As horses get older, they can suffer from muscle breakdown. This is a natural process. In humans, too, more and more muscle tissue is broken down with age. This is because the hormone balance changes, because the nerves send fewer stimuli to the muscles and because the protein metabolism of an older horse or human is getting worse.
Muscles take a lot of energy to maintain. But at the same time, a horse also desperately needs them. It is therefore important that an older horse, also in winter, receives sufficient energy to maintain the muscles. Unlimited roughage is always the best basis. In addition, it is wise to add healthy fats to the ration, from salmon oil for example. That gives a lot of energy and the appropriate omega-3 fatty acids for horses, namely EPA and DHA. For example, a horse has the required fatty acids directly available via the oil and a conversion step does not first have to take place in the intestines, such as with linseed oil.
Muscle building is controlled by hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. As your horse ages, these hormones are produced in smaller amounts. You can’t do much about this. What you should pay attention to is that there are no other hormonal problems at play. PPID (Cushing), Insulin Resistance and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) are things you can do something about. To prevent hormonal problems in your older horse, it is important to keep him or her at a healthy weight: neither too fat nor too thin. Another interesting fact: mares don’t get menopause like humans do, although they can become infertile later in life due to uterine problems, for example.
Hop! To move!
“Use it or lose it” is a well-known proverb. And the same goes for muscle mass. Horses that move little and therefore use their muscles little will suffer from muscle breakdown more quickly. Even if you can no longer train intensively with your older horse, it is important that he keeps moving. So make sure you have a lot of free movement in the paddock or pasture, go for a walk or take light trips outside or do groundwork with your horse. Exercise is also an excellent remedy for stiffness and mild osteoarthritis and ensures that your horse’s metabolism is also kept going. So win-win-win.
Proteins and amino acids
To keep muscles healthy, a horse must be able to get protein from its diet. Because that absorption is less efficient in an older horse than in a younger horse, older horses need almost twice as much protein. If a horse does not get enough proteins, the body will try to make them. This is an inefficient process that consumes a lot of energy. As a result, the horse loses weight (even more). In addition to proteins, which the horse receives from roughage, alfalfa, special concentrates or a protein supplement, amino acids are also important to create muscle mass. Those are the building blocks of proteins. A horse can make some amino acids itself, but a few of these building blocks must be in the feed or the vitamin balancer. These are called the essential amino acids. The most important of these are: Lysine, Threonine and Methionine.