No Teeth, No Horse? Feeding the Aging Horse

Photo by Lauren Mauldin


Do older horses need special supplements and how should we feed for tooth loss?

Horses, like so many herbivores, are hypsodont which means their teeth continue to grow (erupt) throughout their lives. This is because their natural diet, grasses, contain a lot of silica which wears down tooth enamel. As horses get older eventually they reach the limit of their dental depth and teeth may fall out or become diseased and are taken out by the equine dentist. This occurs most likely in their molar teeth. Horses older than 20 years may have one to four teeth missing but as they can reach the age of 30 and more, it is tooth loss that may determine their life span eventually, when living in feral conditions.

For our domesticated equine friends, feeding can be adapted to allow them to thrive despite considerable tooth loss. If feed is not adapted the most likely consequence is colic, through compaction within the digestive tract. Before this, gaps between teeth widen and lead to feed particles becoming trapped and this may cause rotten breath and mouth ulcers with infections. If you notice your horse dropping feed out of its mouth while chewing – called ‘quidding’ – it may have dental problems. Other tell-tale signs may be tipping of the head sideways when eating or refusing to eat certain types of foods and eventually weight loss. Sudden unexplained changes in behaviour when ridden in response to the reins tightening (head shaking or throwing upwards, or pushing chin against chest to avoid pressure) can also be an indication of dental problems.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Author’s Tip: Make dental heath checks part of your routine. Consciously observe your horse eating and chewing once a month, note if quidding occurs, sometimes signs of this may be chunks of uneaten food with lots of saliva around the feed bin or little grass balls half chewed can sometimes be seen in the field. Not the smell of the breath. Your vet should do an annual check as well.

When tooth-loss has occurred to a large extend then feeding soft chopped dried but rehydrated forage (so soak it shortly in water or add water just before feeding) is the best first option, as horses still require some particle matter to keep their digestive tract moving. Feeding a senior horse feed which is pelleted is useful, but once again this needs to be soaked until it turns into a thick mash to avoid choking.

Author’s Tip: Feed the geriatric horse a combination of chopped dried, wetted soft grass or young alfalfa, some soaked pellets which may be just forage pellets if the horse is no longer in work. An excellent feed to keep on weight especially during the winter is soaked sugar beet pulp.

Time of feeding is crucial. These horses do best when turned out on low cut, young grass, as they will try to attempt to eat but most may be spat out again. When larger particles are swallowed there is less chance of colic, than with tall grown grass. You then need to make the effort to feed your horse at least 3 times a day, ideally 4 times.

Author’s Tip: Feed soaked feed to horses with considerable tooth loss. Try and feed at least two types of textures – some soaked short chopped forage and soaked pelleted forage. If needed add senior feed pellets or additional mineral vitamin pellets – again all soaked in warm water until ‘mash-like’.

Author’s Tip: Provide feed slightly higher off the ground for the old girl/boy and away from other horses during feeding times. This may mean creating a separate small holding pen the horse can enter during feeding times.

These horses need to have access to water at all times as well. In the winter they will drink considerably more if the water is slightly warmed. Also use warm water to provide feed mashes as a lot less chewing occurs before swallowing. Their body condition will tell you how well they are doing. If you absolutely do not have the resources or are prepared to look after these animals well, it may be necessary to find someone who is willing to do this, or kinder to euthanize than to allow them to suffer. This is the hardest decision any horse owner has to make, and it is easily circumnavigated by selling a horse prior to this, but ask yourself – should you have horses if you are not prepared to care for them until the end?

This column was brought to you by nutritional experts from ANIVADO. ANIVADO is a platform for online courses on equine nutrition, behaviour, health and performance. If you want to learn more about us please visit: