Well, it's not exactly like they have no molars. The molars are still miraculously there (I know older horses often have to get some of their teeth pulled) but they are so worn down, that they no longer connect top and bottom enough to do the strong grinding that is required for hay stems and grains.
I learned just a few years ago that horse teeth stop growing after around age 25. Prior to that, their teeth continuously grow, which is why we need to get their teeth "floated" regularly. As their teeth grind food, there might be uneven wear on the molars, which is why horses may develop sharp points that need to be cleared off with a rasp or power floater.
So about four years ago, I noticed that my older mare, Kayla was leaving hay in her stall (very unusual for her). A vet visit later, and I learned that her molars were done growing, and we needed to reduce the floating to only take off the sharpest points, because whatever we removed would never grow back.
Fast forward to today. Now, both my older mares are done with hay. Actually, Annahi (the younger of the two at 28) can still eat a tiny amount of hay each night, but it's negligible. It certainly isn't enough to keep her weight up through the winter.
Last November, I ran into a little trouble as fall turned to winter and the amazing grass we have at their barn died off. There was a sudden decline in both horses' weight, even with the hay offered. The outside hay was pretty much untouched through the day. The nighttime hay was similar, except I could see that Kayla was indeed trying to eat, but always ended up with little balls of hay spit out on the stall floor (called "quidding" if you want to look that up).
Long story short, they couldn't absorb enough hay, which is the foundation of their fiber intake.
I started on a 6-week journey of figuring out how to find a hay substitute to avoid letting them starve over the winter. There is no way I will ever let them starve...
Thus began a thorough and varied research into feeding geriatric horses. I really knew nothing about maintaining horses "past hay" and so I was open to any and all suggestions. If you're ever in uncharted territory, do reach out to those around you. I couldn't believe all the help and information I was able to get from my vet, several nutritional experts at the feed stores and from my own friends who knew my horses (and their idiosyncrasies) and had excellent ideas.
The Diet That Is Working For My Horses
I know that there is no right answer for every horse, but I also know that horses are living longer than ever these days. I'm sure there are many people who might be able to use this information while making their own decisions.
I've been feeding beet pulp for over 15 years now. Annahi introduced me to beet pulp long ago thanks to being a hard-keeper. She is a finicky chestnut mare, and is the least food-motivated horse I know. She is THE hunger-strike expert. If the feed isn't just right, she'll go on hunger strike. If something is out of whack (i.e. horse show, anyone?), she goes on hunger strike. If she doesn't feel well... right - she stops eating.
So soaked beet pulp was the saving grace for her from many years past. Even though there has been tons of research on the benefits of beet pulp for horses in recent years, I still have people tell me that it is "just filler" or even not good for horses.
All I can say is that Annahi has taught me differently. I've also done a fair bit of research on it. As a former competitive trail rider, I was taught about beet pulp even before I owned Annahi. If you'd like to know more about it, this is a good article on the pros and cons, a good FAQ article, beet pulp myths, and an analysis of what is actually in beet pulp.
So although I have always fed a small amount of beet pulp to my horses, I went to "more" for my old girls. How much more, you ask? Well, I started feeding it twice a day instead of just once. I also increased the amount to as much as they would eat, and no more. It ended up being a little more than a half a bucket when soaked, each meal.
I have been a fan of textured grain so far in my horse life. But both horses didn't seem to be grinding or absorbing the oats (as evidenced by oats in their manure). Pellets were fine, thanks to the soft composition that doesn't require too much jaw strength. This led me to a long and windy road to figuring out which pellets I should feed.
Of course, I started with a Senior pellet, balanced especially for older horses. Nope. Annahi wouldn't touch it (and the rest of the beet pulp in that same bucket). I went to a normal maintenance pellet, for horses in light work. Nope! I think I went through five different pellets until I was at my wit's end - just get whatever Princess Annahi would accept!
We ended up with a super-duper high performance pellet, used for horses in moderate work. Yes, it tasted good. They both downed the first offering and I knew it would have to be the one. I don't feed a lot of it, but enough to encourage them to finish all the beet pulp along with the grain.
This still left a conundrum about hay. The feed store nutritionist highly encouraged me to stick with some kind of hay, as it is essential for food movement and absorption in the gut. I tried soaking hay cubes and Kayla would have none of it (she has never been a fan of soaked anything). So I ended up with pelleted hay, which was accepted by the girls for the most part. The only problem was that it would pulverize to dust and a lot of it would be left in the feed buckets.
After some problem solving with my friend, I finally decided to try hay cubes again - not soaked. I doubted that they would be able to grind the cubes. Surprisingly, they both went to it like gang busters and most of the cubes were eaten. I think they can gnaw the cubes with their front teeth and the hay strands are small enough to go down without a fuss. So as long as we have front teeth, we can go with dry cubes!
I also add a Vitamin E/Selenium supplement, and flax (because I can). The grain pellets are already balanced in their vitamins and minerals, so I don't have to add anything more.
It would take the mares hours to eat down their new breakfast combo. So in lieu of outside hay, I rigged up the buckets so they could have free choice breakfast outside (even when it was freezing cold). They had all day to eat whatever they wanted. I'd have the same thing ready for turn in at night. It was very strange to not have hay outside in their paddock during the day, but we all got used to it over time.
Well, you wouldn't believe it. Not only did they gain the weight they lost in November, but they continued to gain over the winter. They didn't seem to have any digestive issues - there was enough feed around to last them hours in the morning, and hours at night. They ate with relish, which is what I learned is most important for older horses.
And they finished the winter in better condition than the past few winters. Once the grass grew in, I stopped their morning grain altogether and they seem to be able to get what they need from grass and a small (normal) amount of grain and beet pulp meal, and hay cubes at night.
I'm sure there will be more challenges as they get older. I think my main goal at this point is to keep them as healthy and happy as I can for as long as I can.
I'd love to hear from you if you have geriatric horses. What do you feed and what has been your experience with horses as they get older?
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