Equine feed: Top tips for feeding a foal

ArticleHow to -FeedingMonday 29 November 2010

Knowing just when and how much to feed a foal can make a massive difference on how they turn out. If you get it right, then you will have a stronger, healthier foal all round. Anybody who decides to breed must get a basic knowledge of how to deal with their young stock when the mares’ milk production starts to drop, which is normally in the third month of lactation. The mares’ milk drops but the foals’ nutritional needs keep increasing.

The early development of a foal can be influential in ensuring a horse grows up to enjoy a full and healthy lifestyle. Therefore, in the days and weeks following the birth of a foal, it’s important to take feeding and general care very seriously. 
Establishing a consistent feeding routine will be all important in ensuring foals & young stock make the smooth transition into maturity, as this guide explains.
The planning process
  • As with keeping any baby animal, it’s important to introduce a level of discipline and control into the foal feeding process at as early a stage as possible. Foals will naturally start to follow the example of the mother within a few days of birth. However, your contribution can be all important in ensuring the foal is receiving the nutritional goodness it requires to stimulate early development.
  • Therefore, draw up a dedicated schedule for feeding the foal, remembering that consistency is essential. Often, the temptation for any horse owner can be to overfeed the horse, especially if it appears to have an impressive appetite. However, providing too much food could simply lead to major health problems later down the line. Invest in or construct a specialist feeder that the foal can access, containing a set amount of food – if not, the foal may make use of its smaller size and delve into the main feeder.
  • Take into account the fact horses are extremely fragile animals, particularly in terms of their digestive system. It’s always best to follow the ‘little, often’ feeding pattern, as the stomach of a foal will simply not be equipped to deal with excessive amounts of food. Browse the market for specialist foal feed that is easy to digest.
  • Finally, bear in mind the rapid pace of change that can occur in the first few months of a foal’s life. During the first three months of its life, the majority of the foal’s feed will come from the mother’s milk, but after that period, there is certainly merit in exploring specialist feeds and supplements, particularly if suggested by an equine expert. 
foal feeding
How to go about feeding
  • Foals and young stock need a nutrient dense diet. This is due to the size of their digestive system. Their diet must provide adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to allow for them to grow properly.You may also find that your mare is not milking properly, in which case you will need to supplement the foals’ nutritional needs earlier on in their lives. The best way to introduce the feed to foals is to introduce a method called ‘creep feeding’.
  • You need to plan out the way you go about it and decide on which creep feed you need. For instance, if you are dealing with a thoroughbred, you will need a different creep feed for your foal than if the foal is a native breed or other. Dodson & Horrell have formulated some marvellous creep feeds for foals which are very well balanced with all the right nutrients.
  • Foals have a high calcium and copper content to help with that all important bone formation. They also produce some fantastic pellets which are ideal for orphan foals or dams that are just not producing enough milk first off. These pellets can be fed as early as two weeks to the foals right through to the weaning age.
  • The whole point in creep feeding foals at the age of three months is to encourage the foals’ system to create the enzymes needed for them to digest more complex nutrients that are contained in grains as well supplementing the dams’ milk. It normally takes around three weeks for this to occur but if you start your creep feeding before the three months you prevent the chances of a slump in their growth, which is why it is always worth considering starting the supplement of feed earlier.
  • When you first start creep feeding your foals, you should always ensure that you place the feed where the dam normally goes. Like this you will be encouraging the foal to access the feed voluntarily as it follows its dam. Many people prefer pellet creep feeds as foals cannot sort through the various ingredients that mixes offer them. It is always a good idea to offer foals creep feeds at the same time as you feed the dams.
man feeding horse
More tips and advice
  • Don’t underestimate just how tough their feeding process can be during the early months of a horse’s lifetime. In terms of what foals eat, it can sometimes be tricky to strike the right balance, especially if you are feeding it alongside full-size horses. A specialist ‘foal feeder’ may be an ideal addition to the stable or paddock, as this will help you to monitor the foal’s nutritional intake. Available from most equine specialists, it’s a handy device as full-size horses are too big to access the food. Similarly, the foal should not be able to reach the main feeder so dietary requirements can be maintained.
  • As time develops, try and encourage the foal to eat without the need for encouragement from the mother. To do this, feed both mother and foal at the same time so the foal gradually gains independence when feeding time arrives
  • The year in which a foal begins to flourish is a time of great change, so bear in mind you will need to make constant adjustments as the foal grows bigger and bigger. Softer foods can slowly give way to harder foods as the foal gains strength. If you’re a little confused as to the right moment in which to introduce new foal feeds, go to your local equine supplies store and see what they recommend before making any dietary changes.
  • Don’t succumb to the temptation to overfeed. Yes, it can be hard to stare into the innocent, smiling face of a young foal wanting more feed and refuse, but it’s a matter of discipline. While there’s no harm in offering up treats now and then, doing so regularly could create more problems later down the line. Although taking the hard stance can sometimes seem a little cruel, reassure yourself that you’re safeguarding the health of the foal in the long term. Remember, an obese foal might seem happy-go-lucky when young, but it’ll face a massive health struggle once it reaches adult size.
Have your say
So, there you have it, our complete guide to feeding foals. But now is the chance for you to have your say. Do you have any other tips or advice for people who are looking to raise a foal? If you have any other methods that we haven’t mentioned then why not share them by commenting below? You never know, you might just help someone in a sticky situation...
Picture of man feeding horse courtesy of Mark Bray, picture of foal feeding from mare courtesy of Jim Champion.


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