Most foals are weaned from their dams at about four to six months of age. Prior to this, the foals should have access to creep feed and hay or pasture to ease their transition from milk to solid feeds. Creep feeding helps the digestive tract mature and develop to cope with different feeds, and the more a foal is eating feeds from other sources, the stress of weaning may be mitigated.
At weaning, foals are still relatively small, perhaps between 200 and 250 kg at four to six months of age, or about just under half of their mature body size (for a 500 kg adult horse). They also do not have all of their baby teeth, as their third (corner) incisor and first molar (grinding) teeth don’t erupt until about nine months of age.
Despite their youthful small size, a weanling’s nutritional requirements are quite high to support growth, with some nutrients required in similar amounts to a full-sized horse! However, we have to be careful to not overfeed, so that we can continue a slow and steady rate of growth. Foals between the ages of about three months and 10 months are highly prone to developmental orthopedic diseases such as physitis and osteochondrosis dissecans. These disorders tend to arise when horses grow too quickly, and/or their diet is not adequately formulated.
It is very important to monitor a foal’s growth rate and to adjust feed intake accordingly. Measuring a foal at the knee and withers over time should produce a smooth flattening curve, while growth spurts and lags may be detrimental.
Foals between the ages of about three and 10 months are highly prone to developmental orthopedic diseases which tend to arise when horses grow too quickly and/or their diet is not adequately formulated.
Weanlings need to be fed to account for their immature body (teeth and even digestive tract), to provide all of the nutrients they need to accommodate growth, while also ensuring they don’t get too high a plane of nutrition. Because these horses can only eat a relatively small amount, the required nutrients need to be highly concentrated in the feeds they consume. These feeds would include high-quality hay and/or pasture, commercial feeds designed for growing horses, and/or high protein ration balancers.
Hay that has nutritional quality appropriate for growing horses is likely a mix of legume (alfalfa or clover) and leafy grass. Weanlings might do well with 25-50% of their hay intake as alfalfa, and the rest from grass hay. Grass hay should be leafy and soft for those growing teeth. Ideally, young horses should have “free choice” forage (not free choice alfalfa though), and a hay/pasture analysis can be helpful to formulate and balance the rest of the diet around. Ideally, pasture can be a source of forage as well as free exercise, which is vital to both the skeletal development and mental health of a young horse.
Good quality forage can provide many of the nutrients these young horses need, but they likely still require some high-quality protein sources. Recall that lysine is a key amino acid for growth and is not found in high enough sources in most common equine feeds. Therefore, feeds fortified with lysine and other amino acids from sources such as soybean meal or those directly added to the feeds are good. If a young horse is eating some alfalfa, that should provide it with sufficient calcium for bone health, but added feeds formulated with both calcium and phosphorus are important.
Other minerals, in particular zinc and copper, should be found in good amounts in growing horse feeds, as these may be limited in forages and play an important role in tissue development. If your weanling is consuming dry forages such as hay as opposed to fresh pasture, they might also do well with vitamin E supplementation, as both vitamin A (found in plants as beta-carotene) and vitamin E break down in plants after they are harvested. Well-made commercial growing feeds will have been designed with these key nutrients in mind.
Gone are the days when weanlings were left to fight it out in a field with a big trough of feed.
Weanlings can do well on either a commercial growing horse feed or some combination with a ration balancer. Most commercial feeds contain grain mixes fortified with protein, vitamins and minerals, but are primarily fed as a source of energy (calories). With your growing weanling, there might be need to limit calories to some degree, based on the desired rate of growth, and ration balancers may be used in place of or mixed with feed. Recall that ration balancers are highly concentrated, so less is needed to provide the same amount of nutrients (protein, vitamins and minerals) – and by feeding less you also feed fewer calories. For example, a typical feed for growing horses may have 14-16% crude protein, while a ration balancer might have 30% crude protein.
The amount of commercial grain mix that should be fed to foals will depend largely on the hay quality, with horses being fed higher amounts of, and higher quality forages, potentially needing less commercial feed. As described above, the amount should also depend on the calories required by the foal to meet its requirements for a slow and steady growth rate. A common estimate is about one pound of growing horse feed per month of age; however, that could be reduced depending on the quality of the hay or with the inclusion of some ration balancer.
As indicated above, monitoring your foal’s growth rate is very important to ensure a smooth growth curve. Individual feeding of weanlings is so important to make sure that each horse gets exactly what they need for their unique growth rate. Gone are the days when weanlings were left to fight it out in a field with a big trough of feed. We know better now that individual feeding plans with high-quality feed sources are vital to ensure our growing foals reach their maximum potential.