Last Updated on March 24, 2023
As your horse grows older, feeding traditional hay can be problematic. Let’s talk about chopped hay for senior horses and how it can help your aging equine!
Do you have a senior horse (or two) in your herd? Ever have trouble getting them to eat hay, or to eat at all? Then this article is for you! There are many alternative types of “forage” that you can feed your senior horses, instead of feeding them dry hay. Let’s talk about everything you need to know about chopped hay for senior horses and look at the different forms of chopped hay on the market.
Alternatives to traditional hay include hay cubes, soaked hay cubes, grass, and chopped hay. Chopped hay, in particular, is an ideal alternative for normal hay, if you have a senior horse that can still chew and digest it regularly.
In this article, I’ll be discussing the need for alternative forages and how chopped hay can help your senior horses’ diets!
Chopped Hay for Senior Horses: Forage Alternatives
So, why do older horses need an alternative source of forage? Well, some older horses will happily eat hay throughout their lives without any issues, but others will find hay harder to chew and digest as they get older. Let’s take a look at why forage is so important for horses, and what alternatives to hay are available.
Importance of forage
All horses should have foraged in their diets, as it is the single best source of food to keep your equine companion fit and healthy. Forage even makes up the entirety of some horses’ diets! Forage is also known as roughage and is any type of plant-based food that contains a high proportion of fiber. The most common sources of forage for horses are hay and grass.
Forage has many health benefits for horses, starting right from the point that they chew it. Unlike when horses chew their soft grain or oats, chewing forage is more physical work and causes horses to salivate. This saliva then helps maintain gastric health and the overall health of a horse’s intestines. Gastric health is vital to a horse’s overall well-being, and it helps prevent things like colic, cribbing, and pain-induced behavioral outbursts.
The other reason that a diet high in fiber is so important for horses is that they are hind-gut fermenters. This means that the bulk of their food is digested in the large intestine and cecum, where fibrous plant material is fermented with digestive juices to make it more digestible. Horses need a constant steady supply of forage to keep this system working efficiently. This process also helps to keep the horse warm during the winter months, thanks to the heat produced during the digestive process!
Why Do Senior Horses Need Chopped Hay?
So, if hay and grass are so vital to our horse’s diets, why do some senior horses need chopped hay? The reason for this is that as horses grow older, changes occur within their body which makes hay harder to digest.
Top Tip #1 – Chopped hay is ideal for horses with dental problems
Firstly, older horses often have dental problems or missing teeth, which make chewing hay very difficult. If hay is not chewed properly, it cannot be digested and will pass through the digestive tract without any benefits to the horse. If you notice your older horse dropping half-chewed balls of hay, it is quite likely having difficulties chewing hay sufficiently.
As horses grow older, certain body systems do not function as efficiently. This leads to inefficient digestive processes, requiring the horse to eat more food to maintain its body weight.
So, as you can see, forage plays a very important role in a horse’s diet. So, what should you do if your senior horse has trouble chewing his hay? Or isn’t interested in the grass anymore? Thankfully, there are several forage alternatives available.
Many of these alternatives create a forage option that is softer for senior horses to chew and easier for them to digest. Some can substitute a senior horse’s forage intake completely, others are intended to supplement a horse’s typical forage intake. Providing a forage alternative such as chopped hay for senior horses is a good way to ensure they are receiving a highly-digestible form of forage.
Chopped Hay for Senior Horses: Other Alternatives
Alternative forms of forage for elderly horses include hay cubes, hay pellets, beet pulp, soybean hulls, and chopped hay. These all have different advantages and disadvantages, but most can be used as partial or complete hay replacements for older horses.
A popular forage alternative for horses is hay cubes. Hay cubes are essentially dehydrated chopped hay that has been compacted into small rectangles. These cubes are then soaked in warm water to create a “mash” of hay which is easy for horses to chew and digest. Hay cubes can be fed as a complete substitute for hay.
Hay Pellets are very similar to hay cubes. They are also made from dehydrated chopped hay, but they come in the form of small pellets, not cubes. They can be fed dry, but most horse owners prefer to add water to hay pellets before feeding them.
Hay pellets can be used as a complete replacement for your horse’s forage intake, but it is more commonly given as a partial hay replacement.
The Practical Horseman describes Beet Pulp as “A great source of highly digestible fiber, it provides about 9 percent protein, similar to some grass hays. But it has a high calcium content (more than alfalfa) and few vitamins, and it won’t satisfy the urge to chew. It may need soaking before feeding to reduce dust and increase palatability.”
Top Tip #2 – Chopped hay can combined with other forage sources to add variety to your horse’s diet
So, beet pulp is a great alternative to hay, but should not be used as a complete replacement for your horse’s normal forage intake. This is because beet pulp is not nutritionally balanced, and another form of forage is required to provide the nutrients your horse needs. A popular option is to provide elderly horses with a mix of beet pulp and hay pellets twice a day in addition to chopped hay.
