Feeding Senior Horses

When Is A Horse A Senior?

I don’t know when a horse becomes a “senior.” Age is a human concept marking how many times we circle the sun. If we were traveling in a straight line through space, how would we keep the passage of time? The idea of us or our horses “getting old” would be impossible. Yet getting old is how we all are trained to think. So let me offer a different approach.

We base age on the recurring event of the Earth passing the same spot in space once a year. We accept this based on seasons, day length or a calendar but are we sure this is accurate? For instance, why do we appear to age at different rates? I think there are better and more accurate ways to measure time.

Every day starts with a sunrise, and while each is unique, they are all roughly the same. We can be assured that this daily routine will continue for a long time. The other two events that define our lives are our birth and death. Therefore my definition of a “senior” horse is one that has limited days left of natural life (an abrupt end of life due to accidents is an exception). When that endpoint occurs is only a guess but preparing for those senior years is a daily event starting soon after birth. This thought makes a short answer to the question, “How do you feed the senior horse?” You feed them the same as a young horse.

If a horse is fed correctly from birth, they will never need to be fed differently. The evidence for this is everywhere we look. All wild animals, including horses, eat the same food from weaning to death. Unfortunately, most horses living a domesticated life are not fed correctly. As the days get closer to their death, the effects that we consider to be the “senior look” become more noticeable. These effects include obesity or loss of body fat, loss of muscle along the top line, enlarged abdomen, fat loss above the eyeballs, poor hair coat, poor hoof condition, chronic skin conditions, metabolic issues, hormone issues including insulin resistance and pituitary dysfunction (Cushing’s), unsoundness and other conditions all related to increased age. Rather than blame the accumulation of time (age), we need to look at the accumulation of daily effects of poor feeding and the subsequent daily effects of gut inflammation.

The Real Question

Here is another way to look at the horse becoming a “senior.” If there is little to no gut inflammation throughout the horse’s life, then there are no adverse signs of aging and no “senior” horse. So the real question is, “How do you feed the horse with adverse signs of aging mentioned above?” The simple answer is 1) start feeding the horse as they should be fed to eliminate gut inflammation and 2) add protein until the amino acid reserves are restored.

Unfortunately, there are several complicating factors in feeding horses with adverse signs of aging:

  1. When gut inflammation has occurred for a long time (decades), it may take a year before the gut lining heals and the normal gut microbes are restored.
  2. When a horse immediately loses fat as the carbohydrates of grain are removed, the owner will see the true muscle loss along the back. This muscle loss shocks the owner, who instinctively adds back grain, making fat that only covers up the problem.

When winter brings cold weather, and the horse loses body fat as the gut inflammation subsides, additional food must be added without inflammation. Shredded coconut meal seems to fill this spot well.

The biggest negative effect of feeding grain daily for years is chronic protein deficiency which I see as the root of almost every health problem horses have. There are between 1 and 3 billion proteins in every human cell; most of these are destroyed and rebuilt every 2 to 4 days. There are about 20 amino acids that make ALL of these proteins, just like there are 26 letters that make ALL the words in the dictionary. If some of the letters are missing, then some of the words can’t be made. The same is true of proteins. Therefore, horses with chronic protein deficiency, such as “senior” horses with adverse signs of aging, need to be supplemented with a variety of amino acids until they look better. The best source of protein for horses is soybean meal.

It is interesting to watch a horse fed correctly actually become less hungry. Muzzled horses no longer need muzzles, and ponies lay beside the hay. Let’s paint the picture from the owner’s perspective. It is winter, and the horse is losing back fat, revealing muscle loss along the backbone. Now the thinning horse stops devouring the hay you paid for. Conclusion: the horse hates the poor quality hay, and because he isn’t eating hay, there is no grass, and you have stopped feeding grain, your horse will never survive the winter. You are killing your horse unless you get him back on grain and he perks up. There – now he has fat again, he is obnoxious again, and everyone feels better.

Now let’s look at it from the scientific point of view. Your horse no longer has gut inflammation, so the horse feels better; hence he is acting more normal and calmer than you have ever seen him. Because his daily sugar intake is significantly diminished, his body has converted body fat into more efficient fuel for the cells. With this fuel efficiency, he is no longer as hungry and only eats what he needs to eat. Adding the protein sources is helping to restore the lost enzymes, vitamins, hormones, neurotransmitters and connective tissue, which all help him feel better. The stressed and dying cells from sugar dependency are now repairing themselves too.

What Is The Bottom Line?

