Now is the time to get organised if you have an ageing horse who loses weight in winter, and who struggles more each year. Most veterans lose weight due to dental problems, as a result of a shortage of both fibre and energy (calories). Such weight loss is easily avoided.
Horse’s teeth are described as ‘hypsodont’, meaning they erupt throughout their lives, unlike ours. Their teeth will eventually grow right out and fall out. Even with the best dental care, at some point as the horse ages, his teeth will gradually become loose and fall out. The chewing surfaces may become less sharp and ridged as the horse ages. Loose, smooth or lost teeth, as well as the myriad of other dental problems possible, will cause a horse to become less efficient at chewing fibrous feeds such as forage.
Because forage makes up the largest part of most horse’s diets, if the horse cannot eat as much as usual, this can make a big difference in the total feed intake and therefore cause a great deal of weight loss. If your horse quids his forage, he will need some of it replaced because his teeth are not functioning correctly. Quidding means spitting out half chewed rolled up pieces of forage.
The answer is not to increase the amount of medium to high energy starchy veteran or conditioning feeds, and this might be the worst thing to do. You need to offer forage alternatives that are high in fibre and not necessarily high in energy.
The first step in replacing long forage such as hay or haylage is short chopped chaff, formulated to replace hay. Do not use molassed straw chaffs for this purpose. You need to replace the forage weight for weight, so if your horse can eat only 1 kg of his regular 5 kg haynet overnight, then you need to offer him 4 kg of short chopped chaff. If your horse is struggling even with chaff, you need to instead feed ground fibre feeds, soaked to a mash. Grass nuts, alfalfa nuts, high fibre nuts and unmolassed sugar beet pulp are all suitable for this purpose. Two combinations that work well for old horses with dental problems are a 50:50 mixture of high fibre nuts and unmolassed sugar beet pulp, and a 50:50 mixure of alfalfa nuts and unmolassed sugar beet pulp. These also need to be fed in equal quantities to long forage, or a little less since they are a little higher in energy than typical hay or haylage.
Most older horses with chewing problems fed plenty of the above mixtures do not require extra compound feed such as veteran or conditioning mixes or nuts, but you could add 1-2 kg or so per day (based on a 500 kg horse) if you wish or if it helps palatability. You should not feed large amounts of starchy mix to a horse who is fibre deficient i.e. one with poor dentition who has not had their long forage replaced.
In addition to replacing long forage for horses unable to chew efficiently, you could feed a probiotic supplement to support gut function. You also need to add a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement if you feed unmolassed sugar beet and grass or alfalfa nuts, and not the fortified high fibre nuts.