How to Feed a Foal

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Your foal's mom, called a mare, bears the sole responsibility for feeding her foal for the first two months after giving birth. After approximately eight weeks, your foal should be eating creep feed -- supplemental food kept away from the mare -- to supplement his reduced nursing time. Gradually increase the amount of this specially formulated foal feed so that by the time the foal is weaned, typically between 4 to 6 months of age, he is eating enough to sustain him nutritionally and prevent weight loss during the weaning process.

From the point he is weaned until he is 12 months old, or a yearling, it's critical you feed him the proper amount of nutritionally balanced grain for his age to assure proper skeletal development.

Tip

  • Most foals begin to nibble at their mother's grain, hay or grass, at a very young age. You can introduce small portions of creep feed as young as two weeks. Grain suitable for both lactating mares and foals make this introduction easy.

Feeding the Newborn Foal Means Feeding the Mare

From the time the foal is born to his first two to three months, feeding him means properly feeding the mare. Even if your foal occasionally nibbles some hay, grass or a few grains from his mom's feed dish, he will need to receive all of his essential nutrition from mom's milk. During the first two months, the average-sized mare will produce between 200 and 300 pounds of milk each day, so it makes sense that her nutritional and food amount requirements are highest during this time. Give her free-choice access to hay, and a grain or concentrate formulated for pregnant and lactating mares in a quantity equal to 0.5 to 1.5 percent of her body weight per day. Gradually begin increasing her grain during the last few weeks of her pregnancy to avoid a sudden and dramatic increase after she foals, as this could lead to colic or founder.

Tip

  • Discuss a copper supplement for your pregnant mare with your veterinarian, as it may lessen the risk of some developmental bone diseases in the foal.

Warning

  • If your lactating mare is thin, her milk production will decrease.

Newborn Colostrum

Your primary concern following your foal's birth is his colostrum intake, which should be approximately 2 to 4 quarts within his first six to eight hours if he's an average 100-pound foal. His ability to absorb the all-important colostrum into his gastro-intestinal tract -- important for the proper level of antibodies -- peaks six to 12 hours following birth. He will have minimal absorption by the time he's 18 to 24 hours old. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your foal isn't nursing successfully two hours following birth or if his mom refuses to let him nurse.

Tip

  • Your veterinarian should perform what is called an IgG, or immunoglobulin, test within 24 hours to determine if your foal has absorbed an adequate amount of colostrum.

Newborn Feeding

Once your newborn foal has learned to suckle successfully, he should be nursing several times per hour. You can't watch him constantly, so look for signs of unsuccessful nursing: a distended udder on the mare, dripping milk from her teats or dried milk on the foal's nose may indicate nursing problems.

Mare's Late Lactation Period

After about eight weeks, the mare's milk production will begin to slowly decrease as she enters her late lactation period. Still, as long as the mare is healthy, the foal will rely on her for most of his nutritional needs for approximately another four weeks. You can introduce a creep feed, or foal food, at this stage, but this isn't typically essential until he is three months old. At that age, use a creep feeder, which has openings on top too small for his mother's muzzle, preventing her from eating his food. Foods formulated for foals have at least 14 percent crude protein; many are 16 percent protein. The calcium content should be 0.5 to 0.6 percent; copper, 50 to 90 parts per million; and zinc, 120 to 240 parts per million.

Gradually increase his grain portions at 3 months as the mare's milk declines even more -- about 1 to 2 pounds for every 220 pounds of his body weight per day.

Feeding the Weanling

By the time you wean your foal at between 4 to 6 months of age, he should be eating 1 pound of grain for every month of his age, per day. For example, if he is 6 months old at weaning time, he should be eating 6 pounds of grain per day. This intake is important to prevent a dramatic weight loss during the stressful weaning process; his body will compensate for this weight loss later by a growth spurt, which could encourage a developmental orthopedic disease. He should have access to free-choice hay or high-quality pasture grass.

Approaching the Yearling Stage

From the time he is weaned to his first birthday, when he officially becomes a yearling, his skeletal development is the most crucial -- and the most vulnerable. Many horse owners try to encourage faster growth by over-feeding grain, but this excessive growth can lead to developmental orthopedic diseases, primarily osteochondritis dissecans, or OCD, and physitis.

  • OCD occurs when a flap of cartilage, or cartilage and bone, forms on the surface of a joint. If it doesn't detach from the joint, it can shed debris during movement that causes inflammation and pain. Treatment options vary, but often surgery is recommended.
  • Physitis typically occurs in the knee and is caused by an interruption in the cartilage ossification process. The earlier the problem is detected, the better it can be treated by correcting nutritional imbalances. 

The Orphaned Foal

Feeding an orphaned or rejected foal is a completely different challenge -- but the concern over colostrum intake remains the same. If the foal was unable to get his mother's colostrum, your vet may administer hyperimmunized equine plasma intravenously. Subsequently, your options are to quickly find a nursemaid mare -- one who has lost her foal and is still lactating -- or bottle feed the foal.

You can purchase equine milk replacer, which is the closest thing to a mare's. Follow your veterinarian's feeding instructions, but typically you will feed your foal every two hours during the day, and every three hours nightly for the first two weeks. He should receive between 20 and 25 percent of his body weight per day, so you will divide that amount among the number of feedings for each 24 hours. Gradually you can increase the time between feedings to three or four hours daily and four hours at night. By one month, feed him every six hours.

Tip

  • If equine milk replacer is not available, goat's milk is the next best substitute. Cow's milk can cause diarrhea, which can be life-threatening.

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