HORSES used to be considered veterans at 15 years old.

Nowadays, this age of horse is normally in its prime and has often reached schoolmaster status. Just like humans and any other animal, horses are all different when it comes to ageing.

Some horses age quickly, whilst others show no signs of aging or slowing down until well into their 20s!

A lot of this difference can be due to how hard the horse has worked during its life, particularly when younger and any illnesses or injuries it has sustained. Genetics, as always, plays a big role and ponies generally live longer and age better than horses do.

Much like our own population, the equine population is an ageing one. There are equines up and down the country retired or still in light work in their mid-late 20s and even beyond.

If your veteran is not looking as well as he once did on his current feed then it may be time to make a change.

Tell tale signs include; losing condition, either muscle or fat or both, a dull coat and becoming looser in the dung than normal. There are a few key points to consider when selecting a feeding regime for the older horse.

As with any animal as the horse gets older the gut becomes less efficient at digesting food. Senior animals therefore require highly digestible, yet non-heating feeds to make sure they can get the most out of the feed you give them.

This includes the inclusion of high levels of oil and in general higher levels of quality proteins (eg, soya and amino acids such as lysine and methionine).

Highly digestible fibres such as beet pulp, soya hulls and grass will also be included.

Most important in any feeding system for veterans will be the inclusion of yeast (such as yea-sacc) or a prebiotic yeast mix. This helps the bugs in the gut to survive in order to maximise fibre digestion and keep the gut healthy. If your veteran is loose in the droppings but otherwise well, it may be worth just adding a yeast supplement to his feed in order to support the gut microflora and help him to digest his feed more efficiently.

If your veteran struggles to keep condition during the winter, or even all year round, it may be that you need to consider a conditioning feed.

These are particularly high in oil and therefore include more slow release energy, to keep your horse in good condition.

Make sure that the feed is not full of cereal grains however as the veteran may struggle to process these and it means that starch levels will be high.

One of the first things to look at is his forage intake and utilisation. Make sure that you are supplying the best quality forage that you can. You may have to consider feeding haylage to your veteran that had previously done well on hay.

Regular visits from the vet and/or equine dental technician, to ensure that your horse's mouth and teeth are as comfortable as possible, become increasingly important.

You may find you need to get his teeth checked on a more regular basis. If he has started to lose teeth then he may find eating hay or haylage difficult. If you are faced with this scenario then it will be worth feeding chopped forage such as dried grass or alfalfa along with their hay-net to keep the forage intake up.

Products such as Hifi Senior and Graze-on are ideal for this. Many horses prefer this kind of feed dampened down a little so this is also worth remembering.

When eating becomes really difficult then some high fibre nuts left to soak in hot water to make a mash may help your horse to get all the nutrients he needs in to his system.

This mash can be supplemented with beet pulp, oil, veteran nuts and any medication if necessary.

If your veteran has the opposite problem, and many older native types will fall into this category, then the best way to feed them is to feed in the same way as any other good-doer.

Use a feed balancer or a vitamin and mineral supplement mixed-in with some light chaff.

For veterans, the balancer pellet is a better choice due to the fact that it will provide quality proteins for tissue repair etc and help slow the loss of muscle mass that so often happens with veteran animals.

Specialist veteran balancers are available and these will often contain a joint supplement as an extra. Make sure you keep your veteran as trim as possible.

This may involve restricting their grazing or using a grazing muzzle. Even if your horse has never had laminitis in their younger years you should always safe guard against it as horses may become more prone to it as they get older.

This is especially so if they have Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Cushing's disease. Horses with Cushing's should be fed as if they are a laminitic, eg low starch/sugar diets, with oil or good quality fibre sources used if they lose condition.

The majority of older horses will have varying degrees of stiffness or arthritis in their joints. If the vet is involved then your horse may be on medication for his joints that can be fed in any mash or feed you give to him.

There are many joint supplements on the market place, which can help support your horse's joints with or without medication, especially if they are still being ridden.

Speak to your vet or a nutritionist for advice on which supplement may be best for your horse.

Cod liver oil is also worth feeding to your veteran as the omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil can not only boost immunity and help with co-ordination but the anti-inflammatory properties will help with any joint pain. Only 30ml a day need be fed to gain the desired effect.

n Contact: Harbro

Tel: 01888 545204