A lot of myths surround the issue of feeding growing horses and ponies, with many suggesting they should be kept on forage alone. But growing involves building body tissues, the components of which are supplied by nutrients in the diet, so, with the considerable investment involved in producing any youngster, it seems crazy not to help ensure correct growth by providing a supportive diet. Whether the foal or young horse is to enter the sales or show ring or not, there is no harm in aiming for a well-muscled, well-grown individual who may be better able to make the most of his genetic potential in the future.
Preparation of the youngster for a successful showing career should begin right back at conception by ensuring the mare receives correction nutrition throughout her pregnancy and not just during the last three months. The foetus accumulates minerals throughout the gestation period and these are stored in the liver for use by the growing foal after birth. This highlights the importance of a balanced diet for the mare and, where recommended quantities of a traditional stud mix or cube may provide too many calories, a balancer should be fed to provide essential protein, vitamins and minerals but no additional calories.
The Suckling Foal
Although the foal will pick at grass, hay and the mare’s concentrate feed from the first week onwards, he is not able to digest it efficiently and is totally dependent on milk for the first few months of life so, again, the importance of a balanced diet for the mare cannot be over emphasised. There may be occasions where the foal needs some extra nutritional help, either because he’s not doing as well as you’d like or because he’s doing too well! For foals under 3 months of age who need extra condition, a milk-based creep feed will provide calories to promote weight gain as well as a balance of other nutrients which are required for bone growth and tissue development.
When a foal or youngster is getting top heavy or growing very rapidly, calorie intake should be reduced but not at the expense of essential quality protein, vitamins and minerals which are necessary to support correct growth. These can be provided by a low calorie stud balancer or specially formulated vitamin and trace mineral supplement and it may be necessary to restrict the foal’s access to any lush pasture or, where rich or plentiful milk is the culprit, wean early; advice should be sought in this instance from an equine nutritionist and your veterinary surgeon.
Going it Alone
Foals from three months of age should ideally be introduced to a balancer whilst still with their dam to encourage their digestive systems to adapt to hard feed in preparation for weaning. Any which need some help maintaining condition can be fed a traditional stud mix or cube and, where the recommended quantity would provide too many calories, these feeds may be fed in reduced amounts and topped up with a balancer to maintain nutrient levels.
Should the stress of weaning, traveling or showing cause a foal or young horse to have runny droppings, a digestive enhancer, like a pre or probiotic, can help. Probiotics contain live bacteria which help replace those lost by the hind gut, whilst prebiotics act as a food source for the “friendly bacteria” and help them to flourish at the expense of pathogenic species.
As with the adult horse, forage should be the basis of the youngster’s diet and will contribute to energy intake by providing fermentable fibre and non-heating calories. The more digestible the forage, the lower the risk of “hay belly” and, if the nutritional quality of the forage is in question, an alfalfa chaff can be fed to help raise the overall protein and fibre content of the diet.
Concentrates should then be fed in small, frequent, digestible meals which are key to reducing excessive glycaemic response and avoiding starch overload. A high carbohydrate (starch) content is thought to influence the hormonal responses of the youngster to their meal and affect the conversion of cartilage to bone so, if feed volumes increase, upping the number of meals per day from two to three, or even four, is beneficial.
Oil is a great addition to the diet either for producing a glossy coat or when more calories are required, as it is a highly concentrated source of non-heating energy. High oil supplements are now available to offer a more palatable, mess-free alternative and should contain additional nutrients to support the efficient utilisation of the oil. Smaller amounts of these will help coat condition whereas ½ to 1 kg per day (or 300 – 500 ml of straight oil) will contribute significant additional calories for weight gain without adding greatly to the overall volume of feed. Specially formulated “prep” mixes like Baileys Prep Mix are also ideal for promoting show ring condition on the youngster by providing non-heating calories with all the necessary supporting nutrients.
By 12-15 months of age, the typical yearling should have achieved 90% of its mature height, 95% of its bone length and 75% of its adult weight; growth rates may now be slower (0.45-0.5kg per day) but it is still an important phase in the young athletic life. As the youngster matures, a balanced diet remains an essential part of helping him to develop into the strong, healthy adult we desire.
Feed according to manufacturers’ instructions and aim for muscle tone, top line and ribs you may not see but can certainly feel, whether it is for the show ring or just the barn or field. If ever you are in doubt, consult our Nutrition Team to help you provide essential nutritional support tailor-made for your particular circumstances on 01371 850 247 (option 2) or firstname.lastname@example.org