Forage only supplies a small portion of a young horse’s nutrients. You might find having your hay tested to be helpful in planning your horses’ diet. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Learn how to feed to meet your foal’s nutritional needs.

Gangly newborn foals gallivanting beside their mothers grow into powerhouse performers in what seems like the blink of an eye. But the path from mare milk to adult horse diet is important. What you feed your young horse, and how, have crucial implications for your horse’s growth and bone strength. These experts share the building blocks necessary to grow your next champion.

The Growth Curve

Dr. Jessica Leatherwood, assistant professor of animal science at Texas A&M University, says the foal’s diet is the most important in the first two years of its life because it represents a critical period of growth and development.

“Light horse breeds reach approximately 90 percent of their mature height by 12 months of age, and about 90 percent of their mature body weight by the time they reach 24 months of age,” Leatherwood said. She says there are two kinds of growth curves for young horses. Consider your goal for your horse and adjust its diet accordingly. “Industry needs necessitate early preparation of young horses for sales or to enter into training so that they may reach a performance condition by the time they are 2 or 3 years of age,” Leatherwood said. “These goals necessitate not only an early introduction to training or exercise, but for owners to consider one of two growth curves—rapid or moderate.

Depending on the owner’s goals, this will determine which growth plan they select. Regardless, striving for consistent growth while providing appropriate nutrient concentrations and ratios are equally important for sound development.” A common misconception is that rapid growth may increase mature size. Instead, the greatest difference—approximately 200 pounds—is seen at 18 months when a young horse begins under saddle, and it is this difference in body weight that is an advantage in selecting a rapid plane of growth.

Andrea Busby of Busby Quarter Horses feels strongly that a young horse’s diet should be tailored to its age and environment in order to reach its best genetic potential with longevity in its career. That’s why her horses are on a diet plan put together by the ranch’s veterinarian, Marty Tanner, DVM, to make sure it’s properly formulated for youngsters’ nutritional needs.

“The nutrition of a young horse plays a vital role in its future soundness,” Busby said. “So much of the growth happens in the first two years of life, so you have a limited window to grow your horse properly.”

Foals nutritional needs are important to growth.
A mare’s milk is at peak production when the foal is two months old. It will then decline in nutrition, so creep feed should be introduced. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Balance is Key

Sufficient and balanced nutrient intake is the goal for young horses, Leatherwood says. Problems arise when young horses are fed excess energy but may be limited in nutrient intake such as amino acids, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, and copper. Improper nutrient-to-calories ratios may increase the likelihood of developing musculoskeletal abnormalities in young horses.

When discussing nutrients, protein quality is extremely important in the developing horse, as is the bioavailability of minerals. That’s why selecting a commercially-prepared feed that is designed for growing horses will contain the right amount of energy, protein, as well as accessible minerals.

When to Introduce

Broodmares produce large amounts of milk, but Leatherwood says over time, that milk’s nutritional density declines.

“A mare’s milk production peaks at two months post-foaling,” Leatherwood said. “It will decline thereafter. So the growing foal’s nutritional requirements are no longer being met by the mother’s milk alone by about two to three months of age.” Foals naturally become more interested in grazing or concentrate feed around that time, but Leatherwood says it’s more of a mimicry behavior—they’re not actually eating enough to contribute to their nutrient intake.

“On average, a foal will probably nurse more than 70 times per day—they like small, frequent meals throughout the day,” Leatherwood said. “Introducing free-choice creep feed at one to two months of age is ideal, with them readily consuming the feed by the time they reach three months of age.” Creep feeds are formulated to contain a high nutrient concentration that is greater than what you may be feeding your broodmare, so Leatherwood suggests selecting a product that is specially-designed for growing foals.

Introduce the creep feed slowly. Allow the foal free access to a creep feeder located near where the mares congregate, but not where the adult horses can reach it. Leatherwood recommends raising the mare’s feed to a level that the foal can’t reach, to encourage the foal to investigate and enter into a creep feeder so that they may consume the creep feed containing the right mix of concentrated nutrients. Another advantage to this is that you will be able to monitor their daily intake. “While foals are still nursing, they may gain about 1 ½ to 2 pounds per day,” Leatherwood said. “You want to use the right type of creep feed in order to take full advantage of this early growth potential.” Busby’s foals eat out of either creep feeders in the pens with the mares, or they’re moved to the alleys beside the mares for feeding time. Introducing creep feed while the foal is still nursing will help stave off a drop in growth when the foal is weaned.

“Creep feed fills in the gap of nutrients between nursing and weaning,” Leatherwood said. “The foal will consume ad libitum until they are consuming about 4–5 pounds of feed per day or simply one pound of feed per month of age, per day until weaning.”