Soybean hulls are high in fiber and are rapidly becoming a popular hay replacement feed for horses. However, soybean hulls should never be fed as a full substitute for your horse’s normal forage intake. Soybean hulls should be fed primarily as a snack or a supplement in addition to their normal diet.
Chopped Hay for Senior Horses
OK, so that’s a quick review of other sources of forage for elderly horses, but now we come to one of the most popular alternative forages – chopped hay! Chopped hay can be fed as a complete substitute for your horse’s normal forage intake, and it is as close to normal hay as you are going to get. Chopped hay is exactly what you would think; hay is chopped up into smaller bits and compressed into a bag.
Because it comes in much smaller pieces, a horse doesn’t need to put as much effort into chewing chopped hay – the hard work has already been done for them! Eating chopped hay should still cause a horse to salivate enough for it to maintain its gastric health, and sufficient fiber to keep the gastrointestinal tract functioning normally.
Top Tip #3 – Chopped hay can be used as a complete hay replacement for horses with dental issues
The great thing about feeding chopped hay to horses is that it can be given as a complete replacement for other forage sources. So, for elderly horses with dental issues, this can be the ideal solution to your feeding problems.
Top Tip #4 – Chopped hay can be useful for older horses that lose weight easily
As horses grow older, they often struggle to eat hay in large enough quantities to maintain their body weight. This can be because their teeth are so worn down that they cannot chew properly, and their digestive system struggles to extract the maximum nutritional value from longer pieces of hay. Some horses cannot chew hay altogether when they get old, and you may find chewed-up balls of hay on the barn floor as evidence of this.
In this situation, many horse owners switch to feeding chopped hay to their horses. This makes it much easier for the horse to chew and swallow, and the digestive system is better able to break down the hay and extract the energy and nutrients the horse needs to survive.
Where to find it
Chopped hay is pricey, but it’s not hard to find. You can find chopped hay at your local feed stores, and commercial farming supply stores like Tractor Supply Co. and Family Farm and Home.
You can also purchase chopped hay from distributors online, and in doing so, have it shipped directly to your home or farm. Some people even try to make their chopped hay from their normal hay bales, but this can be extremely time-consuming. And, typically the hay from normal bales is going to be thicker and tougher than the hay that is used to make commercial chopped hay.
The best way to find chopped hay near you is to simply do an internet search. Or, do some face-to-face research! If you live in a farm country, there might be someone right down the road from you who makes their own.
How to chop hay for older horses
It is possible to purchase chopped hay for horses, but in the long run, this can turn out to be quite expensive. Many owners also think that processed chopped hay is not as nutritious, although this does depend on the quality of the product.
Top Tip #5 – Making your own chopped hay is cheaper, and not as hard as you might think!
To chop hay for horses, you will need to purchase a hay chopper. Hay is fed into the hopper of the hay chopper, where it is cut into smaller pieces. The chopped hay can then be stored in barrels or bags ready to feed to your horse.
It is a good idea to only chop good quality soft hay for your horse. Hay that is thick, stalky, dusty, or old will not provide good nutritional value and is not worth chopping.
How to feed chopped hay for senior horses
If chopped hay is to be fed as a complete source of forage for your horse, you need to feed 1-1.5% of your horse’s body weight per day. So, if your horse weighs 1000lb, you need to feed 10-15lb per day, split into three or more meals.
Top Tip #6 – Damping down chopped hay reduces dust and makes it easier for horses to chew
Although chopped hay can be fed dry, it is commonly dampened down before it is fed to horses. This softens the hay and also makes it less dusty. The easiest way to feed chopped hay is to weigh out the correct amount into a large bucket or manger and dampen it down with a generous sprinkling of water. Chopped hay feeders are also a good way to give this source of forage to your horse with minimal mess and wastage.
At What Age Should You Start Feeding a Horse Senior Feed?
As horses go through different stages in life, they have different nutritional requirements. A young, growing horse needs feed which will help it to grow and maintain strong body tissue, while an adult horse needs enough nutrition to maintain its body weight whilst also carrying out its daily workload.
But as horses grow older, their nutritional needs change again. An older horse will not be able to digest and metabolize nutrients as efficiently, and may also have an age-related condition that alters the nutritional requirements of the horse.
As a horse owner, it can be difficult to decide when is the right time to switch to senior feed for a horse. Most senior feeds are intended for horses aged 15 and over, so this is a good guideline to start with. You will notice changes in your horse as it gets older that may indicate a change in diet is required, such as muscle loss, reduced body weight, or a dull appearance to the coat.
What do older horses eat in the winter?
Older horses often struggle to maintain their body weight during the colder winter months, as they use valuable fat reserves to generate heat. They also are not able to retain their body heat as efficiently as younger horses, meaning they require more energy to keep warm.
Horses keep warm in two ways – by staying out of the weather, and by digesting fiber from hay and grass. As fiber is fermented in the large intestine, it creates heat – kind of like central heating for horses! So, the best way to feed an older horse in the winter is to make sure it has access to plenty of hay.
