Feeding the Growing Foal

Start your foal out right to help avoid bone and tendon problems later in life.

Your foal's growing like a weed at his dam's side, and by all appearances, he's healthy and happy. But you know how important it is to ensure that he's receiving the right levels of nutrients and that he doesn't grow too fast as you establish a feeding program; indeed, determining an appropriate diet for foals can be difficult. Scientists have done a wonderful job in determining the necessary nutrients for an appropriate rate of growth, but not all youngsters are created equal. Rates of metabolism vary, circumstances due to geography and weather conditions vary, genetics vary, the quality of milk varies from mare to mare, exercise varies, the quality of forage or pasture grass varies ... the list goes on.

The challenge for foal owners is to establish a feeding program tailored to the needs of the individual or group. Close observation concerning the youngster's ongoing development is highly important in determining whether growth goals are being met without causing problems with bone and tendon structure. This can get somewhat complicated when managing a group of foals, but it is highly important.

Robert (Bob) Coleman, MS, PhD, associate director for Undergraduate Education in Equine Science and Management and equine extension professor at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, tells us the period from birth to 18 months is critical for young horses' growth. This is because they achieve 90% of mature height and almost that percentage of mature weight during that first 1½ years.

During that period of rapid growth and development the stage is being set for the young horse's athletic future. An appropriate feeding program can result in a mature horse that is sound of muscle and bone and is ready for a vigorous life as an equine athlete. An inappropriate feeding approach can result in the development of orthopedic problems that can haunt the horse throughout his life. Problems of that type quite often result from overfeeding the weanling.

One reason some owners or managers feed foals diets that are overloaded with nutrients is economic in nature. Millions of dollars are spent each year at yearling sales, and quite often the ones commanding the big bucks are the tall, stout, mature-looking animals that are a product of a rapid rate of growth.

Just as the Henneke scoring system is used to determine a horse's body condition, Christian Rammerstorfer, PhD, formerly of Oregon State University and now a reining horse trainer in Elbert, Colo., tells us that there are four growth rates that are commonly referred to by nutritionists. They are slow, moderate, optimal, and fast.

It is important, he says, for a horse owner to decide early in the foal's life which of these rates is best for each animal. Here is how Rammerstorfer describes each of the growth rates:

  • A slow rate of growth borders on malnutrition and is referred to as "stunting" growth. Unless severe medical conditions exist that demand the horse's body weight be minimized, a slow rate of growth should not be pursued.
  • A moderate rate of growth is acceptable for most performance horse prospects, such as cutting, reining, dressage horses, etc. These horses are not pushed quite as hard during their yearling and 2-year-old stages as racehorse prospects are.
  • Optimal rate of growth is the ideal rate of growth for 80-90% of all horses. Growth is pushed somewhat, but not to the extent that growth-related bone problems increase significantly.
  • A fast rate of growth is achieved by employing feeding practices that should not be employed for most growing horses. Usually a fast rate of growth involves protein intake in excess of 16%, resulting in daily gains exceeding three pounds.

One of the tools that can be used in helping to determine whether a feeding program is on track is the aforementioned Henneke body score system. Developed by Don Henneke, PhD, when he was a graduate student at Texas A&M University in 1983, the system involves numerical ratings from 1 through 9. A horse rated 1 on the scale is emaciated and one rated 9 is obese. When studying nutritional literature, most nutritionists feel that young, growing horses should range between 4 and 6 on the Henneke scale.

This is how the Henneke scoring system describes a rating of 4: The animal is moderately thin, but his neck is not obviously thin; his withers are not obviously thin; his shoulder is not obviously thin; a faint outline of the ribs is discernible; there's a negative crease (peaked appearance) along the back; the tailhead prominence depends on conformation; and fat can be felt. Hook bones (the projecting points of the hip bones) are not discernible.

Here is how a 5 rating is described: General condition is moderate (ideal weight). The horse's neck blends smoothly into the body; his withers are rounded over the spinous processes; his shoulder blends smoothly into the body; the ribs cannot be visually distinguished, but can be easily felt; the back is level; and the fat around the tailhead is beginning to feel soft.

Here is the 6 rating: The horse is moderately fleshy, with fat beginning to be deposited on neck, withers, and shoulder; the fat over the ribs feels spongy; and he might have a slight positive crease over the loins. The fat around the horse's tailhead feels soft.

Equine specialists with Virginia Cooperative Extension point out in a paper published online that forearm length and cannon bone circumference can be important indicators of bone health in young, growing horses. Growth should be consistent across all these measurements, they state. Sudden, large increases--or any decreases--could be an indication of potential problems.

