Posted by Bill Vandergrift, PhD on Mar 18th 2019

The objective of managing and caring for a newborn foal is to allow them to grow and develop into the best athlete they can be. It doesn’t matter if you’re hoping to have an international level competitor, a weekend hack horse or just a pasture ornament we all want our horses to be healthy and sound. So, what are the key parameters in growing horses that determine long term soundness and health?

  • Prenatal care and nutrition of the broodmare
  • Acquisition of effective immunity
  • Appropriate support for significant conformational faults
  • Adequate intake of critical minerals, vitamins and amino acids
  • Plenty of free exercise
  • Learning proper social skills with other horses and people
  • Effective health care (deworming, vaccinations, disease prevention/treatment)

Pregnant Broodmare: If you hope to have a sound and healthy foal and weanling you have to start with proper feeding and management of the pregnant broodmare. The foal must be born with an adequate supply of certain minerals such as copper because the mare’s milk is not going to supply enough to meet the rapidly growing foal’s requirement for this mineral and others. The normal process is for the foal to draw upon its own body stores of these nutrients the first few weeks of life before it begins to take an interest in consuming feed and forage that will then become the primary source for these critical nutrients. The only way the foal is going to be born with an adequate supply of these nutrients stored in its body is for the pregnant mare to be fed an adequate supply of these nutrients which she will then deliver to the developing foal in utero which will be used to build up adequate nutrient stores in the foal’s body. Additionally, ensuring the mare’s immune system is working adequately will help to improve the quality of her colostrum which will in turn determine the level and quality of immunity acquired by the foal after birth. Work with your veterinarian while the broodmare is pregnant in regard to timing vaccinations and deworming to optimize colostrum quality. Including certain prebiotics such as those found in yeast cell wall isolates in the pregnant mare’s diet may also help to optimize the quality of colostrum by increasing immunoglobulin levels.

Immunity: As stated above, proper management and feeding of the broodmare should be the primary focus for providing effective immunity in the young foal, especially during the first few months of the foal’s life when its own immune system has not begun to function adequately. Given the fact that the majority of the horse’s immune system is located in the intestine special attention should be given to promoting gut health and development in the foal. This task is multi-faceted since it includes control of environmental pathogens and herd health considerations in addition to nutritional support of gut health in the form of probiotics/prebiotics and gut active nutrients such as butyric acid.

Conformational faults: Even when we doing everything right we will still have foals born with conformation faults such as angular limb deformities, contracted tendons, club feet, lax tendons and others. Most of the time these issues can be considered relatively minor and allowed to correct themselves on their own with time and proper care. However, this is where it is important to utilize a team approach with experienced veterinarians, farriers and horsemen in deciding what steps, if any, should be taken to help correct certain conformational faults. Also keep in mind that correcting conformational faults can be a bit of a trial and error process meaning if the first approach to correcting a particular issue is not proving effective then an alternative approach can sometimes prove to be more successful. While a detailed discussion on the various steps to be taken to correct various conformational faults is beyond the scope of this article, the take home message here is to learn when structural faults are likely to correct on their own and when a certain amount of intervention is required to help correct structural faults that are likely to affect performance later in life. Additionally, if corrective action is needed do not wait too long before implementing such actions as there is often a window of opportunity to correct – get outside the window and you’ve lost the opportunity.

Nutrient Intake: Ensuring that the young foal and weanling receive adequate nutrition is critical to long term structural soundness and health. As stated previously, it is vitally important that the pregnant broodmare be fed and managed correctly so the foal is born with enough nutrient stores to support growth and health during the first few weeks of life. There is a lot a variation between foals in relation to their age when they begin to take a serious interest in consuming feed and forage. Some foals will begin consuming feed on a regular basis the first week of life while others will be much older before they notice that something besides mother’s milk is available for consumption. On average, foals will take a noticeable step towards consuming forages and grain when they are approximately three weeks old, interestingly this time table corresponds with the length of time the foal’s body stores of critical nutrients begins to become depleted. Foals from mares that do not produce much milk will often begin consuming dry feed before they are three weeks old while foals from mares that produce an above average amount of milk may not take much interest in consuming dry feed until later. Note: these are the foals that often begin to present with developmental issues due to the fact that 1) the amount of milk they receive from their dam supports a fast growth rate but 2) because of their level of milk consumption they do not show much interest in consuming dry feed which becomes necessary in order to supply critical nutrients not present in milk that are required for sound structural development. Therefore, all foals but especially the faster growing individuals need to be encouraged to begin consuming feed containing minerals, vitamins and amino acids to support bone, ligament, and tendon and muscle development. If the foal will eat alongside the mare this is a perfectly acceptable means to facilitate fortified feed intake. However, if the mare will not allow the foal to eat with her or if the mare pushes her foal away from a separate creep feeder then steps will have be taken to allow the foal to successfully consume dry feed. A rule of thumb that works well is the foal should consume 1 pound of feed per day per month of age. In other words, we would like to see a 2 month old foal consume approximately 2 pounds of feed per day. Keep in mind however, that growth rates and body condition need to be monitored as well so the foal is not allowed to become too fat. A body condition where the foal’s ribs cannot be seen but can be easily felt is a good target body condition to maintain. This indicates the foal is getting enough protein and energy to support a desired growth rate but is not receiving excessive amounts of energy that may predispose to structural disorders. If an individual foal’s body condition does get too heavy or if a foal simply does not voluntarily consume an adequate amount of dry feed then utilizing a concentrated pellet fortified with minerals, vitamins and amino acids should be utilized. The key points are to monitor and regulate body condition and ensure the foal/weanling is receiving an adequate intake of minerals, vitamins and amino acids. Utilize a feed and/or supplement that is designed for lactating mares and/or growing horses.

Exercise and social skills: It is basically impossible to develop athletic ability unless the foal is allowed to be athletic. Growing horses should be outside running around with other horses as much as possible in order to stimulate sound development of bones and support structures as well as to develop social skills with other horses. It is sad to observe 3 or 4 year old horses getting turned out with other horses for the first time who have no clue how to interact with other horses. This situation often leads to increased stress which in turn lowers performance levels; a well-adapted horse is also a horse more resistant to stress. Additionally, when riding or showing with other horses you want your horse to feel comfortable enough around other horses that he or she can focus on their interaction with you and not so much on what the horses around them are doing.

Herd Health: The key point here is to work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination and deworming program that is appropriate for your situation. Control exposure of young horses to outside horses coming into your farm because you have no idea what unwanted diseases they may be capable of exposing your young horses to that their immature immune systems are not capable of dealing with. Should your foals/weanlings develop diarrhea do not wait to treat it and do not assume it is simply caused by “foal heat” because it’s not, it’s caused by bacteria in most cases and should be treated and managed accordingly. A good probiotic/prebiotic should be used in combination with any antibiotic protocol your veterinarian recommends to treat any gastrointestinal ailment.


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