Does this diet have too much protein for an older horse with Cushing’s?

I am writing for advice on my 26-year-old Arabian gelding. His body score condition is currently about a six. He has Cushing’s (receiving 1 mg Pergolide daily) and he also receives Cosequin joint supplement daily. He has been treated empirically for gastric ulcers and it was recommended at the time to provide small feedings, and to include alfalfa for its “buffering” capabilities. In the past he has suffered from loose manure, but I have noticed that when the grass starts coming in and/or I continue small frequent feedings his manure firms up. He has been seen regularly for dental care and quids a little on hay. Other than that he doesn’t have serious dental issues that I know of.

His current feeding regime includes approximately 5 pounds per day alfalfa Chaff Haye™, 2 lb/day of beet pulp without molasses, 1 lb/day wheat bran, 1 to 1 1/2 lb/day Purina Wellsolve L/S (low starch), 2 lb/per day chopped alfalfa, approximately 10 -15 lb of Orchard/alfalfa hay and limited pleasure grazing. The Orchard alfalfa hay was supposed to be 80% orchard and 20% alfalfa but it is quite heavy in alfalfa. The beet pulp, chopped alfalfa, bran, Wellsolve L/S and hay are split between two feedings, morning and night. He receives the Chaff Haye™ at noon and at 10 PM. When the grass is growing and he is grazing more, I stop the Chaffe Haye™ completely.

I know this sounds like a very complicated regime, but he is my only horse and I don’t mind doing it, and it seems to be keeping his body condition good, his manure firm, and he hasn’t had a colic in almost 2 years. My question is: Is this too much protein (from the alfalfa) for an older horse? Also, I am thinking of adopting an older pony who has foundered in the past, and wondering if this regime would be appropriate for him as well. Thank you for any advice you can offer for my old guy. Sally

Dear Sally,
You’re not going to hear anything from me about a complicated feeding regimen, as my barn’s feed room has been likened to a chemistry set and that’s even with every horse on SmartPaks! Your basic question is this: does this diet have too much protein for an older horse with Cushing’s? I’m of the camp that believes older horses should have more protein, not less, or at least have higher quality protein. That is, more of the ten essential amino acids, especially lysine and threonine, the first two limiting amino acids. This helps ensure that their less-efficient, aging digestive tract breaks down and absorbs the necessary amount of protein to maintain muscle mass (especially in the topline) as well as for all the other structure and function needs the body has for amino acids. Unless bloodwork shows that your horse has reduced kidney or liver function and can no longer metabolize protein and its waste products efficiently, I do not hesitate to provide them with alfalfa hay and other feedstuffs high in this important nutrient.

On the other hand, my experience has been that some horses and ponies that have foundered are more sensitive to alfalfa than other sources of long-stem forage so I would exercise caution with the pony you’re adopting. Feed him exactly what he’s getting now at the rescue and after he’s settled in at your place (weeks if not months) begin to SLOWLY change his diet to the one your Cushing’s horse is on, starting with the non-alfalfa parts of the regimen. When and if you do decide to include alfalfa, do so SLOWLY. Hats off to you for adopting a rescue horse!

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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6 comments on “Does this diet have too much protein for an older horse with Cushing’s?
  1. Zosha says:

    I am writing on advice about my 30 yr old arabian/ appaloosa mare with cushings disease.

    What should she be fed? and in what quantities?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Zosha,

      Congrats on your horse reaching 30! Since your horse is older with a metabolic condition, it’s especially important to make sure her diet is carefully balanced. We recommend you work with your veterinarian or local nutritionist to make sure all of her nutritional needs are being met.

  2. Holly says:

    I also have a horse that was recently diagnosed with Cushings and is presently receiving 1 mg pergolide daily. His diet consists of 10 lbs. orchard grass, 3 quarts Nutrena Sr. Smart Flex and Smart Senior daily, plus excellent pasture. His weight is very good and he is getting ridden regularly on trails. He seems happy and content and has good muscle mass for an older guy. Should he be receving alfalfa in addition or in place of the orchard grass? Want the best for my boy. Thanks.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Holly,

      It’s great to hear that your horse is doing so well! We recommend sticking with your current feeding program if you and your veterinarian are happy with his weight and attitude. It’s important to continue monitoring him closely for health and condition then make adjustments in the future if needed. Otherwise enjoy his golden years!

  3. Rose Mooney says:

    I have used Recovery EQ and found it to be the best supplement for cushings and founder. I encountered horses with real issues. The horse with founder recovered and we still have him on Recovery EQ at this time along with Purina Healthy Edge and grass hay. He’s doing great! The horse that had cushings started to founder, but Recovery EQ seemed to stop the founder. Once the rotation stopped I was able to maintain her on Remission for the rest of her life. Horses with Cushings have to have adaquate exercise and very limited diet. The horse I am telling you about was a pony. Limited grass, grass hay only, very tiny handful of NO STARCH grain such as Purina Healthy Edge.

    • Rose Mooney says:

      Smartgut is great to prevent ulcers or stomach upset! Any time a horse founders, they tend to continue to have issues with their stomach for the rest of their life. The horse I was caring for that ended up with cushings got into a field of acorns. When they brought her to my place, I immediately put her on Recovery EQ. The Recovery EQ seemed to work as far as preventing severe founder, and she was able to get back to a point where she was riding again. The weight problem with cushings can change with exercise, no starch feed, grass hay only! You should never feed a horse with cushings, or a foundered horse alfalfa hay. I hope this helps!

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