As our horse friends age, many of the changes we see have to do with their comfort and condition. Topline can melt away, leaving the spine visible, muscle becomes looser and harder to maintain and often we notice real changes in the ability to eat. It may take longer. Food may dribble from the mouth, or hay may be chewed and dropped or chewed and stored in the cheek creating a pocket. Older horses suffer from dehydration in both cold and heat more intensely. Many of these problems are due to digestion, a process that begins in the mouth. We do not discount for a moment the loss of gut permeability that occurs over time, making it harder for adsorption and absorption of minerals, fats and carbohydrates. This is very real, but the presentation of foodstuffs and the type of feed are two factors we can control and can make many years difference to the life of our elderly companions.
Horses are born with a given amount of tooth that will continue to erupt over the lifespan of the horse. Many factors contribute to how much tooth erupts every year, ideally slightly less than 1/8th of an inch per annum. Horses that have been powerfloated or had too much tooth taken away yearly can begin to lose teeth as early as 13 years of age. Horses with excellent care will often begin to lose teeth in their mid-twenties. Horses that have had very little dentistry and large pathologies/imbalances will also tend to lose teeth early, but often have had so little jaw movement for so long, their condition has been poor for an extended period of time already.
The term “long in the tooth” used to describe advanced age comes from the observation of older horses to have long and sloping forward incisors (front teeth). While this may be the case in many older horses, proper care of the incisors over time show us that 25-year-old horses can have the same angle and appearance as 6-year-olds as long as attention is paid to this area.
Your dentistry, whomever your dentist is, should always start here, as the incisors are the beginning of the mouth and bite. It is not possible to adjust the horse’s dental table until the incisors are aligned. If the dentists attempts to begin with the molars or ignores the incisors completely (very common) the dentistry was not successful. Dentistry on horses over 20 must be done with consideration to the fact that the horse has very little tooth left. As little as one session of overdone work with an older horse can leave them with less than half the teeth they had in their mouth by the next year!
Losing teeth is inevitable, and irreversible, but the damage can be managed. One of the biggest problems with a horse missing a tooth is that the opposing tooth (if it were a top tooth, the tooth right below it or vice versa) with grow out into the socket of the missing tooth. That opposing tooth, in only a few months, will lock the jaw up due to a lack of counter pressure from the missing tooth. The good news is, the overgrowing tooth will grow itself out and fall out as well in a year or two; however, twice yearly or more maintenance of the overgrowing tooth is necessary or chewing becomes nearly impossible. Most owners aware of the situation are able to call Frank and tell him the horse lost 50 pounds in the last 2 weeks, and sure enough, that lonely tooth has snuck up into the empty socket again. Filed back down, it releases the jaw back into motion so the horse may use its remaining teeth.
Feeding the elderly horse is another challenge. There are many feeds on the market today that offer palatability and miracle weight gain to the older horse. They are all Twinkies for horses, every one. They are high fat, requiring huge amounts of toxic preservatives, and high sugar; causing much of the insulin resistance we see today. If the bag says Senior Feed, run away. If it has beet pulp or rice bran, run away. Older horses do not have as highly functioning a gut or salivary glands as their younger counterparts and require less ingredients in their diet, not more. Simplify. Make sure the food is palatable – this means soaking. Try for no more than 5 ingredients in the food. If you read a feed bag, there will be more than 40, maybe 10 protein sources or more, and the older gut cannot process this barrage.
What to feed? Start with an excellent hay pellet or cube, pellets are amazing in the winter as they soak in less than five minutes. Timothy hay pellets are great for any horse; timothy alfalfa are fine for horses that need more topline and have no arthritis or kidney sensitivities. Start with two to three pounds of pellets daily and work up from there. Your horse should always have access to good hay or pasture, something to munch on even if it is just falling out of the mouth. The act of chewing keeps them happy and helps the gut maintain motility. If 3-5 pounds of pellets or cubes keeps all the weight on, that is great! If you need to add more calories, steam rolled barley, crimped or ground oats, non-gmo cracked or ground corn, non-gmo roasted soybeans can be added, a quarter pound at a time until the weight looks good. Put the grains in the bucket with the pellets and soak it all together. This limits the amount of protein being put in the gut at one time and makes digestion far easier, causing less movement in the blood sugar. It has the added bonus of being wet and adding hydration to the body and creating much less of a chance for the food to stick to the wall of a dry intestine and cause colic.
Due to some loss of pressure in the aged equine’s mouth, it is wise to help the stomach maintain pH that may fluctuate due to the loss of enzymes in the saliva. Our very best suggestion is raw apple cider vinegar. It has many benefits to all horses but is beyond helpful for the elderly. Adding one cup a day to the horse’s food will ensure B vitamins as well as help potassium balance, mitigate allergies and keep the stomach at a fit pH to digest. Raw apple cider vinegar is unfiltered with the “mother” brown flaky stuff floating around in it. It is available in the health food sections of most stores. To cut costs, we recommend buying 2-3 gallons of regular, pasteurized apple cider vinegar and adding a quart of raw to this in a large bucket. Leave the bucket of vinegar in a place above 50 degrees and the raw vinegar will inoculate the rest and leave you with gallons ready to feed in about 3 weeks. Just keep the process going (2 buckets needed) and you will have a very economical probiotic gut helper available at all times. When dehydration is a worry, add a ¼ cup of blackstrap molasses to the cup of apple cider vinegar you are feeding and you have given your horse a wonderful mix of quickly absorbed minerals to help keep the moisture plumped up. This is in no way similar to the added molasses in Senior Feed as that molasses is tainted with preservatives and added at a much higher rate, usually cut with more than half high fructose corn syrup. If you have more questions regarding feeding and nutrition please let Frank know as his partner is a nutritionist and happy to help you find the right diet for your horse.