In the first few years of their lives, foals grow enormously. From a small baby of about 60 kilograms on average to an adolescent of around 600 kilograms. There are several factors that influence this growth in the foal; genetics, hormones and nutrition. What do you have to keep in mind when feeding foals and young horses?
The first three months the foal is mainly dependent on the mare’s milk. Called colostrum, the first mare’s milk is very important. It contains many antibodies that kick start the foal’s immune system. A foal will start nibbling on blades of grass pretty quickly, but from two weeks on you can assume that they really eat it. Gradually, the foal will eat more solid food and drink less milk. Between the ages of three weeks and three months, you can start supplementing the foal’s diet with concentrates. In that period the quality of the mare’s milk starts to decline. Adding special foal pellets ensures that the foal receives all the nutrients they need. If you supplement the foal with concentrates, the mare’s milk production decreases. Make sure that your foal does not grow too fast, because this can pose a risk for bone quality. Do not supplement a foal that is growing too quickly with concentrates and do not let them graze in a pasture that is too rich.
When you wean the foal, and in the Netherlands this often happens at the age of 5 to 6 months, they will be completely dependent on the nutrients from their roughage and concentrates. It is therefore very important that the foal is already used to eating roughage and concentrates before weaning. The foundation of the diet must be solid, that means unlimited roughage of good quality. The intestines and intestinal flora are still in full development, and this development is stimulated by eating sufficient roughage. In addition, it is important that the foal receives the right amount and quality of protein for growth. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, so they have extra need for these while growing. Lysine is an essential amino acid (building blocks of protein) for foals that must be included in the feed. It builds muscle tissue and aids in bone growth. Most foal pellets will cover this need well. In addition to roughage and concentrates, do not just give your foal supplements, but first do a roughage analysis to see whether it is necessary to feed additional supplements.
Depending on the breed, a horse can continue growing to an age of five, sometimes six years old. Until then, the right amino acids and the balance between minerals and vitamins remain important. Points of attention are the trace elements zinc, copper and manganese, these are for correct development and growth of the bones. Also pay close attention to the ratio of calcium and phosphorus, for healthy bones and muscles. The calcium/phosphorus ratio should be about 1,5:1 for a young horse. Furthermore, unlimited good quality roughage always remains important. Ideally the young horse should get a lot of turn out and grazing. In this way, in addition to the roughage, they also get their exercise. The exertion makes the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments stronger.
The moment you start training the young horse, there is a good chance that they will use more energy, due to the physical and mental effort they expand. It may then be that they need a little more energy in their diet. You can increase the concentrates, but try to keep as much roughage in the diet as possible. This helps to reduce the risk of acidification of the digestive system. Curious how much roughage an adult horse needs? Read this article (link how much roughage).