Young Horse Nutrition: From Nursing Foals to Yearlings

Bucking foal

Raising a foal can be very fulfilling, yet demanding for horse owners. Young horses grow rapidly, reaching 90% of their full adult size by the age of 2 and gaining as much as 3 pounds a day!

There is an enormous increase in bone size, bone mineralization, and muscle mass as well as developing tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. Genetics, environment, and management play an integral role in determining the growth pattern of a foal, and the interplay among the three is complex.

Through optimal nutrition and management, we can provide a foal with the balanced diet and exercise needed to allow the young horse to grow to reach its full potential.

Maximal Growth vs. Optimal Growth: Striving for Balance

Maximal growth of a foal is not necessarily the same as optimal growth. Industry tends to dictate the rate of growth that is considered desirable, with rapid growth and development generally being important for halter horses and foals entering race training as yearlings.

Contracted tendons in a foal

Contracted tendons in a foal

But feeding a young horse to grow at its maximum rate is undesirable due to bone mineralization (which is responsible for bone strength) lagging significantly behind bone lengthening. Overfeeding young horses can cause them to gain weight so fast that their bones do not have adequate structural strength to support the weight, or it can intensify other skeletal abnormalities which leads to developmental orthopedic disorders (DODs).

DODs can include contracted tendons, epiphysitis/hysitis (inflammation of the growth plates), angular limb deformities, and osteochondrosis. These conditions cause unsoundness in the horse and can be expensive and time-consuming to treat. The foals that are at greatest risk of DOD are those between the ages of 3 and 9 months.

Epiphysitis/Physitis in a yearling

Epiphysitis/Physitis in a yearling

Carpus Valgus Angular Limb Deformity in a foal

Carpus Valgus Angular Limb Deformity in a foal

Osteochondrosis in a young horse

Osteochondrosis in a young horse

Ideally, young horses should be fed so that they grow at a moderate, steady rate. This does not compromise the eventual size of the horse, but merely allows growth to be proportional with bone strength. A good rule of thumb for all young horses is to allow plenty of free exercise, such as pasture or paddock time, to help strengthen bones and muscle.

The Nursing Foal

The first thing a nursing foal will ingest is antibody-rich colostrum from the mare. A foal only receives antibodies from the mare via passive transfer through the colostrum, and this helps to protect it from disease.

For the first few weeks of life, the foal should be able to maintain itself on milk alone, unless the mare is not producing enough milk. Mares will produce an average of 2-3% of her body weight in milk a day, but she must also be provided adequate nutrition to do so. If the foal is nursing for more than 30 minutes at a time, it is most likely not receiving enough milk and supplemental feed or milk replacer may be necessary.

Foals will start to nibble on the mare’s feed as early as 10 to 14 days of age. Coprophagy (eating the mare’s feces) is also normal in the foal, as this is how the gut is populated with the normal intestinal microflora. This may lead to what is known as “foal heat diarrhea,” as it also generally coincides with mares returning to estrus after foaling.

At approximately 8 to 10 weeks of age, the foal’s nutritional requirements may exceed the nutritional density of the mare’s milk. Using the practice of creep feeding can provide the foal with extra nutrients to fill this gap. Generally, creep feeding involves providing a growth and/or milk pellet feed in such a way that the mare cannot access it. This can also be implemented earlier in foals whose dam does not produce adequate milk or to reduce the strain of lactation in mares that are in poor body condition. Creep feeding also teaches the foal to eat grain prior to weaning, which helps to reduce stress and prevent post-weaning recessions in growth.

There are several commercially available creep feeds for foals that are adequately balanced for proper nutrition. In general, creep feed should be fresh and fed at a rate of 0.5-1% of the foal’s body weight per day, up to a maximum of 4 to 5 lbs. In stock and saddle horses, this amount of feed is approximately 1 lb of feed per month of age.

The creep feed should be introduced slowly and be available in several feedings per day. Most foals will take small, frequent meals, similar to nursing, due to the relatively small size of their stomachs and digestive tracts. Feeders should be checked daily to monitor the amount eaten and to prevent spoilage of feed.

Weanlings

Pair of foals

Foals are typically weaned at 4 to 6 months of age. To prepare for weaning, the foal’s ration should be slowly increased over a 2 to 3 week period, while the mare’s grain should be reduced and/or eliminated to help limit milk production.

Once the foal is completely off milk, it should be eating approximately 2-3% of its body weight in feed and forage a day. The forage should be of high quality and offered free choice. Alfalfa/grass mix hays seems to work the best. Weanlings benefit from a feed containing 14-16% protein, fed at a rate of 1% of body weight per day, up to 5 to 6 lbs per day.

It is not uncommon to see a decrease in growth following weaning, as this is a stressful time for the foal. This decrease may contribute to the incidence of DODs, so there are some steps one can take to help reduce stress and keep the foal growing at a continuous rate:

  1. Allowing the foal to have visual contact with the mare for a short time after weaning is less stressful than complete, abrupt separation.
  2. Pasture weaning has been shown to be less stressful than stall weaning.
  3. Relocate mares rather than relocating foals. Foals are more stressed when they are in unfamiliar surroundings.
  4. Group weaning several foals together helps to decrease stress. If only weaning one or two foals, consider placing a gentle gelding or calm, dry mare with them as a babysitter. The babysitter should be introduced to the foal(s) prior to weaning.

Yearlings

Clydesdale yearlings

As the foal reaches 12 months old, its growth rate begins to slow and the nutritional concentrations necessary in their feed become lower, but no less important.

Yearlings can meet the majority of their nutritional requirements to grow at a moderate rate simply by grazing on high-quality forage or pasture. Some yearlings may not need to be supplemented on grain if they are not being conditioned or receiving forced exercise. Those that are receiving forced exercise will require grain supplementation as it increases a yearling’s need for calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.

Body condition should be monitored closely to determine if the yearling is receiving appropriate hay and grain intake in proportion to their exercise level. Yearlings should be maintained at a body condition score of 5, and any fluctuation above or below this level should cause feed allowance to be decreased or increased respectively.

Our partners at Nutrena provide information to help you make this determination, including information on how to weigh your horse without a scale and this Body Condition Scorecard.

Though young horses have larger digestive systems and can eat more in one sitting, research has shown that feeding three or four times in a 24-hour period may improve nutrient absorption while decreasing surges in glucose and insulin.

Total Care

Working with your veterinarian to develop a total health care plan for your young horse will help to eliminate potential medical and nutritional issues. Body condition score can be evaluated and monitored every 6 months to determine the best nutritional plan for your young horse. Regular deworming, vaccinations, and examinations will help ensure your young horse is getting the best care possible.

Some other management tips for young horses include the following:

  1. Unless there is a medical reason to restrict exercise, allow young horses free choice, turn-out exercise daily.
  2. Avoid confining foals to stalls for more than 10 hours a day.
  3. Until the horse is at least 12 months old, use forced exercise (longeing, round pen, treadmill, etc.) cautiously. Excessive forced exercise can strain limbs and joints.
  4. Never exercise a foal to the point of fatigue. If signs of fatigue are noted (shaking limbs, weakness, inability to keep up with the herd), confine the mare and foal to a stall until the foal is rested.
  5. Keep the young horse’s feet trimmed properly to allow for proper limb development.
  6. Provide a safe, clean environment with adequate shelter. Eliminate potential hazards such as wire, nails, loose boards, etc.

Badger Equine Veterinary Services provides complete medical and nutritional care for your foals and young horses. Contact us today to schedule an appointment to discuss young horse nutrition!