Selecting a Feed

Since the foal consumes such a small amount of feed and very little forage, its nutrients need to be very high quality. Leatherwood says to select a product that is a minimum of 16 percent protein. “You’re trying to meet a full amino acid requirement within a reasonable amount of intake,” Leatherwood said. “The 16 percent will provide enough energy and grams of nutrients for weanlings.”

Weanlings are the most mismanaged group of young horses when it comes to their diet, Leatherwood says.

“A lot of times, after weaning, we place them out to pasture and as a consequence they receive little to no concentrate, yet we can’t rely on a forage-only diet to meet the nutritional requirements of the weanling,” Leatherwood said. “Energy, crude protein, calcium, phosphorous, zinc and copper needs are greater than what forage alone can provide.”

Weanlings still need to rely on nutrient absorption in the small intestine, so those nutrients need to be provided in a concentrate, versus only forage. It’s a crucial time for a young horse, so a good diet with accessible nutrients is important. A typical diet for weanlings should consist of 70 percent of their nutrients supplied from a concentrate, and only 30 percent from forage.

A group of weanlings and young horses eating forage.
Forage begins to take a bigger role in the horse’s diet as it matures, but concentrate is still vital for young horses. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

As your horse advances in age, the nutrient needs decrease, but they do not become less important. For instance, they may be placed on 14 percent crude protein diet as yearlings. Diets for yearlings consist of a 60:40 ratio of concentrate to forage. “By the time they’re two years of age, they’re needing a product that is closer to 12 percent protein,” Leatherwood said. “And you’re assuming the forage is going to begin to represent a much greater percentage of the total diet, so the concentrate can be decreased.” Busby foals are fed a pelleted grain recommended by Tanner that is low in starch while still providing all the nutrients needed. They also receive a loose mineral supplement and a mix of coastal and alfalfa hay. “We also like them to be out grazing as much as possible,” Busby said. Once foals transition into the training program as 2-year-olds, their hay and grain diet changes based on their nutritional requirements, Busby says.


Leatherwood cautions against a diet of oats and alfalfa for weanlings. “Although popular, a diet consisting of oats and alfalfa, when fed to weanlings, is deficient in protein, the amino acid lysine, and calcium,” Leatherwood said. A properly formulated diet will help ensure that your weanling grows steadily, with proper skeletal development.

“We always think about energy as fat or calories—they may be gaining weight, which is great—but do they have enough amino acids to support lean tissue development?” Leatherwood said. “Do they have appropriate amounts of calcium and phosphorus, and are they in the appropriate ratios to make sure that the skeletal system underneath the fat and bone is being developed appropriately?” Peruse the feed tag for information about these nutrients, and look for lysine, in particular, for growing horses.

Steer clear of adding supplements on top of a formulated concentrate feed for your growing horses, says Dr. Leatherwood.

Proper nutrition for a horse in training is important.
Consistent growth is best for your horse, so make sure the diet is carefully adjusted as the horse transitions into training. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

“Adding on fat such as corn oil, rice bran or wheat bran should be avoided,” Dr. Leatherwood said. “Anytime you top-dress a feed that has already been balanced for its nutrient content, you can actually cause an inversion in the calcium and phosphorus ratio. I recommend to owners to not top-dress any byproduct feeds to a commercially-balanced ration as this may cause an imbalance that could potentially lead to orthopedic problems later in life. If you know and trust the commercially-prepared concentrate, you shouldn’t need to add to it.” Busby has her pastures and hay tested so she’s armed with nutritional information about her forage. She also monitors how the horses are consuming its feed and roughage.

“Make sure the foal can properly chew anything you’re offering,” Busby said. “Unchewed food can result in impaction.” Busby advises working with a veterinarian you trust in your area to create a feeding program for your herd.

“Everyone’s environment, type of pasture and quality of forage can vary so much, it’s hard to say—what might work for one person doesn’t work for the next,” Busby said. “Do what works for you, regardless of what might work for someone else. Over- and under-feeding can both have ill side effects. Nothing beats your veterinarian’s knowledge.”

Meet the Experts

Jessica Leatherwood is an assistant professor of equine science at Texas A&M University. She has a bachelors, masters and Ph.D. in animal science from Texas A&M. Her area of research interest focuses on developing young performance horse diets that mitigate over-stimulation of inflammatory processes in articulating joints. She also studies modulating immune responses of horses through diet, the impact of mare obesity on reproductive performance, and the role of nutrition in late equine gestation.

Andrea Busby and husband Jeff Busby own Busby Quarter Horses in Brock, Texas. The Busbys stand Blazin Jetolena, the No. 1 futurity horse in 2003, National Finals Rodeo competitor and sire of multiple NFR qualifiers, futurity champions, slot winners and more. Blazin Jetolena’s offspring earnings are closing in on the $2 million mark. The ranch breeds barrel racing and team roping horses and welcomes guests by appointment.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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