Nutritional Support for the Lactating Mare and Growing Foal

Lactating mares, newborns and weanlings have special nutritional needs.

From The Horse

When your mare is in foal, your main focus becomes nutrition to support optimal health during gestation and lactation, and the first several months of the foal's life. Improper nutrition during these key phases of development can have repercussions for the mare and foal for the rest of their lives.

The Lactating Mare

Understanding proper nutrition for the pregnant mare during gestation is critical to producing a healthy foal because healthy development of your foal begins in the mare. "Putting the emphasis on gestational nutrition helps ensure that the foal is born with a reservoir of vitamins and minerals to meet its early needs," says Jack Grogan, certified nutritionist.

"This supports fetal growth and prevents the mare's body from pulling vital nutrients from her own reserves that can leave her badly depleted and nutritionally imbalanced. This also better prepares the foal for the first few weeks after foaling and is very important for the foal's delicate immune system. Nutrient deficiencies can have long-lasting effects on the mare and foal, increasing chances of the foal being born weak or becoming more susceptible to structural problems and health issues. After foaling, the mare's requirements for calcium, phosphorous, iron, magnesium and vitamin A increase the most."

Osteochondritis dissecans causes more than just normal “growth pains” in young horses. This condition actually occurs when the bone and cartilage in the joints of a young horse form incorrectly, causing the cartilage at the end of the bone to separate. Read more about it in AQHA’s FREE Young Horse Joint Health report.

Jack also suggests that protein-supplying essential amino acids be provided for muscular development and the healthy production of bone, organ and nervous tissue, which is crucial for the production and activation of the body's critical enzymes. However, he cautions against feeding excessive protein and energy during gestation because of the increased stress it can generate in the metabolism, resulting in losses or imbalances in essential nutrients. While Jack discourages overfeeding protein and energy during gestation, he emphasizes feeding plenty of protein and energy from healthy, quality fat during lactation. He explains that energy demands for lactating mares can be very high: "Mare's milk is rich in protein and fat and, therefore, the mare's diet must also have more protein and energy, as well. Average-sized mares will produce 20 to 40 pounds of milk per day during the first three months of lactation, and 20 pounds during the later lactation period." Lactation places the greatest nutritional demand on the horse, and in some cases can almost double the mare's energy requirements. If her nutrition isn't sound, she will pull from the reserves of her body to provide for the foal, losing body condition

The Growing Foal

Foals grow very quickly and demand a nutrient-rich diet to support this growth. The mare's lactation peaks at about two months; by four months, she is providing about 50 percent of the foal's nutritional requirements, and by six months, only 30 percent, as production quantity and quality of the milk decreases. It is highly beneficial to supplement (generally via creep feeding) with a high-strength vitamin/mineral formula to support the very high nutritional requirements that are needed during high growth periods.

Roll It!

Colorado State University's Dr. Pat McCue explains how to care for a newborn foal. However, overfeeding the foal with excess protein and energy in an attempt to increase vitamin and mineral content can be a mistake, as the excess protein and energy can cause a too-rapid growth spurt, which can ultimately stress the bones, joints and connective tissues. This can make the foal prone to bone development problems and future structural issues. Jack advises that supplementing the foal with well-balanced vitamins and minerals will lead to healthy growth patterns with strong bones, joints and connective tissues. It is important to note that many formulations supply only the absolute minimum amount of nutrients that need to be present for the product's label purposes. Many times, the nutrient levels or forms of the nutrients supplied in these formulas are woefully inadequate to give full nutritional support for rapidly developing foals. Formulations that supply substantially higher levels of nutrients, rather than the minimum values only, are much more likely to provide the support that rapidly growing foals require. This gives the foal a nutritional advantage with a greater reservoir of nutrients for their metabolism to utilize. The other consideration, particularly for mineral nutrients, is the form in which they are supplied. Different carriers of the same mineral can be absorbed and utilized at significantly different levels. Some forms of minerals are much more easily used in the body than others, thereby having a more beneficial effect, while others are very poorly absorbed or used and can have little or no real benefit. Good, well-balanced nutrient formulations will contain higher levels of nutrients in the most bio-available forms.

If left untreated, OCD can end a horse’s athletic career. Don’t let your performance horse’s career end before it has begun – download the FREE Young Horse Joint Health report. It will help you understand OCD so you can spot it before it becomes an issue.

A solid nutritional formula to support bone, joint and connective tissue health and growth should include significantly potent levels of:

  • Fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E to support bone health, calcium metabolism and to reduce oxidative stress;
  • Water-soluble B complex vitamins, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B12, folic acid, biotin and choline to support the basic metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. These vitamins also support stress response and recovery, supply important nutrition for the developing nervous system, including the brain, as well as reduce oxidative stresses;
  • Trace minerals, particularly zinc, copper, manganese, iron, silicon, cobalt, iodine and selenium play hugely important roles in the development and protection of the bones, joints and connective tissues. These nutrients are also involved in the reduction of oxidative stresses, as well as supplying the basic trace mineral reserves for these tissues;
  • Macro-minerals, including calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, play crucial roles in bone development, formation and maturation and take up together about 40 percent of the bone density; and
  • The inclusion of beneficial gut bacteria is also an important part of this type of formulation to support gut health to maximize nutrient absorption.

At times, a higher protein and energy-dense supplement may be required after weaning. In those cases, it can be very beneficial to utilize a nutrient formula that contains all the above considerations, with the addition of quality proteins and fats for growth, development and maintenance of the foal's lean mass. This includes muscle, bone, joint, organ and connective tissue.