Prepping yearlings for the fall sales to ensure they stand out, radiate good health and display sufficient muscle is no easy task. The essential elements that are involved must begin many months before the youngsters go under the hammer. Canadian Thoroughbred spoke to a couple of experts on the subject of preparing future athletes.

Nutrition Needs

“Nutrition is definitely number one. If you don’t have a good feed program, you can forget it,” said Brad McLellan, who preps yearlings out of his boutique operation in Bethany, Ontario.

McLellan’s family has been in the industry for over two decades, foaling mares, getting yearlings ready for the sales, as well as taking care of racehorses. Not surprisingly, the seasoned horsemen understands that nutrition remains an essential element in yearling prep.

“It’s paramount to have a good feed program, and good hay as well. It’s not just grain. I try to use the best timothy/alfalfa mix I can get. You find a good high-protein feed and the best hay you can get into them. De-worming is another very important aspect of it. Basically, you have got to work them from the inside out to get a good hair coat and also put the weight on them as you want to when you are conditioning them.”

Ericka Rusnak, the general manager at Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Ontario operation, has been prepping youngsters since 2003 and echoes the importance of the yearling’s feed program. “Well, calories are certainly important, because we are trying to have them look fit without being fat going into a sale. I think nutrition is always important with young growing horses, though,” she pointed out.

Although the Canadian premier yearling sale is still four months away, Rusnak notes they are already tweaking the yearlings’ diets. “We are already fine-tuning grain amounts and trying to make them look better, but they are young and growing so it can be difficult with some of them.”

Rusnak mentions that some yearlings do receive additional supplements.

“There are a few different supplements we have used over the years. Body Builder, rice bran oil, Equi-jewel, flax, probiotics, etc. Some horses don’t need anything extra, and some need multiple grain meals per day to safely get more grain into them for weight gain.”

According to Kentucky Equine Research, feeding programs for sales yearlings can vary depending on size, age, metabolism and the quality/quantity of forage, but generally do well on a 14-17% protein feed balanced for macro- and microminerals, fat, and water-soluble vitamins. Hard feed intake can range from 1-2 kg/day of a supplement pellet to 7 kg/day of concentrate.

High-quality early-cut hay will help avoid the ‘pot-bellied’ look from gut-fill associated with more mature hay. Fat youngsters that need to lose weight should be fed a lower-energy grass hay.

A supplemental source of fat will improve coat and initiate weight gain. Vegetable oil, oil seeds (sunflower or flax), or a commercial fat supplement such as stabilised rice bran can provide the desired fatty acids and calories. Just 60 g per day of vegetable oil or about 250 g of rice bran is sufficient for most, although bigger gangly yearlings can can be given up to 750 ml of vegetable oil or 2 kg stabilised rice bran per day. Some prep rations contain super-fibres such as lupins, soybean hulls, and beet pulp, which are fermented in the hindgut and reduce the amount of starch that may enter the hindgut undigested and cause acidosis and diarrhea and loss of appetite, which can be common in sales yearlings on high-grain diets.

Feed individually and monitor body weight and condition regularly and adjust feed accordingly.

The Importance of Exercise

There is a risk in simply increasing feed without increasing activity, as it can lead to colic, laminitis, and behavioural problems. In order to have a vibrant fit-not-fat individual, exercise appropriate to age is vital.

For Rusnak, the most obvious exercise is daily turnout.

“I think turnout is just so good for them. Obviously, for their physical self, but also for their mental capacity as well. They are young horses and being able to move around and interact with their friends I think is very good for them and it makes them easier to deal with as well.”

A stunning youngster at the 2015 Canadian Premier Yearling Sale showing good flesh and muscling and a brilliant coat. (Dave Landry photo)


At Hill ‘n’ Dale the yearlings are kept out during the night to protect their coat. “I do keep them all out at night and then they come in during the day just to keep them out of the sun, because sun bleaching is a big deal for their coat. You want them to look really shiny and nice.”

Other forms of exercise include hand-walking, the use of an exerciser (automatic walker) or ponying. “Personally, I know a lot of people like to use hotwalkers or exercisers ‒ I pony my yearlings,” said McLellan. “Distance doesn’t always play a factor; it’s more of a timed event, meaning I’ll pony usually starting at a walk for a warm-up, slowly and at a controlled pace move into a jog. Nothing more. It’s best to do it in a controlled environment like a large sand ring or a grass paddock for safety.

“At first, it’s just to get them a little ‘winded’ then as they get more conditioned the jogging time will increase to get them to the desired shape over time. I’ll usually do that for 45-60 days. The idea is to not ‘work’ them in tight spaces like going round in tight circles. I do this in order to keep their legs and shoulders healthy.”

According to Rusnak, Hill ‘n’ Dale’s main farm in King City has an exerciser and all the yearlings go on it for 30 minutes a day, 6 days per week.

Rusnak also hand-walks her yearlings for approximately 25-30 minutes once per day, ideally six days a week. “I do believe hand-walking is good for them, because you are physically walking with them, so they are having to learn some manners and respect for you. It’s not just going around in a circle. You are covering a lot of space, so there is a lot of personal interaction with them, which I think is great.”

Exercising yearlings sounds straightforward, but like nutrition it’s a delicately timeD process leading up to the sale in September.

“I would say June and more so July you are more seriously into the exercising, because you don’t want them to ‘peak’ before the sale. You want them looking their best when you are sending them to that sale,” said Rusnak.

Grooming Tips

Brad McLellan vacuuming a 2020 colt by Silent Name out of Clarkston Hope which is entered in the 2021 CTHS yearling sale at Woodbine. (Photo courtesy Brad McLellan)

Grooming is another important step involved in yearling prep. McLellan notes his preferences.

“It might come as a bit of shock, but mine get curried and vacuumed every day. They get tied up and they are basically treated like miniature racehorses or show horses. It’s very important to have basic manners for the yearlings. They get groomed, feet get picked out and get used to the life, because we want them to go on to be a racehorse and that’s going to be their life in training all the time.”

“I think everybody is a little bit different,” said Rusnak. “I know some people groom every day; I personally don’t groom them every single day. The main thing is getting them used to handling and picking their feet. Grooming is very hands-on, and the more attention that’s given to the horse you can notice little things quicker, too,” she added, referring to cuts and scrapes, heat and swelling, changes in behaviour that might indicate illness, and so on.

Baths are also important, although they should not be too frequent. Suggests McLellan, “We give baths usually once a week during prep ‒ but not too many that I take the natural oils out of their coats, though. They always get a bath after the clipping is done for the sale; normally that would be done the day before we ship to the sale grounds.”

It’s safe to say that prepping yearlings is a lot of hard work, with every aspect of their day-to-day management meticulously overseen to ensure they are presented in pristine condition on sale day. As tough as the process may be, McLellan remains driven by one thing.

“It’s definitely just a love of the horses. Raising the babies is the best part about it. You see them from being born all the way to making it to the racetrack. It’s phenomenal, it really is. You can’t even explain it. When they get to a race and when they win a race, it’s like, wow!”


The 2021 Canadian Premier Yearling sale is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, September 1. For more information visit

Related reading:

The Importance of Quality Pasture for Quality Yearlings

Dietary Mineral Requirements for the Growing Horse