Top Tip #7 – Feed other sources of energy alongside chopped hay to encourage weight gain in elderly horses
For some older horses, forage is not enough to maintain their body weight, and extra feed is required. Good sources of energy for older horses are canola oil and sugar beet. Avoid feeding high-cereal diets to older horses, as they can find them difficult to digest.
How Long After Hay is Cut Can Horses Eat It?
How soon after cutting hay can be fed to horses will depend on the conditions on which it was cut and baled. Perfect hay that was baled with less than 12% moisture can be fed to horses straight away, but for most hay, it is safer to leave it for up to eight weeks before feeding it to horses.
Traditional horse owners will tell you never to feed this year’s hay to horses, but this is not always possible. One or two years of a poor hay crop may mean you need to feed freshly cut hay to your horse, as anything is better than nothing!
The reason why fresh hay is not always good for horses is that it can cause colic. This is because freshly cut hay, especially that with a high moisture content, continues to ferment for some time after it has been harvested. Fermenting hay may cause excess gas in the intestines, and lead to abdominal bloating and liquid feces.
Forage is an essential part of a horse’s diet, even for senior horses! So, what can be done when senior horses are no longer interested in the grass and have difficulties chewing hay? Thankfully, today there are many forage alternatives.
One of the best forage alternatives is chopped hay for senior horses. While still encouraging the horse to salivate to maintain gastric health, chopped hay is easy to chew and easy to swallow alternative to normal hay. It’s easy to find, easy to eat and can be a complete substitute for your horse’s forage intake.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and I hope it helped you learn more about chopped hay as a forage alternative. If so, please share this article, and share with us your experiences feeding chopped hay or other forage alternatives!
Does chopped hay need to be soaked?
Soaking chopped hay makes it easier for horses to chew, and can also reduce the chances of your horse choking on chopped hay. Damping down chopped hay will make it less dusty and also provides your horse with extra hydration.
If you choose to soak chopped hay, the water should be added shortly before the hay is fed to your horse. Soaking chopped hay further in advance can lead to the development of potentially toxic molds and spores.
Are pellets better than hay for senior horses?
Pellets are often promoted as being "better than hay" for horses. There is no doubt that pellets are convenient, palatable, and consistent in nutritional value, but whether they are advantageous over hay when it comes to senior horses depends on several factors.
For senior horses, it is important to choose the right type of pellets. Some pellets can be quite high in starch which may cause problems with senior horses in the long run, including laminitis. Other pellets are also often high in fat, which senior horses may find difficult to digest. The best type of pellet is often one made simply from chopped hay, which can be used as a partial or complete hay replacement
Hay is nutritionally complete, meaning that it contains all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals senior horses need. Hay provides horses with long fiber, which is essential for maintaining the health of your horse's digestive tract. Another point worth considering is that hay is also more cost-effective than pellets.
However, older horses often find chewing and digesting hay difficult and will lose weight as a result of this. They are also more prone to choke due to attempting to swallow partially-chewed hay. Feeding pellets or chopped hay can be a good option in these situations.
Many senior horse owners feed a combination of hay and pellets, to keep their elderly equines in the best possible physical condition.
What do you feed an old skinny horse?
Senior horses may tend to eat less and rest more due to their advancing age. Their digestive systems also work less efficiently, and they struggle to chew food properly. As a result, senior horses may not be getting the nutrition needed for good health and weight gain.
Weight gain can be achieved most effectively by feeding a senior feed, with extra protein, vitamins, and minerals added in. Senior feeds are also higher in long fiber which is very beneficial for senior horses' teeth and digestive health.
What is senior feed?
Senior feed is specially formulated horse feed to meet the needs of senior horses by providing additional calories and nutrients. They serve as a primary source of nutrients, especially during times when their appetite may be decreased due to pain or other illnesses. They can also be used when horses are recovering from surgery.
Senior feed for horses is typically high in fiber, protein, and fat to promote good weight gain. Senior feeds may also contain vitamins and minerals like calcium and glucosamine that older horses might need during the aging process.
How much hay does a senior horse need?
The amount of hay a senior horse needs will vary depending on your senior horse's weight, health, and temperament. A good rule of thumb is to feed 1-1.5% of your horse's body weight daily. Ask your veterinarian for advice if you are not sure how much is best to feed your senior horse.
It is important that senior horses always have access to hay or senior feed, as eating stimulates saliva production and helps to combat dental problems. A constant intake of fibrous food is also essential for maintaining the health of your horse's gastrointestinal system.
Michael Dehaan is a passionate horse owner, horse rider, and lover of all things equine. He has been around horses since he was a child, and has grown to become an expert in the field. He has owned and ridden a variety of horses of different breeds, and has trained many to compete in shows and competitions. He is an experienced horseman, having worked with and competed many horses, including his own. He is an active member of the equestrian community, participating in events and teaching riding lessons.