The key to successful weaning lies in good preparation and correct nutrition is one aspect of that preparation which can start whilst the foal is still suckling and which is not only important for the general well-being of the foal, but can have particular implications for its future.
The Evolving Digestive Tract
Horses, like other mammals, are dependant on enzymes to break down nutrients. Enzymes are specific to different nutrients and ingredients so their levels will vary according to the horse’s diet. Young mammals start with increased levels of lactase, the enzyme that digests milk, which gradually declines as levels of other enzymes increase.
Since the adult horse is so reliant on of bacteria in the hindgut to ferment and release the nutrients from fibre in forage, these must also become established in the developing digestive tract of the young foal. Many are ingested naturally as the foal’s interest in foraging and eating grass increases rapidly from 1 to 6 months of age and it is not unusual for a foal to consume some of its mother’s faeces as a direct source of fibre-fermenting bacteria.
At around 3 to 4 months of age the foal can also digest cereal grains and legumes (soya, beans and peas) more efficiently, as levels of amylase and protease enzymes are increasing. This is the time to introduce the foal to traditional concentrate feeds, encouraging the gradual change of the system and helping reduce the risk of digestive upsets, and associated drop of condition, when the milk supply is removed.
There is often a reluctance to feed foals, particularly those who are naturally good-doers, for fear of causing growth problems, with protein wrongly labelled as the culprit. It is now recognised that it is a high energy (calorie) intake with insufficient minerals which can lead to these problems, as this creates an increased rate of growth without the nutrients required to build the tissues to support the growth.
Monitoring your youngster’s growth, by regular weightaping and plotting the rate of growth on a chart, can act as an early warning system to highlight potential growth-related problems. Youngsters that are growing very rapidly will produce an upright curve which is an indication that the energy content of the diet may need to be reduced. Conversely, a very flat curve suggests that the foal is not growing and would benefit from additional calories, which can be supplied by a milk-based creep feed up to 3 months of age and then by a traditional stud feed.
Keep it Steady
Maintaining a steady rate of growth is essential to try to avoid the dangers of growth problems, which affect the growing skeleton and associated tissues and which could ultimately have an effect on a foal’s soundness and ability to perform as an adult. So for foals who hold their condition well both before and during the weaning process, a specially formulated stud balancer is ideal, as this will provide essential protein, vitamins and minerals to support growth but with a minimal calorie content.
For those who require some help in maintaining condition, a traditional stud mix or cube will provide additional calories but must be fed at recommended rates to supply the necessary supporting nutrients required. At the time of weaning, the foal should be receiving sufficient nutrients from a stud ration to maintain weight and consistent growth when the milk supply is removed.
Supporting the Gut
So, before the foal is finally separated from its dam it will be well established on its own concentrate diet and should also be eating grass and any other forage source which it will remain on after weaning. The fibre digesting, and other hind gut bacteria, of any horse can be disrupted by stressful situations with associated reductions in gut efficiency and potential digestive upsets like loose droppings. Feeding a digestive enhancer, such as a prebiotic, before, during and after the weaning process can help both the mare and the foal through the stressful time by supporting the beneficial bacterial populations and helping maintain a healthy balance in the gut.
What About the Mare?
Having focussed very much on getting things right for the weanling, the welfare and nutrition of the mare should not be forgotten. Once removed from the foal, the calorie content of her diet should be reduced until her milk supply has dried up, although it is preferable to keep a vitamin and mineral source available, like a specially formulated block or lick, or continue to feed a low calorie balancer.
Her diet will then depend on whether she is in foal again, returning to work or simply remaining roughed off and also on how well she has maintained condition through lactation and weaning. If she is in foal again it is vital to feed to support the growing foetus so a stud mix or cube should be fed at recommended rates, or a stud balancer if fewer calories are required. Ensuring she receives a fully balanced diet at all times will help her replace the body reserves which have been drawn on by having a foal and help her return to work or prepare for the next covering.
How you wean your foal will depend on your particular circumstances and how mare and foal cope with separation will depend on them as individuals. However by taking care beforehand, you can help reduce the stress and help ensure that both foal and dam have a strong and healthy future.