Feeding Yearlings

Yearlings are a funny bunch. Gangly and half-grown they're at that gawky stage where hips are higher than withers and where legs seem all knobby knees and hocks. Sometimes it seems that designing a correct feeding program for them is almost as awkward as the yearlings themselves. You want your youngsters to achieve their maximum height and full athletic potential--but you don't want to overdo the nutritional support and create all sorts of growth-related problems. What's an owner to do?

Feeding yearlings actually follows many of the same principles you applied the previous year when these same youngsters were weanlings. The main difference is that while they still have quite a bit of growing to do the rate at which growth proceeds has slowed somewhat. Horses achieve about 90% of their full height by 12 to 15 months of age as well as 95% of their mature bone length and 70% of their adult weight. The remaining growth happens more gradually over the next few seasons. (Some breeds mature more quickly than others of course; many Quarter Horses have pretty much finished their growing by the time they're 2 1/2 while some warmblood and draft breeds still have significant filling out to do even in their fourth or fifth year.)

Because the growth rate has slowed there is less risk of developmental joint problems; if your yearling hasn't developed them by now it's likely that with continuing correct nutritional support he's out of the woods.

Still it's important to design your program for your youngster's optimum growth--not necessarily his fastest growth. Studies have confirmed that a fast growth rate will not increase the mature size of a horse and it puts undue strain on developing bones and joints. Instead your goal should be to achieve a steady growth rate from birth to maturity avoiding any severe growth depressions or spurts by maintaining a good balance of nutrients in the diet and minimizing stress.

A healthy yearling doesn't look like a slick miniature version of an adult. He should resemble the teenager he is--angular somewhat unbalanced and perhaps even a little on the lean side. Don't despair if he doesn't particularly please the eye at this stage; as long as he is growing and gaining weight has a shiny hair coat and a bright attitude and your veterinarian gives him a clean bill of health he's right on track. It's a good bet he will become more balanced and proportionate as he approaches the age of two.

Good Grazing ­A Healthy Start

During the spring and summer months a good mixed grass and legume pasture might be all a yearling needs to achieve a moderate growth rate. To ensure that your pasture provides sufficient nutrients get an analysis done of the forage growing on it; your local feed store or agriculture extension specialist should be able to provide this service and the information it returns can be invaluable. For example if your pasture is largely legume-based (alfalfa or clover for example) it might not deliver enough phosphorus to meet the requirements of yearlings. In this case you might need to supplement this mineral so as to provide the correct calcium/phosphorus balance for good bone growth.

Because you want to aim for an average weight gain of one to 1 1/4 pounds (450-600g) daily up to 18 months of age you also want to determine whether your pasture has enough grazing to achieve that. Generally speaking you want to provide at least 60 to 80 pounds of forage dry matter per 100 pounds of your yearling's body weight--which can be achieved with a stocking rate of about three yearlings per acre while forage is actively growing.

Of course even if you are lucky enough to have that much safely fenced grazing space a hot dry summer can scorch your pasture and leave you with withered grass that has little nutritional value. (Compare the nutritional content of mature grasses with the nutritional requirements of yearlings in the chart on page 79; you can see that they fall short of the daily requirements in several places including the digestible energy values.) If your pasture is poor the growth rate of your youngsters will suffer. In this case you will want to supplement the diet with hay and concentrates (grain) to ensure optimum growth.

Although it is difficult to make blanket recommendations for different breeds most yearlings of light-horse breeding will need their diets supplemented with about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds per 100 pounds body weight of a balanced grain mix daily when grazing on poor pasture. (This usually works out to about five to six pounds of grain a day for horses somewhat less for ponies--but do make an effort to monitor your yearling's weight by measurement and calculation or by the regular use of a heartgirth weight tape.) The type of grain you feed is less important than whether it is nutritionally balanced to support growth with high levels of calcium and phosphorus copper and zinc. This usually is much easier to achieve with a commercially balanced sweet feed pellet or extruded ration than it is by mixing your own.

Look for a crude protein level that will complement your forage. The overall level of crude protein a yearling should be getting is about 12.5% (12% for a "long yearling" one over 18 months old). So if your pasture is low in protein--as it will be if it is winter or fall--if you are experiencing a drought or anytime if it is largely grass rather than legumes select a higher-protein grain to balance the diet. If on the other hand your pasture is rich and lush and largely alfalfa or clover choose a lower-protein grain mix. Many feed companies manufacture rations specifically designed to meet the needs of young growing horses; it is far better to choose one of these even if the cost is a little higher than to feed a maintenance ration for mature horses which might not provide sufficient nutrients and eventually will compromise your horses' growth.

In addition to grain good-quality legume or mixed hay should be provided free-choice. Avoid strictly grass hays which often don't deliver enough crude protein or digestible energy to support optimum growth. (Providing hay also can give herds of young horses an alternative to a habit they sometimes develop out of boredom--chewing each other's manes and tails.)

When grazing is non-existent as it might be in the winter months yearlings should receive a high-quality legume or 50/50 mixed (legume and grass) hay making up 50% of the total daily ration. For an average 700 pound 12-month-old yearling that should be about seven to 10.5 pounds of hay per day (with an equal weight in grain provided on a daily basis too).