Most of you want the recipe to feed your horses successfully. But, I don’t start there. You are doing things because someone told you to do them without knowing why or the consequences are what has gotten you to having unhealthy and old-looking horses. This blog has started you to think and hopefully encouraged you to investigate all the nutrition blogs on this site.

Step 1 – Remove all inflammatory food. In essence, feed only pasture and hay along with water and mined salt (Himalayan salt or equivalent).

Step 2 – Add high-quality protein sources. For horses between 1000 and 1400 pounds – 1 pound of soybean meal daily and, optionally, one flake of alfalfa hay daily (or equivalent in cubes or pellets or mixed in the grass hay). You can start with small amounts to test the acceptance and the response.

Step 3 – If necessary, especially for extremely thin horses and horses over 30 years, add 1 pound of shredded coconut daily (CoolStance). Some need more to get results.

Step 4 – Reduce stress on the horse. Give them a way to get out of the cold wind of winter or the extreme heat of summer. Use blankets, barriers, non-leaking roofs, fans, clipping long hair coats or other ways to obtain a more comfortable living environment. Remember, these horses are old, and some are in poor health. Good nursing care goes a long way. Fix their teeth so they can chew comfortably or if they have a significantly reduced number of cheek teeth, then provide the food they can swallow (chopped hay or soaked hay cubes). If they can’t swallow food, then they are starving amongst plenty.

For those who don’t have a “senior” horse yet, do these four steps never to get them “old.”

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  1. I started my 22 year old horse on 1lb of SBM and mix it with a scoop of Sentinel Senior. I noticed that Sentinel has Soybean hull and Soybean oil in the ingredients along with other grains. Should I not be feeding him that? If not, what can I mix the SBM with?
    Thanks 😊

    1. Please read my other blogs on feeding horses. There you will find that I do not recommend feeding ANY grains – period. Feeding grains is one of the many causes of protein loss. In addition, grains will prevent the use of the amino acids you are feeding in the SBM.

      Soybean meal (SBM) is made by removing the hulls and the oil from the soybean as both of these are inflammatory as well as they prevent the heating needed to destroy an anti-protein enzyme within the bean. Adding these back in with the senior feed is counter-productive. You are wasting your money and you will not get the results you are looking for by adding in the SBM.

      SBM can be fed out of your hand or placed into a bucket. Almost every horse loves it. But if you feel the need to mix it, you can add it to a handful of hay cubes or pellets sprinkled with water to help it stick. But SBM is not a powder that can be mixed into water. It is a meal that horses (and dogs) love to eat from the hand.

  2. Very Nice Information. This blog helps me a lot to make a proper feeding for my horses. By reading this informative blog, I came to know that diet is also affected by your horse lifestyle, riding, routine, and training. So, the grass is not only a medium to get all useful nutrients like fat, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals. One can make their horse diet chart including all these nutrients. You should also take care that horse eating places and containers are also well clean for feeding others it may cause infection. Thanks for sharing such informative details.


    1. There is oil in seeds which is fat – but not all fats are the same or beneficial. Most oils are inflammatory as they bind to LPS’s (lipo poly saccharides) which are broken pieces of dead gut bacteria and after binding they invade the lining of the gut. In addition all seeds have lectins which also cause leaking gut by invading the tight junctions. Finally all seeds have starch.

      There are no real studies of how flax seeds help horses. For these 3 reasons (oil, lectins and starch) I don’t see the advantage to feeding flax seeds to horses. There is also some evidence in humans where flax seeds are inflammatory.

      If you want to see an improved hair coat add protein (after removing gut inflammation). If you want to add fat, feed more cellulose. Cellulose (structural carbohydrates of plants – or fiber) is digested by the healthy colon bacteria into short chain fatty acids. See my blog “The High Fat Diet – Part 7 of 12” – and read all the blogs to get a better understanding of feeding horses.

      While flax is a source of fat, not all fats are beneficial.

    1. Hi Sheila – As you know I cannot comment specifically about a horse’s case. I removed the reports because there was medical information about 2 horses where there was no evidence they belonged to you. This information is medically confidential. As well there were several email addresses included. Thanks for understanding.

