Start your foal right for future health

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

A healthy foal will grow rapidly, gaining in height and weight. From birth to age two, a young horse can achieve 90 percent or more of its full adult size, sometimes putting on as many as 3 pounds per day. Feeding young horses is a balancing act, as the nutritional start a foal gets can have a profound effect on its health and soundness for the rest of its life.

At eight to 10 weeks of age, mare’s milk alone may not adequately meet a foal’s nutritional needs. As the foal’s dietary requirements shift from milk to feed and forage, your role in providing the proper nutrition gains importance. Following are guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners to help horse owners meet the nutrient needs of young horses.

  1. Provide high quality roughage; hay and pasture should be available free-choice.
  2. Supplement with a high-quality, properly balanced grain concentrate at weaning, or earlier if more rapid rates are desired. (MFA Strut and Shine).
  3. Start by feeding 1 percent of a foal’s body weight per day (a 300 pound horse gets 3 lbs. of feed). If you are in doubt of the weight/feed ratio, you can feed 1 pound of feed per month of age.
  4. Weigh and adjust the feed ration based on growth and fitness. A weight tape can help you approximate a foal’s size.
  5. Foals have small stomachs, so divide the daily ration into two to three feedings. Remove any old feed daily.
  6. Make sure feeds contain the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, energy and protein.
  7. Use a creep feeder or feed the foal separate from the mare so the foal can eat its own ration. Try to avoid group creep feeding situations.
  8. Do not overfeed. Overweight foals are more prone to developmental orthopedic disease.
  9. Provide opportunity for abundant exercise.

The foal’s first months of life is a time of rapid growth and digestive changes, and a time when nutrition plays a critical role in skeletal development. To achieve each foal’s genetic potential, you must provide feed to complement their changing digestive system in a form they can absorb and meet their nutrient needs of proteins, fats, calories, macro minerals, trace minerals and vitamins.

A common management practice in the past has been to allow nursing foals to eat with their dams. Unfortunately, the foal under two months of age has little ability to digest the higher fiber feeds of adult animals. Young foals have a digestive system geared up to take advantage of milk, but that changes over time. When a foal is between three and four months of age its digestive system changes to better handle cereals.

Nutritional shortages can develop from the decline in the mineral density in mare’s milk. If this is the reason, the foal will begin to show signs of developmental orthopedic disease between two to four months of age.

To help ensure adequate consumption, offer a creep feeder for the foal during its first week, then find a way keep foal and mare feed separate.

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