Adding some supplemental fat to the diet can be as beneficial for yearlings as it is for mature horses. Not only does fat (usually vegetable sources such as corn or soy oil) contribute to a shiny haircoat it also is easily digested and is an efficiently burned energy source providing almost 2 1/2 times as much energy pound for pound as carbohydrates. Like any other change to the diet however you should introduce added fat gradually working up to a maximum of about a cup of oil a day split over several meals.

Yearling For Show Or Sale

Somewhat at odds with the principle of letting a yearling be a gawky kid are the standards expected for youngsters being prepared for the show ring or sales pavilion. "Sales" yearlings (largely Thoroughbred or Standardbred racehorses) and youngsters destined to show at halter are expected to be slick well-filled-out eye-catching individuals. Unfortunately the trend in recent years has been toward over-fat over-developed youngsters (perhaps because fat hides a multitude of conformational sins!). Some of these horses have paid the price by suffering musculoskeletal problems associated with too much weight and restricted exercise; they often are poor performers in adulthood. There is some indication that this preference is now on the wane and if so it can only be good news for the welfare of the yearlings. A well-grown healthy strong yearling should not need to be over-conditioned to catch the attention of a knowledgeable buyer or judge.

Producing that strong and healthy yearling is a combination of solid nutrition and a sensible exercise regime. Twenty-four hour group turnout in a large hilly pasture is the most effective way to condition yearlings naturally; the result is wonderful muscle tone and a grace and balance that stabled horses usually do not possess. However at some point it will be necessary to bring yearlings into the barn and accustom them to the handling grooming and leadline skills they will need to acquire before the upcoming sale or show. You will need four to six weeks as a bare minimum to prepare each youngster keeping in mind that shaping of the hoofs (to trim away or grow out any unsightly chips and cracks) will take considerably longer than that.

Because you will want to minimize blemishes (cuts and scrapes acquired in the normal course of juvenile horseplay) a yearling being aimed for the sale or show ring likely will have to be separated from his group and will have to settle for individual turnout--or at least turnout with fewer individuals of compatible personalities. Many farms continue to turn out fillies with fillies but put colts with their more aggressive tendencies in individual paddocks. In addition you might have to restrict the number of daylight hours your yearlings spend outside especially if you are trying to avoid (or correct) a sunburned hair coat. The restriction of confined stall-time and limited turnout might make your yearlings frustrated and stir-crazy at first so it's important to continue to provide as much exercise as possible--introducing hand-walking or gentle longeing (on a large diameter of circle and only at a walk and trot so as to minimize joint strain) as necessary.

It's also a good idea not to introduce larger concentrate meals until your horses have adapted to their new routine. When your yearlings first "come inside" they might be nervous--or they might become anxious and temporarily lose their appetites. Either way feeding grain at this point is likely to be detrimental. Provide free-choice legume or mixed hay to reduce the risk of boredom and the development of stable vices such as cribbing or stall walking. Then gradually introduce a grain ration over a period of one to two weeks in proportion to the exercise program you've mapped out and the horse's individual body condition.

Even if your aim is a slick and well-covered yearling it is unwise to push for maximum weight gain. Taking an underdeveloped yearling and placing it on high-energy rations in the hopes of building it up quickly can result in nutritional disaster; joint problems or contracted tendons might be the unfortunate result. Instead stick with the basic guideline of your horses gaining one to 1 1/4 lb. of body weight a day.

Jack McNiven longtime farm manager of Ontario's Killean Acres a large Standardbred operation that sends more than 20 yearlings to the sales every year notes "You don't want them getting to the sale too fat. It's easier to put weight on than take it off and of course you have to factor in that they need less feed when they're in their stalls (as opposed to turned out)."

"Fortunately" McNiven adds "people are presenting yearlings much better than they used to 20 years ago. They tend to be much fitter now."

If you have a yearling who is a poor doer begin by having his teeth examined by your veterinarian. Sharp edges or "hooks" baby-tooth caps on molars and abscesses all can make a youngster reluctant to polish off his ration. And of course it goes without saying that all of your yearlings should be thoroughly dewormed on a regular basis. Once those bases are covered you often can persuade an excessively thin yearling to eat by offering a little extra-tempting feed (in the United Kingdom boiled barley or hot soaked grains are a favorite solution)--but the amount of exercise should be increased in proportion to the extra feed to avoid any sudden forced growth spurts. Adding some corn or soy oil to the ration can also help sale or show yearlings gain weight as well as develop a shiny coat.

On the other hand if your horses are over-fat it's best to reduce the amount of grain they receive and gradually increase the amount of exercise they get. (Even longeing at a trot for an extra five minutes daily can help achieve a steady weight loss without causing undue musculoskeletal injury.) And on any day when yearlings are not exercised their grain rations also should be reduced and replaced with an equivalent amount of hay.

Part of the preparation for the sale or show ring is of course lots of gentle handling. Each youngster must learn to lead and tie if he hasn't already done so as a foal and he must stand quietly for shoeing and grooming. In the end although proper nutrition lays the groundwork a truly brilliant haircoat comes with many hours of elbow grease and a soft body brush.

The end result of your carefully balanced nutritional program at the end of the year should be rapidly maturing healthy and fit two-year-olds who are starting to very much resemble the adult horses they will become. By the time your yearlings have reached the 24-month stage they will have accomplished much of their growing at least with regard to skeletal length and height although there is often quite a bit of filling out still to do. Their nutritional needs will be leveling off now to those required by mature horses and many of them will be ready to begin training for their future careers. And that's the best possible pay-off for your attention to nutritional detail during those vulnerable formative years.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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