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When to Start Feeding Foals

This time of year most of the thoroughbred foals are born and many are starting to try out their mothers feed. We are often asked whether foals should be fed and if so, when; so we’ve jotted down a few helpful tips on when to start feeding foals.

Foals are dependent on their mothers for all of their nutritional needs up to about five months old but their curiosity means that they usually start eating grass and feed before they reach five months. Most foals don’t need the extra nutrition but it’s generally not at all harmful. Many foals will nibble at the Stud Cubes or Stud Mix provided for their mothers. The protein quality in both Stud Cubes and Stud Mix will provide the right amino acids for the foals and balanced vitamins and minerals so it is perfectly safe for them to nibble away to their heart’s content.

What to Feed Foals

Foals that need a little extra can be fed small quantities of Foal Pellets or Foal and Yearling Cooked Mix. These products are designed to be fed in small quantities to provide a balanced diet for growing foals. Most foals should be introduced to Foal Pellets or Foal and Yearling Cooked Mix just before weaning so that the digestive system can adapt to concentrates rather than just the milk based diet. Some foals may benefit from adding feed at an earlier date and often commercial motives such as sales and shows mean that feed is added earlier to improve growth rates.

Some cases stand out as needing a bit more attention than most.

Creep Feeding Foals

Mares that are struggling to produce enough milk need extra feed for themselves and the foal benefits from being encouraged to eat concentrate from an earlier age. In these cases, creep feeding is useful, where the foal is fed small quantities of feed such as Foal Pellets or Foal and Yearling Cooked Mix from a feeding trough that the mare cannot access. Field enclosures may be used which allow the foals in but not the mares. These can also be useful later in the year before weaning to ensure that the foals are eating independently. Some studs may have stables with two feed troughs so that he mare and foal can be fed separately.

Both Foal Pellets and Foal and Yearling Cooked Mix are high in protein. This is to support the rapid growth rate of foals at this stage. The quality of the protein provide is very important for growth and development of the skeleton. Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which are “essential” in the diet. This means that the horse cannot produce them in the body and so they must be provided in the diet. Good quality protein provides ample supplies of essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine.

Protein alone does not a good diet make! The minerals and vitamins are important in all ages and types of horses but if they are not available and balanced in the diet for foals the implications could last a lifetime. Research shows that at six months of age, a horse can reach 84% of its mature height but only 46% of its mature weight. The bone mineral content (BMC) during the same growth period have shown that, at six months of age, total BMC is 68% complete, and by 12 months, 76% complete. However, maximum BMC is not achieved until a horse is six years of age. Read more about improving bone density.

Other Considerations

The cautionary note concerns the foals that are “doing” particularly well. These foals are the ones in very good body condition and surplus feeding may cause them to become overweight. This potentially creates problems such as epiphysitis. This is when the growth plates of the bones are under extra pressure due to the weight of the foal’s body and appears as swollen areas, particularly above the joints. Veterinary advice is recommended for foals with any kind of swelling. In the case of epiphysitis dietary management is often part of the treatment plan.

Current research suggests that foals that get very heavy in their formative months may develop performance limiting diseases in later life, such as exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage (bleeders) and various developmental joint diseases.

As with all nutritional matters balance is key. For advice specific to feeding your own foals please don’t hesitate to contact the RED MILLS nutrition team.

  • Tags:
  • Horses
  • Dietary Management
  • Feeding Foals
  • Thoroughbred Foals