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Feeding Young Horses
 By Winniefield Park   •   12th Jul 2017   •   1,503 views   •   0 comments


Until a foal is weaned a good part of its nutrition comes from its mother’s milk. It’s not often things go awry as long as a foal has its mom, and some good pasture to nibble on. Some people like to give their foals a balancing ration, usually by putting feed in a ‘creep feeder’ that allows the foal to sneak in and eat, but keeps out the mare and other horses. A mare’s milk production starts to decline gradually after the foal is about two months old. So from this point, until the foal is weaned, and some people think even before, a little extra in the form of a concentrated feed will help the foal grow strong and healthy. Once weaned, a young horse’s healthy growth is entirely in the owner's hands. And, there are few mistakes that can be made that may affect the foal for the rest of its life.

The first mistake owners can make that isn’t really a feeding issue, but can affect how it is able to extract nutrition from what is fed to it, is to ignore starting an internal parasite program. Worms can pull a foal down fairly quickly. A foal with a big pot belly, bad coat, and low energy is most likely carrying an out-of-control parasite load. So it’s very important to look after this from the time the foal is about eight to twelve weeks old. It used to be that we wormed earlier, but vets now think that deworming too early isn’t effective because the parasites are still in the young larval stage, and the medication won’t work as well. It’s now thought that it’s better that the parasites are a bit more mature so that you’re not just building their resistance against the medication, but killing them completely. For most effective control, you want to kill the parasites just as they mature, but before they start producing eggs. Targeting and timing are probably best done with the help of a veterinarian if you are unsure about how, what, and when to go about deworming a foal or weanling.

Underfeeding, whether the foal is still nursing or is weaned can occur. It’s not unusual for a foal to take a slight dip in growth rate right after weaning. This is due to stress, and if the foal adapts quickly, you might not notice it all. In the wild, weaning takes place when the mare is about to drop a new foal. But, that’s not often possible in our stables, so foals are weaned anywhere from three months to six months, with four months being the magic number in many stables. So at this time, the amount of feed has to be increased to accommodate the foal's growth and loss of a mare’s milk. This actually should start taking place before the foal is completely weaned. This will help the foal grow steadily, rather than taking a post-weaning dip in condition.

Overfeeding is possible too. You many have seen the photos of fattened up weanlings and yearlings in the show ring and seen the scathing conversations that criticize the ‘the best color is fat’ belief. Thankfully, when we know better we do better, and our knowledge of nutrition with an eye towards the long-term health of the horse may not have completely eliminated over feeding of show horses but made us more aware of the dangers of it. Bone and joint problems are the most common concerns when it comes to overfeeding. DOD or Developmental Orthopedic Disease may be the result of feeding some types of macronutrients. Macronutrients are the main components of a diet, and for horses, these include fiber, carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Ideally, you want to feed a foal a diet that focuses on fiber and protein, with less emphasis on carbs and fat. The balance of minerals is also very important as is activity level, genetics, season, stress, and many other factors. Most equine nutritionists recommend feeding good quality hay or pasture along with a balanced concentrate made especially for young, growing horses. And, they advise against adding anything like oats, corn or extra supplements, because this will throw out an otherwise balanced diet.

There is a pound per day growth rate that experts recommend, but few of us have a way to measure our youngsters accurately on a daily basis. So how do you know your youngster is growing well? The Henneke body condition score to aim for is 5. This is probably a little higher than some people would look for, and lower for those who believe in the ‘best color is fat’ for the show ring. While some people like their foals to look a bit ribby and tough, a body condition score of 5, right in the middle of the scale, may be right. that means that you can easily feel, but not see the horse’s ribs, it’s got some flesh over the withers and shoulder, there’s some padding over the top of the tail area, and overall the horse doesn’t look bony or pot bellied. The coat will also be healthy, and the youngster's energy levels are good.

All this can be confusing. So to help you out, there are resources. Most feed companies have consultants that can help you decide on a feeding program. And, Kentucky Equine Research has experts you can consult via an online form. And of course, your vet too can help, especially if there are other considerations beyond what is normal, such as injury or illness.
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