THE aim, when producing foals and youngsters for the sales or show ring, is to support, and not compromise, their growth and development to produce a well-muscled, well-grown and healthy youngster.
There is often a reluctance to feed foals and youngstock, particularly good-doers, for fear of causing growth problems, which can affect bone, cartilage, tendons and ligaments. However, under, as well as over, feeding can precipitate these problems, in which management and genetics also play a role. Protein is often still labelled as the culprit, despite research highlighting that excessive energy (calorie) intake and insufficient vitamin and mineral support are the main precursors to growth problems.
Monitoring youngsters’ growth rates and bodyweight, by using weightapes, weighbridges or growth charts, can act as a useful management tool for foals and youngsters by highlighting those that may be growing at above or below average rates. Early adjustments can then be made to the feed and management programme to avoid potential problems.
Feeding the Foal at Foot
Although the foal will pick at grass, hay and the mare’s concentrate feed from the first week onwards, he is not able to digest it efficiently and is totally dependent on milk for the first few months of life, so the importance of a balanced diet for the mare cannot be over emphasised. There may be occasions where the foal needs some extra nutritional help, either because he’s not doing as well as you’d like or because he’s doing too well!
For foals under three months of age who need extra condition, a milk-based creep feed will provide calories to promote weight gain, as well as a balance of other nutrients, which are required for bone growth and tissue development. When a foal or youngster is getting top heavy or growing very rapidly, calorie intake should be reduced, but not at the expense of essential quality protein, vitamins and minerals, which are necessary to support correct growth.
These can be provided by a low calorie stud balancer or a specially formulated vitamin and trace mineral supplement, and it may be necessary to restrict the foal’s access to any lush pasture or, where rich or plentiful milk is the culprit, wean early; advice should be sought in this instance from an equine nutritionist and your veterinary surgeon.
Going it Alone
Foals from three months of age should ideally be introduced to a stud balancer, while still with their dam to encourage their digestive systems to adapt to hard feed in preparation for weaning. Any which need some help maintaining condition can be fed a traditional stud and youngstock mix or cube and, where the recommended quantity would provide too many calories, these feeds may be fed in reduced amounts and topped up with a balancer to maintain nutrient levels.
Should the stress of weaning, travelling or showing cause a foal or young horse to have runny droppings, a digestive enhancer, like a pre or probiotic, can help. Probiotics contain live bacteria, which help replace those lost by the hind gut, whilst prebiotics act as a food source for the ‘friendly bacteria’ and help them to flourish at the expense of pathogenic species.
Complement Your Forage
Youngsters that are ‘well-topped’ on a predominately forage-based diet are ideal candidates for a specially formulated stud balancer, which provides key amino acids, vitamins and minerals to support growth, without adding significant energy levels to the diet. Weanlings in need of more condition and top line will need to be maintained on a slightly higher plane of nutrition, which can be achieved through feeding a stud/ youngstock mix or cube or a prep mix, according to the manufacturers’ recommendations.
These feeds contain a combination of non-heating energy sources with the necessary supporting quality protein, vitamins and minerals yet, like all concentrates, should be fed in small, frequent, digestible meals, which are key to reducing excessive glycaemic response and avoiding starch overload.
Whether pasture or barn kept during the winter months, like any horse, the growing youngster should ideally consume hay or haylage equivalent to a minimum of 1.5% of bodyweight.
This will contribute to the youngster’s energy intake by providing fermentable fibre and non-heating calories and, the more digestible the forage, the lower the risk of ‘hay belly’ and the more energy it will provide.
If the nutritional quality of the forage is in question, however, an alfalfa chaff can be fed to help raise the overall protein and fibre content of the diet. An eye to maintaining dietary balance year-round will not only help ensure even growth rates, but also keep body condition such that the youngster can be brought out looking good at any time.
Correct nutrition throughout the foal to yearling stages should result in a well grown youngster with sufficient muscle and condition to be ready to return to the show ring as a yearling.
The natural exercise taken by a yearling during its early life at pasture is known to help bone growth and strength so, when coupled with a suitable supportive diet, prepares the youngster’s body for the increased exercise and feeding, which may go with show preparation.
At 12 months of age, the typical yearling should have achieved 90% of its mature height, 95% of its bone length and 75% of its adult weight. Although over the next year, the growth rate may be slower, it is still an important phase in the young growing athletic horse’s life.
Oil is a great addition to the diet, either for producing a glossy coat or when more calories are required, as it is a highly concentrated source of non-heating energy. High oil supplements are available to offer a more palatable, mess-free alternative and should contain additional nutrients to support the efficient utilisation of the oil. Smaller amounts of these will help coat condition, whereas 0.5kg to 1kg per day (or 300 – 500 ml of straight oil) will contribute significant additional calories for weight gain without adding greatly to the overall volume of feed.
Pay Off Time
Having often invested considerable time, money and effort in achieving conception, it seems only sensible to support that investment through correct management and feeding – something which may not just pay off in the short term, but could also have lasting effects on a horse or pony’s future career.
While we can’t alter the genetic make up of an individual, with correct diet, management and exercise, we can ensure that the horse has the chance to be the best he can, both as a successful youngster and through a long useful working life.
If you’d like advice on feeding your youngster for the show ring or simply for a healthy future, contact Baileys Horse Feeds on 01371 850247 (option 2), email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.baileyshorsefeeds.co.uk.