Geriatric Horse Care: Feeding Challenges For The Older Horse In A Herd Setting

As the owner of a small horse herd containing several geriatric mares, I have found feeding time can pose several challenges. Having spent the first couple of years of horse ownership without a barn, I had to sometimes get a bit creative during feeding time. I also learned the hard way that feeding time can be one of the most dangerous times to be around horses, especially when you are not so savvy in the ways of herd behavior. For the benefit of those that are new to horses or to a herd scenario, I would like to share with you some of what I learned.

Recognize The Herd Pecking Order

Understanding this one thing can save you a ton of grief at feeding time. Horses have a pecking order, and they live by it every day. It can occasionally shift, as horses decide every day on who will be the leader of the herd. Unfortunately, in many cases it’s not the human! Pay close attention to your herd and know who moves whom around and you’ll quickly learn who is in charge. The horse that can move the other horses around is usually the leader, and it may not always be the biggest horse, or the oldest horse. There will usually be a lead mare and a lead stallion (or gelding) in a mixed sex herd. Observing this pecking order, as well as the dispositions of the top horses, will help you determine if your older horse is getting bullied by a higher ranking horse. Severe bullying cases may require splitting the herd for the safety of your older horse.

When it comes to feeding time, always recognize your herd’s pecking order when passing out the feed. You will find there will bea lot less chaos and less potential for injury if you feed the lead horse first, then second in command, and so on. In my herd, everyone has their very own spot that I always bring their feed bucket to, and they must be there in that spot before they get their bucket. I feed in the same order every time, so they learn the routine. My herd’s lead gelding (stallion in his mind!) will sometimes round everyone up when he thinks they are taking too long to get to their spots, and he gets very upset when they aren’t in the correct spot! Horses are pattern learners. They like consistency and they like to know what comes next.

I always dread having to go out of town and leave the feeding chores to others. My husband always scoffs at my routine when I give him my feeding instructions and tells me it’s silly. But it never fails that if my horse sitter doesn’t feed the horses in the correct order and put the buckets where they normally would go, it’s like a free for all! Horses charging and kicking at each other and the higher ranking horses crowding around while trying to put the feed out. Very scary!! Horses become very defensive of their space during feeding time, and it is very easy to get between two horses’ hind feet (or teeth) at the wrong moment or to get trampled. It is extremely dangerous for a human and can also be dangerous for the horses, especially for the lower ranking older horse that maybe doesn’t move so quickly. Make sure and establish a solid routine for your herd to help make it as safe as possible for both horse and human.

Separate Special Needs Horses

One of the most frustrating things for me before I had my barn and the ability to separate my horses at feeding time was making sure that my older horses got all their feed and supplements. I had one mare that just took forever to eat her food. It would literally take her 1-1/2 to 2 hours to finish! She was a very challenging mare to keep weight on and needed all the help she could get. She was on a senior formulation, as well as soaked alfalfa cubes and several supplements. The other horses were just getting regular hay and a small amount of feed which wasn’t nearly as appetizing. She was higher ranking than the two geldings at the time, so she was able to fend them off for a while, but eventually she would be harassed away from her food well before she was done. I had to find a way to separate them.

Since I didn’t have stalls, we installed tie rings on the larger fence posts and started tying each horse up to eat until the older horses were finished eating. This worked very well for us until we were able to build our barn. This, however, may not be practical for larger herds. Sometimes just tying up the offending horses is all that is necessary to ensure that the slower horses get to eat. Some situations may require a bit more imaginative solution. Creating a temporary stall in a corner of the pasture or lean-to using a couple of old stock panels attached to the fence or support posts for confining a single horse. Putting up a small portable electric pen works for some horses if they respect the electric fence.

Whatever solution you choose, it is important to provide an environment that allows your older horses to eat in peace! It also gives you the opportunity to make sure that your horse is eating its full ration. If you have a couple of stalls, you are already way ahead of the curve! If your older horse goes off its feed, you’ll know it right away! You can monitor their fecals if necessary, as well as ensuring that they get all supplements and medications that you intend for them. Not to mention that allowing your older horse to eat in a stress free environment is much better for their digestive health. A stressed out horse is less likely to eat and also compromises its ability to digest its food properly.

Proper Equine Dental Maintenance

A common area of neglect for the older horse is proper balanced equine dentistry. A lot of people just don’t realize that horses even need to have dental maintenance. This is particularly important for geriatric horse care. As horses age, they lose teeth. As their teeth wear, they develop hooks and ramps (sharp edges and ledges on the teeth) that impede the horse’s ability to properly chew its food. If they’ve lost teeth, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear against and can continue to grow into the gap left by the missing tooth, again impeding the normal movement of the jaw. A large percentage of older horses that have problems holding their weight have dental problems that can be addressed through proper balanced dentistry.

Not all equine dentists are created equal! Do your homework before deciding on who to take your horse to for dentistry. Talk to other horse owners, get referrals, find out what experiences they’ve had with the dentists in your area. A bad dentist can do an enormous amount of damage to a horse’s health and shorten its life expectancy. A horse only has so much tooth to erupt over its lifetime. Once it’s filed away, that’s it! There’s no more tooth. A good online resource is Advanced Whole Horse Dentistry, where you can find helpful information on equine dentistry.

While geriatric horse care in a herd setting can be very challenging, having a herd is a very rewarding experience which far outweighs the negatives. Horses living in a herd are much happier and healthier (both mentally and physically) overall. It provides your horses with stable relationships, socialization skills, and living conditions much more natural than being alone or stalled all day. Your older horse fills an important role in the stability of your herd; teaching socialization skills to the younger horses, providing discipline when necessary, and adding to the safety of the herd through their experience and knowledge. I love watching my herd play in the pasture. It provides me with endless hours of entertainment!