Creep Feeding Nursing Foals

In the earliest stages of life, says Coleman, a foal's nutritional requirements are pretty much met with mare's milk and pasture, plus whatever the foal starts nibbling on, such as grain fed to the mare. However, he says, once the foal reaches 2 months of age, his nutritional demands outstrip what the mare can provide with milk alone. It is at this stage, he believes, that creep feeding can be a benefit.

Coleman is known in the industry as an expert in the field of creep feeding. Before assuming his current position at the University of Kentucky, he served as horse specialist for Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. While serving in that capacity, Coleman conducted a 53-day trial that involved creep feeding a large group of foals on an Alberta farm.

A report on the study, which was conducted in 1997, was published in the Journal of Veterinary Science in 1999. It was and still is hailed by equine nutritionists as one of the best studies conducted to determine the role that creep feeding plays in foal development.

There had been concerns that a creep-feeding program would contribute to orthopedic developmental problems because the foal was in a sense being stimulated to develop at its genetic maximum. Coleman concluded that the opposite was true--creep feeding actually cut the potential for post-weaning developmental problems, rather than being a contributing cause. The reason for this, he said, is that the foal on creep feed will have grown to his optimum potential, thus reducing a spurt of compensatory growth after weaning.

He had this to say in the published report: "Foals are under a great deal of stress at weaning because their diet is changed, and there is the loss of companionship with their dam, and they may be moved to a new location. Stress at weaning can result in injury, weight loss, and health problems. These stresses can result in reduced competitiveness of the foals in the marketplace or in the show ring. Creep feeding has been shown to reduce stress on foals at weaning. Foals that are accustomed to dry feed prior to weaning exhibit less stress than those foals that do not receive concentrate before weaning."

The two creep rations Coleman used in the study included oats and barley as the major grain components, with a small amount of wheat included in one ration. He used combinations of canola meal and soybean meal as protein supplements. One of the rations contained 13% protein and the other 17%. There was very little difference in results when the two rations were compared.

The bottom line was that the creep-fed foals were in better physical condition and were healthier than their counterparts that were not creep-fed. In addition, the creep-fed foals were ready to move into the next phase of development post-weaning. And, perhaps most importantly, researchers noted no problems with limb developments in these foals.

There are aspects of creep feeding that are very important, Coleman notes in an extension bulletin on the subject:

  • Start creep feeding when foals are about 8 to 12 weeks old. Make sure the feed is fresh daily and that foals are consuming it adequately.
  • Use a creep feeder designed so that mares cannot gain access and so that foals will not be hurt. If you do not want a field-type feeder, you can tie the mare in her stall, allowing the foal to eat.
  • Put the field creep feeder where mares gather frequently.
  • Feed the creep feed at a rate of 1% of the foal's body weight per day (1 pound per 100 pounds of body weight). For most foals of light horse breeds this amount of feed is approximately 1 pound of feed per month of age. Do not provide creep feed free-choice because that could increase the incidence of physitis and enterotoxemia (also called "overeating disease," caused by toxins produced by Clostridium perfringens) among the larger, more rapidly growing foals.

Post-Weaning Feeding

The creep feeding program, as Coleman has already noted, helps prepare the foal for that traumatic day when it is weaned. At this point the appropriate diet and exercise are highly important.

Here is what he suggests:

"Feed weaned foals on a combination diet," he says. "First they should be fed good-quality forage. They should have access to all the good-quality hay they will consume and allowed all the voluntary exercise they want. Research has shown that exercise strengthens bone, increases cortical thickness (the dense outer tubular structure of bone), and makes for a more durable future athlete.

"Second, weanlings also should be fed concentrates at the following rate: 1 to 1.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight per day," he adds. "This mix should contain at least 15% crude protein, 0.90% calcium, and 0.80% phosphorus. Adjust protein percentages in the concentrate according to the type of forage you use. If you use higher-quality forage, the foal will need less concentrate.

"Be careful not to feed weanlings too much concentrate," he warns. "If you feed them high levels of concentrates, they will grow more rapidly, and this rapid growth may harm skeletal and tendon development. Therefore, adjust feed intake to avoid overfeeding."

One thing on which all equine nutritionists agree is that the quality of forage and grain must be the highest available. This would be especially true with hay and pasture. It is a given that hay can vary widely in nutrient content and that many factors figure into its quality.

If a horse owner lacks knowledge about hay quality, he or she should seek help from extension agents, veterinarians, or knowledgeable farmers who grow the crop. Even then it is a good idea to have the forage tested to learn exactly what nutrients it contains.

Take-Home Message

Raising a foal to be a strong, healthy horse capable of competing in the athletic world on strong, healthy limbs can be a challenge. However, you can accomplish this goal if you get that foal off to the correct nutritional start very early in life and maintain a sound feeding program for him throughout his career.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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