When do I start my foal on an exercise program? My champion show jumper just gave birth to a foal a couple of weeks ago, and I want to give him every advantage possible since I have plans for him to be my next champion show jumper. What type of exercise should I start him with, and when?

An exercise program designed to build muscle mass is not recommended for the first year because the skeletal system of the foal is just not ready to handle a huge amount of muscle. It is still developing. If you put too much muscle on this immature framework, problems like arthritis, flexural deformities, and angular limb deformities will occur. These are all results of too much muscle mass on a skeletal system that is not yet ready to handle it. The best way to avoid these problems is to avoid a rigorous exercise program until the foal matures past a year old.

Halter breaking and some longeing of foals is not bad; it will help the foal learn some manners. It's the rigorous exercise program that causes problems. I think a lot of good horses are wasted because we work them too hard and too young.

It is important that the newborn foal gets exercise, but at its own pace. The foal will benefit from the fresh air of being outside, which will reduce its chances of contracting a respiratory infection. Studies have shown that stallbound foals are affected by the ammonia content in the air. The musculoskeletal system in terms of bones, muscles, and cartilage also will benefit from the exercise the foal gets when it is turned out.

A good introduction to exercise for the new foal is to begin by putting it and its dam out with one or two more mares and their foals. This should begin one to two days after birth, gradually increasing the time spent outside each day. By two weeks of age the foal should be able to spend up to a full day in the field. Only place mares and foals together that are compatable--some mares are not compatable with other's foals.

Something else to keep in mind, depending on where you live, is the climate. Very young foals in cold climates should be turned out for short periods at a time so they can become acclimated to the cold. Or, if you are in a warm climate such as Florida, sunburn is a concern that needs to be dealt with when managing the foals time outside.

While the benefits outweigh the risks of normal exercise, there are some potential problems to watch out for. First, you should make sure the foal does not over-indulge in exercise. Many dams, especially younger ones, have the tendency to run at full speed in the field, and their foals have trouble keeping up. Dams with this behavior should be turned out in smaller pens so their foals can keep up with them without overdoing it.

Pay attention to physical dangers like holes in the field, downed branches, bad boards on fences, etc. Any of these can spell disaster for the young foal, so precautions should be taken. It is a good idea to inspect the field in which the foals will be turned out in order to minimize the risks.

Once the foal is weaned from the mare, it can be turned out with other foals around the same age. It is important to keep foals grouped by age, and also by sex, as they reach yearling age. Age grouping is important because if you put older foals with younger ones, then the younger ones will have a hard time keeping up with the older foals. The older foals also might show some aggression toward the younger ones. Grouping by sex is to keep the more aggressive colts away from the fillies. Colts tend to become a little aggressive as they approach yearling age.

Some signs that indicate the foal is getting too much exercise include lameness, changes in the conformation of the legs, which might be angular limb deformities, or flexural deformities that makes the foal look calf-kneed or buck-kneed. These problems are the result of a combination of growing too fast and too much exercise. The foals which show these deformities need analgesics and controlled exercise.

Exercise is definitely good for foals, but foals have very "plastic" bones at early ages and that should be taken into consideration. Controlled exercise is the key.

About the Author

Elizabeth Santschi, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

Elizabeth M Santschi, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Large Animal Surgery at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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