      1. oh yes I understand ,, perhaps it didn’t copy properly, my whole legal name was on it,, and just the one horse in question was tested. I was responding to your comment ‘why the high BUN with or without renal failure signs”,, providing the tested levels is the only way I know how to answer this question, not being a DVM or Vet tech. she will be re-tested within the next couple of weeks. thanks for all your help

  3. I have questions on soy as a protein. 1. Is it a complete protein? In other words are horses gorverned by the same physiological process as vegan humans who would have to supplement with different sources to make a complete protein to enable the body and muscles to function correctly? 2. Wasn’t there controversy over soy disrupting hormone function? And I also heard it’s not good for the heart. 3. I know you don’t believe in the NON-GMO movement. But, I do. I figure if we have changed a plant so much that it resists pests and diseases how well can it be digested? I was raised with I believe knowledge about nutrition. Was always taught the healthiest most nutritious items soured the fastest. Because they were so rich in makeup. I have read there is no soy available in America that is not GMO.
    THANK YOU I BELIEVE IN YOU AND AM FOLLOWING YOUR ADVICE. I have seen such a change in my horses since I cut out grain.

  4. thanks Doc T.! the 32 yr old, 900lbs, senior mare I have ( large pony size morganXwelshcob) was a very easy keeper her whole life. on the 550 acre ranch semi-desert south interior of bc canada for 10 years free roamed, free grazed on all kinds forage. during competition (3-day event) and cattle moving season, was fed 1st cut long stemmed ranch grown hay. no grain. ever. then for 14 yrs lived on 16 acre fraser valley grass/hay farm, w restricted access to the lush hay fields, and grazed w. grazing muzzle or on small mowed fields . she is now 32, the grinding teeth pretty much gone, can prehend and chew/swallow live grass, cannot eat hay, is diagnosed w PPID and tested high B.U.N. levels,, DVM indicates kidney failure. . . I ‘m directed to restrict dietary Ca intake, , therefore NO alfalfa. soaked Tmothy cubes are the staple forage , supplements are dried ground kelp , & ACV. Meds for PPID are Prascend . DVM says there is no treatment for failing kidneys.. even with full time grazing on good grass, she is not assimilating sufficient calories to maintain weigh Can u recommend supplements/ for this mare? I do incorporate some alf/tim mix cubes (intuitively) I’ve tried adding a cup of soymeal a few times,,,, she didn’t tolerate well, diarrhea. She seems fine w small amt of alfalfa /tim cubes,, but the dietary Ca warning by the vet rings the bell in my head. would so appreciate any pointers, thanks for the info and research and education and stimulation you are generously sharing.

    1. Renal failure is not common in horses. Are there other signs (ventral edema, abnormal urinalysis). Work with your vet on this horse. The question is why the high BUN (with or without renal failure signs).

      CoolStance is a non-inflammatory source of fat which helps thin older horses keep or gain weight without adverse effects. I caution the use of kelp – monitor her thyroid for goiter as the added iodine can cause enlargement.

      SBM usually does not cause diarrhea. Please try it again without any other changes in her diet. Start with a handful. Be caution with adding protein to a renal failure horse. Do this with the help of your vet and with BUN monitoring.

  5. Hi Doc T. I’m having trouble finding soybean meal. I guess it’s processed in different ways. Do you have a recommendation? As for coolstance, I guess smartpak is the only one that ships regularly unless you have a recommendation. As I told you in the past, I have a 33 year old who’s teeth where filed off with an electric tool about 4 or 5 years ago. Since then, he cannot chew hay at all. He’s doing good on pasture and alfalfa cubes but winter is coming. My 23 year old mare can chew hay but I can’t find any due to constant rain this past summer. I will have to settle for some nasty hay but will need to supplement of course. Thanks!

    1. Soy beans should be de-hulled and the oil extracted by solvents (the most common way though some are pressure extracted). The remains are roasted and then ground into a meal. This provides about 45% protein with a bioavailability of about 80%. This should be fed at 1 pound a day for a 1000 to 1400 pound horse. Adjust for smaller or larger horses.

      there is an abundance of soy beans in America so you should be able to find SBM at feed mills as well as feed stores (just ask them to get some). The going rate is about $20 for a 50 pound bag.

      Also contact CoolStance and ask them to get it in your area. This should be fed at about 1 pound a day though thin older horses may need more.

