Feeding the Older Equine Athlete

Feeding the Older Equine Athlete

In today’s world, there are organizations or associations where older human athletes can still compete and are in competition with their peers.  In the equestrian world some associations also have divisions based on the rider’s age, but the age of the horse is usually not a factor.  It is interesting to note that, with the exception of the young horse (those competing in limited age events), age of the horse is not a consideration when it comes to competition.  In the 2012 Olympics, 23% of the horses competing in the 3-Day competition were 15 years of age or older and the oldest was a 20-year-old from New Zealand.  In racing, the Grand National was once won by a 15-year-old, 2014 Tevis Cup a 17-year-old Arabian gelding was presented the Haggin Cup as the best conditioned horse finishing the race.

Feeding the older athlete may present some unique challenges but in general, good nutrition is still based on requirements and meeting those requirements.  Energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins are all essential nutrients required for all horses.  Relative to the ounces/pounds needed per day, energy and protein intake requirements are much higher than minerals or vitamins.

There is information to suggest digestion and absorption is decreased in older horses.  Supplementation of the essential amino acids lysine and threonine has been suggested for older horses to help maintain muscle mass.  Feeding products with added branch chain amino acids; valine, leucine, and isoleucine, may also benefit the senior athlete.  With a possible decrease in the large intestine activity there may be a benefit from adding some of the water-soluble vitamins to the diet, e.g., B-vitamins.  Age related dental issues also affect the digestibility of the feed.

There are multiple feeds on the market that are designed for the older athlete and may be part of the diet.  When fed at the recommended intake, they will supply many of the nutrients needed by the horse.  Feeding less than the recommended amount may cause some minerals and vitamins to be less than those needed.  Adding a quality mineral and vitamin supplement formulated for seniors is often a particularly good insurance policy and supplies nutrients lacking in the diet.  As horses age, their immune response is not as strong as in the younger horse.  This is referred to as immunosenescence or dysfunctional immune system.  Products or nutrients that have been proven to positively impact the immune system, i.e., immunostimulators, should be considered for this group of horses as well.

In summary:

  • Ensure a quality fiber source is the basis of the diet.
  • Feed according to the amount of work being performed, e.g., light work. This is especially important in determining the amount of energy fed.
  • Feed quality products formulated for the older horse.
  • Judicious use of a quality vitamin and mineral supplement is suggested.
  • Add a quality prebiotic and probiotic to the diet.

As with any athlete, use electrolytes during hot weather: competing, traveling, or any time excessive sweating occurs.  Do Not add to the water.