What happens when my senior horse won’t eat hay?


Those of us with older horses know that like humans, horses sometimes encounter health problems in their old age. Sometimes senior equines can’t or won’t eat hay. Even though hay is one of the most common types of forage that horses consume, managing diets becomes slightly trickier when it comes to the aging animals.

Older horses often lose teeth or develop dental issues, making it hard for them to effectively chew and swallow forage. Besides dental problems, certain horses simply become pickier eaters. Digestive health and weight maintenance are cornerstones of equine well-being, so it’s essential to stay one step ahead of the game. Whether they can’t or won’t eat hay, there are several other options to keep a horse healthy.

Beet pulp
A great alternative is beet pulp, the fibrous material left over after the sugar has been extracted from the sugar beets. Rich in fiber, beet pulp comes with or without added molasses and is easy to digest because of its softness. It also has a relatively low crude protein content, averaging 8 to 10 percent, according to TheHorse.com. Nutritionally speaking, it’s high in calcium and low in  phosphorous, low in B vitamins and has almost no beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A).

Because beet pulp in its original form is rather soft and prone to mold, it must be kept in dry storage. Dehydrated beet pulp in shredded or pelleted form are available. Despite what many people think, it is not necessary to soak beet pulp in water to feed it safely to horses. Equine experts say the myth that a horse will “explode” if this is done are false. Still, most horse owners prefer to soak beet pulp, which makes it more palatable and reduces the risk of choking.

Hay cubes
Hay cubes are made by drying, chopping and compressing either alfalfa or a mixture of alfalfa and timothy hay into cubes. These are typically sold in 50-pound bags. To reduce the risk of choking, it’s recommended to soak the cubes in water for 30 minutes before feeding them. Straight alfalfa cubes generally contain more protein and calcium than the normal adult horse requires.

“If offered voluntarily, most horses will consume more hay cubes in less time than hay, so owners should measure and monitor their horses’ intake,” author and equine nutritionist Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, cautioned to TheHorse.

Hay pellets
Some horse owners turn to hay pellets as a replacement for traditional hay. Hay pellets can be soaked into a gruel or soup for horses with dental problems. A benefit of both hay pellets and cubes is that they usually contain less dust than hay, which means horses are less likely to inhale particles that could contribute to respiratory disease – especially for older horses suffering from the heaves.

Complete feed
If nothing else works, you might try a complete feed. This forage alternative is formulated to meet all of a horse’s nutritional needs, such as fiber. Complete feed is designed to be fed in greater amounts compared to a lower fiber grain mix with practically no need for hay. It can be soaked into a soup or gruel if necessary.

Keep in mind that each horse is different, and not all may like the taste of each feed.

Tips when switching feeds
1. Don’t rush; gradually introduce the new feed while weaning off the old. Allow time for a horse’s digestive tract to grow accustomed to the new feed. This should usually take about a week or so. Gradual feed changes minimize the risk of colic due to digestive upset.

2. Discuss options with your veterinarian. Since all horses have unique dispositions and tastes, it’s always a good idea to talk to your vet throughout the transition process.

3. Only change feeds if necessary. Like the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” avoid switching feeds unless it’s absolutely necessary. Not all senior horses have dental problems or become picky eaters. If your horse is not showing any signs of trouble eating its forage, stick with what works.