Many old horses living out on good grass will have held their condition during the summer, even without extra feed. As the winter arrives and grass availability reduces, many old horses and ponies lose weight and need careful feeding if they are to maintain health and condition throughout the winter.
Older horses and ponies may have less efficient digestion, and maybe old parasite damage that affects their ability to absorb and/or process nutrients, but most lose condition due to dental insufficiency that limits how much they can eat. There is no specific age when an individual gets old – the signs of ageing may come at age 20, or they may not show until age 30.
Any horse or pony who loses a substantial amount of weight over winter even when offered ad lib forage – which would be your first strategy for any horse losing weight – is likely to have problems with their ability to chew. This dental insufficiency may not be helped with dentistry because it often involves an irreversible factor such as a loss of grinding surface, loose or lost teeth or suchlike. The action you need to take is to offer the horse or pony an easily-chewed alternative to the usual long forage. Of course, these animals will also require 6 monthly dental checks to ensure they are kept as comfortable as possible in their mouths.
The first step for old horses and ponies who lose weight in winter due to a reduced intake of forage is to offer a short-chopped alternative to hay or haylage. Chaffs formulated for this purpose or compressed chopped forage blocks (soaked) are ideal. At some point, horses and ponies with dental insufficiency won’t be able to eat enough of these, and you will need to offer sources of forage that are ground, e.g. alfalfa and/or grass nuts (also called pellets) or high fibre cubes (be sure they are over 18% fibre), and soak in water before feeding. Unmolassed sugar beet pulp is another fibre-rich feed that is easily chewed after soaking, and can be used to replace some of the forage.
You need to feed plenty of forage alternatives, although the actual amount will depend on how much grass or hay/haylage that the horse can eat. For a 500 kg horse who manages to graze a little during the day but who quids most of their overnight haynet, you will need to feed at least 4-5 kg of forage-replacing feed overnight. At some point, their total intake may need to be replaced, when you would need to feed about 9-10 kg in a 24 hour period.
The reason not to reach first for conditioning feeds – often low in fibre and starch-rich – is that horses and ponies losing weight from a limited forage intake will be fibre deficient as well as short of energy (calories). You need to supply them with fibre as well as calories. If you don’t, for example you simply feed two large bowls of veteran mix, they may get diarrhoea and they won’t thrive.
Once you have replaced a normal forage intake, then you can add a limited amount of conditioning compound as well, but in many cases this is not necessary if you need enough easily-eaten fibre-rich feeds. You can also add a cupful of vegetable oil daily to supply extra calories. Again, you need to ensure adequate fibre intake first, if you are to maintain a healthy digestive system.
Feeding enough fibre-based easily-eaten feeds will make a remarkable difference to an unthrifty old horse or pony and some owners find they need to reduce the amount they feed when the horse or pony gets too fat!