and ponies with Cushing's Syndrome Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID).
  • Cushing's Syndrome Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) predisposes horses and ponies to laminitis Foot: laminitis and so a low starch diet should be recommended. Limiting access to pasture may also be required.
  • Degenerative joint disease (DJD) Musculoskeletal: osteoarthritis (joint disease) frequently affects the older horse. There are a variety of "nutraceutical" supplements available that contain one or more of the following substances: chondroitin sulfate Chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine Glucosamine and methyl-sulphonyl-methane which are suggested to alleviate inflammation and improve cartilage integrity. The efficiency with which these products are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract is not currently known.
  • Herbal remedies purported to be beneficial for DJD include cider vinegar, yucca schidigera extract and Devil's Claw Herbal medicine: remedies.
  • The effects of both nutraceutical and herbal remedies are largely based on anecdotal reports.

Further Reading


Refereed papers

Other sources of information

  • Ralston S (2000) Cuisine for the Golden Years. In: The Horse.
  • Robinson N E (1997) Ed. Current Therapy in Equine Medicine. 1st edn. W B Saunders Co, USA. ISBN 0721626335.