Genetics, management and environment play significant roles in determining individual growth patterns. Through research, we also know we can influence a foal’s growth and development – for better or worse – by the nutrition we supply.
Strive for Balance
Feeding young horses is a careful balancing act. The interplay between genetics, management and environment and nutrition is complex. While we can do nothing to affect the genetics of an individual, we can affect how those genetics are ultimately expressed.
Foal nutrition is just one of many important aspects of raising an equine baby. Learn more about breeding American Quarter Horses and raising healthy foals in AQHA's Equine Breeding Techniques and Foal Health Tips ebook.
The nutritional start a foal gets can have a profound effect on its health and soundness for the rest of its life. We can accelerate growth if we choose. However, research suggests that a balanced dietary approach, which supports no more than a moderate growth rate, is less likely to cause developmental problems.
Some conditions that have been associated with rapid growth rates include:
- Contracted tendons
- Angular limb deformities
The Foal’s Changing Diet
As early as 10-14 days of age, a foal may begin to show an interest in feed. By nibbling and sampling, the youngster learns to eat solid food. Its digestive system quickly adapts to the dietary changes. It is now recognized that coprophagy (eating of feces) is normal in the form and may lead to foal heat diarrhea as the intestinal microflora changes. This diarrhea was previously thought to result from hormonal changes in the milk but has been observed to occur with orphaned foals that have no exposure to maternal hormones.
At 8-10 weeks of age, mare’s milk alone may not adequately meet the foal’s nutritional needs, depending on the desired growth rate an owner wants for a foal. In order to achieve a more rapid rate of gain, high-quality grains and forage should be added to the foal’s diet.
It is essential the ration be properly balanced for vitamins and minerals. Deficits, excesses or imbalances of calcium, phosphorous, copper, zinc, selenium and vitamin E are of particular concern in the growing foal. Improper amounts or ratios can lead to skeletal problems.
Foal Feeding Guidelines
As the foal’s dietary requirements shift from milk to feed and forage, your role in providing the proper nutrition gains in importance. Here are some guidelines to help you meet the young horse’s needs:
- Provide high-quality roughage (hay and pasture) free choice.
- Supplement with a high-quality, properly-balanced grain concentrate at weaning, or earlier if more rapid rates of gain are desired.
- Start by feeding 1 percent of a foal’s body weight per day (i.e. 1 pound of feed for each 100 pounds of body weight) or one pound of feed per month of age.
- Weigh and adjust the feed ration based on growth and fitness. A weight tape can help you approximate a foal’s size.
- Foals have small stomachs, so divide the daily ration into two to three feedings.
- Make sure feeds contain the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, energy and protein.
- Use a creep feeder or feed the foal separately from the mare so it can eat its own ration. Try to avoid group creep-feeding situations.
- Remove uneaten portions between feedings.
- Do not overfeed. Overweight foals are more prone to developmental orthopedic disease (DOD).
- Provide unlimited fresh, clean water.
- Provide opportunity for abundant exercise.
Foals are commonly weaned at 4-6 months of age. Beginning about the third month, the mare’s milk supply gradually declines and a natural weaning process begins.
Raising a healthy and happy American Quarter Horse is hard work, but definitely worth it. Find more tips on successfully raising foals in AQHA's Equine Breeding Techniques and Foal Health Tips ebook.