Fewer topics in equine nutrition stir more controversy than feeding the growing horse. Many factors add to the confusion of providing nutrition throughout these critical stages of life.
For example, growing horses may have different commercial end points. Some will be shown in halter futurities where maximum growth and condition are required at a young age. Others will be prepared for sale, also requiring a ‘well-grown’ individual and many will be kept on the farm to be used as replacement horses or future performance horses. These horses often have less pressure on them to look their best at a young age.
A healthy foal will grow rapidly, gaining in height, weight and strength almost before your eyes. From birth to age two, a young horse can achieve 90 percent or more of its full adult size, sometimes putting on as much as 1.5kg per day.
Feeding young horses is a balancing act, as the nutritional start a foal gets can have a profound effect on its health and soundness for the rest of its life. As the foal’s dietary requirements shift from milk to feed and forage, your role in providing adequate nutrition is vital.
The critical nutrients for growth are protein (amino acids), minerals and vitamins. Nutrition imbalances have been recognized as one potential cause of growth disorders in young growing horses. Therefore, it is important that the diets of young horses be properly balanced with nutrients known to be vital for optimum development.
When you plan a feeding program for your young horses, several important factors need to be considered:
Body changes involved in growth,
- Nutrient requirements of that particular breed of horse,
- The feed’s nutrient content,
- Anatomical limitations of a young horses’ digestive system. For example, you cannot feed young horses’ low-energy, bulky feeds because their digestive tracts are not large enough. Instead, young horses need concentrated sources of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to meet their nutritive needs.
The nursing foal
Foals will meet their nutritional requirements in their first 2-3 months of age from the mare’s milk and pasture. If a foal and mare are in good condition, the foal does not need to start creep feeding until it is at least 2 months old. However, some may need to start creep feeding by 30 days of age. In the third month of lactation the mare’s milk production drops while the foal’s nutritional needs keep increasing. Therefore, foals have a nutrient gap. Creep feeding (that is, using feed that the mare cannot get to) can provide the foal with extra nutrients to fill this gap.
Several aspects of creep feeding are very important:
- 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 stable, allowing the foal to eat.
- Put the creep feeder where mares gather frequently.
- Feed the creep feed at a rate of 1% of the foal’s body weight per day (max - 1 kg/100 kg of body weight).
- Choose a feed that will be easy for the foal’s baby teeth to chew such as an extruded or pelleted feed like HYGAIN® TRU BREED® or HYGAIN® PRODIGY®.
Generally, foal performance decreases immediately after weaning. To minimize this “post weaning slump,” make sure foals are consuming enough dry feed at weaning to meet their requirements. One way of doing so is by creep feeding. Managing growth during this time is very important because excessive weight gain may cause bone abnormalities and long-lasting skeletal problems.
Feed weaned foals on a combination diet. Firstly, 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 and makes for a sound future athlete.
Secondly, weanlings should be fed hard feeds between 0.5kg - 1.5kg per day as per the recommendations listed on the product bag. Be careful not to feed weanlings too much hard feed. If you feed them high levels of hard feeds, they will grow more rapidly and this rapid growth may harm skeletal and tendon development. Therefore, adjust feed intake to avoid overfeeding.
As a yearling’s growth rate slows considerably by the age of 12 months, yearlings can consume more kilograms of dry matter. Therefore, they need lower nutrient concentrations in their ration. Feed grain to yearlings at approximately 0.5 to 1.5 kg/100 kg of body weight. Even though yearlings require only 12% crude protein in the total ration, a 14% crude protein hard feed ration gives you more flexibility. With this level, even if you use different types of hays with protein variations, the horse will still get enough protein. A 400kg yearling may receive 1.5 to 2kg of hard feed per day plus free choice hay or pasture. The amount of hard feed required varies due to forage quality and quantity.
By the time yearlings are 18 months old (known as long yearlings), their growth rate has slowed even further. Although long yearlings only require 10% protein, you do not need to formulate a new ration for them. You can feed them the same ration as a 12 month yearling. As horses have highly individual requirements, you need to adjust feed consumption to account for changes in individual condition.
Therefore, you must combine your knowledge of nutrition, your eye for condition and common sense to make the final adjustments on feed intake.