  6. This has been my journey and experience with my almost 30 year old OTTB Givensong. We took him off of grain a little over a year ago but still battled his low weight. Finally this summer I really tweaked everything to land on a daily diet of 8lbs Coolstance and 1lb soybean meal (split into 3 feedings), plus as much alfalfa pellets as he will eat which is at least 12-15lbs plus lots of grass turnout. He also gets the Medicine Bag supplement. Melissa advised at his last dental appt. that it can take 6 months to see a true difference and it’s only been 2 months since adding the soybean meal so we’re on our way. However, he is sweating a little bit and now that it’s fall it seems to be enough. His eyes are bright, feet strong and FINALLY no rain rot!!! Thanks for persisting in your message and soliciting feedback from those of us who are trying to learn a better way. My 9 year old hunter gets hay and alfalfa pellets with a little coolstance even when showing and training and she looks great! P.S. I find soybean meal through a local feed mill

  7. My 28 year old quarter horse has been losing ground for about 2 years. I tried him on senior feeds, several different brands, but his diarrhea progressed until I put him on straight oats. We had a respite from gut problems over the next year. This year, in the summer, I tried the no grain diet for my 28 year old quarter horse who had massive gut inflammation, and he lost about 50 pounds, and that was after already losing 200 pounds with progressive diarhea. He was put on steroid shots for a week which “cured” the inflammation. Got his teeth floated again where he had another tooth removed, and one tooth was loose, but not loose enough to be pulled. He is now on a winter pasture and getting beet pulp and oats, just holding his own. We are slowly introducing his winter hay which consists of straight alfalfa, no grass. He cannot chew the grass hays which are cut too late for horses (around here they cut for cows).
    So my four questions are:
    1. how does coconut pulp differ from beet pulp.
    2. how do you find soybean meal that is not sprayed with Roundup.
    3. Is there an oil that would be beneficial putting weight on him.
    4. is there any more I can do?

    1. Thanks Cindi –
      1) It is not coconut pulp but rather the coconut meat that is fed. The pulp of sugar beets is from the remains of the sugar beet after the sugar has been extracted (the 2nd leading source of sugar in America). This pulp will have the lectins that add to gut inflammation. With the coconut, the outer shell is removed leaving the nut with the non-inflammatory medium chain triglycerides that can be used directly as a fuel. Please read the blogs on carbohydrates and fats. Sugar beet pulp is a fiber and coconut meal is more of a fat. (Hey cool stance – would you like to add to this?)
      2) Most crops are sprayed with glyphosate not just to kill the weeds but as a desiccant for faster production (such as hay). In a 28 year old horse that is not ingesting enough protein (based on your description), adding SBM with or without glyphosate is important to his or her health. We all worry about glyphosate even when there is no reports of ill effects in our horses who get glyphosate in many of the feeds they receive. Hey we are also worried about the ill health of our horses who are being fed what we are feeding them. To me, carbohydrate dependency and chronic protein deficiency far outweighs the temporary use of SBM needed to replace the lost amino acids. (If this seems too complicated to understand please read ALL the nutrition blogs here or enroll in the nutrition course.)
      3) No there are no oils that benefit horses. They have cellulose that becomes short chain fatty acids. Horses do not eat oils in the wild. Most oils actually bind with LPS molecules (lipopolysaccharides which are parts of the dead bacteria found in the gut) which are then able to penetrate the gut wall causing inflammation at the inside of the gut wall. This is a form of leaking gut. Do not feed oils with the exception of Omega 3 though I don’t feel it necessary if the gut microbes are correct and the inflammation is nil. Most people and even some horses have reduced joint inflammation after initiating a proper non-inflammatory diet.
      4) Read everything I have written including the comments. Feed only pasture and hay in any form your horse can ingest it. Add real salt and water and soy bean meal. Write all your observations. Wait 2 weeks and decide if this is a path to go down.

      Thanks again.

  8. Hi Doc T, Just a quick note to tell you about my 20 yr old TWH mare. When I signed up and read your advice on feeding, I started my 2 horses on just grass hay with 5 lbs of alfalfa hay and Renew Gold.That was Sept 20,2018. I also give them salt and added Purina Free Balance 12/12 after the first 3 weeks. After going through numerous feeds to find something to keep my old mare looking good for 3 yrs now, with not such good results, she looks awesome! She is a healthy weight and shines like crazy. The 3 yr old looks great also. Their temperaments are better too. Thank you for giving me the courage to take them off grain.

    1. It really takes courage to do something different from what you have been told to do for decades. Most people don’t want to be known as rebels, but when asked the question, “How’s it working for ya?” the answer forces to be looking for something different. Thanks for finding this and trying it – and having the courage. Many people feel this way and I know you are speaking for them too.

  9. Yes! Found some great local alfalfa for Madrid..as you know Doc T. I also give him tri-amino acids from Ukele. What a difference. On the search for soybean meal with no additives. Always a challenge to find good food without added rice bran.beet pulp. Wheat middling. He still quids.[squids..haha] but nice round rump has returned before winter. Hope to see you in January! Thanks for everything. Patrice