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A Guide to Feeding a Foal

It took eleven months and your mare finally gave birth to a foal. What always means one of the most beautiful moments for many, also marks the beginning of a stressful time. Because there are a few things to consider when it comes to foal feed. We explain how to raise your young animal, what it is allowed to eat when it should be weaned from breast milk, and more. Read on here!

The First Weeks of a Horse Foal’s Life

Before we go into more detail about nutrition, let’s take a look at the prototypical behavior of a horse foal. Because from this alone it can be deduced which feed is needed in which phase of life. First of all, let’s take a close look at the first day of fresh life:

  • 5 minutes: the head is raised, chest position is assumed;
  • 15 minutes: Chest position is stabilized, first attempts to get up are made;
  • 30 to 60 minutes: the foal has got up and starts looking for the udder;
  • 2 hours: the foal begins to suckle;
  • 12 hours: the foal drinks regularly and starts following the mother animal;
  • 24 hours: the intestinal pitch (meconium) is expelled.

After this first exciting and exhausting day, the foal begins to rock itself into a rhythm. You will see that it follows its mother every step of the way. This is particularly important because it still needs a lot of breast milk, especially in the first few weeks – so this should always be available. Such a process or a comparable one is typical:

  • 1 week: the foal drinks 4 to 7 times an hour;
  • 2 months: the foals drink about twice an hour;
  • 5 months: the intake of breast milk is significantly reduced;
  • 6 to 8 months: the foal is weaned.

The First Foal Feed – the Mother’s Milk

Once the foal has seen the light of day, it initially feeds on its mother’s milk. The very first meal is usually called colostrum. It is essential for survival because a young animal is initially born without antibodies and accordingly its immune system cannot fight off anything. These important immunoglobulins are therefore supplied with the first meal.

It is important that this takes place in the first few hours of life. Because the young horse’s body is designed in such a way that it can only transfer the antibodies from the intestine into the bloodstream for a limited period of time. At the same time, the level of protective substances in the milk itself also falls. After eight hours at the latest, it only contains about a tenth of the original amount.

In addition to the antibodies, the mare’s milk also provides the foal with other important vitamins and nutrients. If you find that it drinks very rarely, this can be an indication of a health problem in the young animal. If, on the other hand, it sucks exceptionally often, this usually means that something is wrong with the milk (e.g. that too little is being produced). In both cases, the best-case scenario is to contact your vet.

Feed the Foal Properly

Since the mare’s milk is initially the main food of every foal, it should of course also be of the appropriate quality. So that the mare can supply her baby with the most important minerals, her own diet must be consistent. This is where you come in.

In the first few days after giving birth, increase the amount of concentrate you are feeding. A guideline after about a week should be an increase of about 1.5 kg per 100 kg of horse weight. Ideally, distribute the dose over five meals a day so that the nutrients arrive regularly in the body and thus also in the breast milk. Various deficiency and excess symptoms can be serious for the young animal:

  • Sodium deficiency: Passage of the intestinal pitch is delayed;
  • Iodine deficiency or excess: signs of weakness;
  • Too few carbohydrates: lack of energy, weakness, and undersupply;
  • Deficiency of selenium: weak immune system;
  • Excess selenium: deformation of the hooves, damage to the liver;
  • Vitamin A deficiency: eye disease, cleft palate;
  • Copper deficiency: deformities or insufficient training of the limbs, disorders in the blood count and nerves.

So in order to avoid exactly these consequences, the diet should be tailored to the situation. A special feed supplement that covers the specific energy, mineral, and nutrient content is often recommended here. A high proportion of crude protein and calcium is particularly important. Also make sure that your mare has access to roughage (hay, haylage, or grass) at all times. From this, too, she takes vital content.

When is a Special Foal Feed Needed?

You will certainly observe that the little horse boys begin to imitate their mother from day one. This also means that they playfully begin to eat hay and grass. What is really just a game at the beginning begins to be vital in the 3rd month at the latest. Because from then on the mother’s milk can no longer supply the foal with sufficient nutrients.

The First Three Months: Fun and Games

At the beginning of its life, foal feed consists mainly of milk – we have already described this in detail above. Occasionally, however, you will also be able to observe how the young animal nibbles on its mother’s droppings and ingests it. You should not stop this behavior, because it is actually what nature intended. The foal absorbs important intestinal bacteria and vitamins through excretion.

Basically, the ingestion of horse manure ensures that the entire gastrointestinal tract slowly gets going and its own fermentation is initiated. This is the only way the young animal will later digest its own food accordingly. Caution! However, harmful parasites can also be absorbed through the feces. To prevent this, you should take a wormer as early as possible (around the 10th day of life).

In addition to milk and feces, the mother’s feed is also of interest to the foals. Make sure that you provide particularly high-quality hay and that you free the meadow from poisonous herbs. Because, especially in the early days, it is not so easy for young animals to distinguish between them. You can also provide special foal feed that you can slowly test yourself on.

The Way to Weaning: Getting Used to Solid Food

From the third month of life, the nutrients in breast milk are no longer sufficient to adequately supply the foal. As a rule, the young animal will instinctively take in more and more roughage. In addition, a special concentrate feed for foals can be helpful. This brings more amino acids, vitamins, and minerals with it than a conventional variant and thus explicitly supports the growth phase.

Targeted feeding in these first months of life is basically the basis for life. On the one hand, the nutrients ensure that muscles, bones, tendons, and joints develop properly. On the other hand, there are also behaviors that are taught here. Because what the young animal copies from its mother (and also from the rest of the herd) remain for life. This also includes, for example, the differentiation between poisonous plants and edible pasture grass.

After Weaning: What’s Next?

Weaning refers to the separation of foal and mother. Usually, this process is carried out between the sixth and eighth months of life and means a lot of stress for both the mare and the young animal. It is therefore particularly important that you prepare your horses accordingly and, ideally, proceed step by step.

But we also want to look at weaning from the feed perspective. Because that is also the point in time when the mother’s milk is completely withdrawn from the foal. You have done the preparatory work for this in the last six months by getting more and more used to roughage and concentrated feed. It is important in the time after weaning:

  • Pasture: The foal should be able to spend at least 12 hours on the pasture every day. Get used to pasture grass, hay, and possibly haylage/silage. In this way, it learns natural eating behavior, generates a healthy immune system, and at the same time develops its social skills in the herd.
  • Supplementary feed: The mineral feed replaces breast milk and should be designed accordingly. Above all, the demands of the growth phase (the first two years of life) must be considered here.

Even if you provide the best pasture grass and the highest quality concentrated feed, it can happen that the foal loses weight in the first few days after it is completely weaned. This is usually due to stress, which in turn leads to loss of appetite. Observe the behavior and give the young animal some time to get used to the herd. If it does not eat enough after a few days, contact your veterinarian.

Conclusion: Does Special Foal Feed Make Sense?

In fact, it is not just a marketing strategy for horse feed manufacturers that offer special foal feed. This is usually designed in such a way that it supports the young animal in the corresponding phases of life. You can get your young horse used to the consumption of concentrated feed shortly after birth and right through to weaning.

When you wean you should then switch to a concentrated feed, which can specifically support the growth of joints and Co. and is a high-quality substitute for breast milk. Getting used to the food itself is usually not a problem, as the little ones naturally copy their mother’s behavior.

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