Juvenile Equine Healthcare

The New Foal

Nursing is critical for newborns

Nursing is critical for newborns

Nursing within the first few hours is of critical importance since the foal receives the anti-body-rich colostrum that helps protect it from infection. Colostrum also creates a mild laxative effect that helps the foal pass the meconium. The meconium is the first stool and is a thick tarry substance which can be hard to expel.

Shortly after hitting the ground, the new foal will stand and nurse. This is of critical importance since the foal receives the anti-body-rich colostrum that helps protect it from disease. During the first weeks of life, the mare's milk provides all the nutrition the foal needs for sustenance.

For the mare to provide the best nutrition, the mare needs almost double the amount of feed she required during pregnancy with adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, and plenty of water, not only for her own health but for the health of the foal.

During this early time period, the foals nursing habits should be observed carefully. If the foal is suckling for more than 30 minutes, it may mean that it is not getting enough milk. In this case, supplemental feed or milk replacer may be necessary for healthy development.

Some foals show interest in feed as early as 10 to 14 days of age. As the youngster nibbles and learns to eat solid food, its digestive system adapts to the dietary changes. This may bring on coprophagy (eating of feces) along with foal heat diarrhea as intestinal microflora changes. Research shows this to be a natural development occurring around days 6 to 14 and the foal usually quickly outgrows the diarrhea which is self-limited.

When the foal has diarrhea, it is important to keep the foal dry and clean around its tail and perineum. Zinc oxide may be applied to prevent scalding. If the diarrhea persists, some veterinarians recommend giving small doses of Pepto-Bismol (20 ml per 100 lbs weight) by syringe or tablespoon. Always check with your veterinarian before giving any medication or if the diarrhea worsens.

As the foal grows, its needs change, and by 8 to 10 weeks of age, mare's milk may not be sufficient to meet the foal's nutritional needs. At this point, high-quality grains and forage should be added to the foal's diet.  The feed should be properly balanced for vitamins and minerals since deficits or excesses, or imbalances of needed minerals and vitamins can lead to skeletal problems.

Since feeding a foal properly is a balancing act, here are some important guidelines to follow:

  • Provide free-choice high grade hay and forage
  • Supplement with high-quality properly-balanced grain concentrate
  • Weigh and adjust the feed quantity based on growth and fitness
  • General rule to follow is one percent or a foal's body weight per day or one pound of feed per month of age
  • Make sure feeds contain the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, energy and protein
  • Divide the daily ration into two or three feedings
  • Use a creep feeder to separate the foal from the mare so it can comfortably eat it's ration
  • Do not overfeed. Overweight foals are more prone to developmental orthopedic disease
  • Provide unlimited fresh, clean water and the opportunity for plenty of exercise

Weaning Your Foal

Beginning about the third month, the mare's milk supply will gradually diminish and a natural weaning process occurs. At this time, the mare's grain should be reduced or gradually eliminated to help limit milk production, and the foal's ration should be gradually increased over a two to three week period.

Once the foal is no longer nursing, it is known as a weanling and should be eating approximately two to three percent of its body weight in feed and forage per day. Bone, muscle and mass will continue to build at a remarkable rate and from weaning to two years of age, the horse may nearly double its weight.

Sustaining Growth and Well-being

Weanlings and yearlings require readily available sources of energy to meet their growth and activity demands.  A diet containing 14 to 16 percent protein is often recommended with 60 to 70 percent of the ration as concentrates and 30 to 40 percent as roughage.

The percentage of roughage and concentrates depend on the desired growth rate, but a young horse's diet should never contain less than 30 percent roughage. Weighing the young horse's feed and checking to make sure that it is balanced as to percentage of roughage and concentrates is important. The diet should also contain ample fiber to keep the digestive tract functioning well.

You may want to consider some of the new complete feeds to assure a carefully balanced ration, but read feed tags carefully to make sure it is right for your horse.

Several factors affect the horse's exact nutritional requirements as it grows. Breed type, maturity, desired growth rate, as well as condition and level of activity, must be taken into consideration to achieve a balance for the particular horse.

As the horse matures, weight gain and development taper off. By the time the horse is a yearling the ration should be adjusted to 1.5 percent of the yearling's body weight. By the time the horse is a two year old, the diet should consist of approximately half grain and half hay and pasture.

Total Care Management

The best in total care management comes from maintaining a good relationship with your veterinarian. A regular de-worming, vaccination, and examination schedule tailored to the needs of your foal is essential.  Your veterinarian will be able to take into account regional factors and disease risks to ensure the best health care for your foal.

To maintain maximum health and vigor be consistent in:

  • Keeping your foal's feet properly trimmed to foster good bone development and working with a farrier to prevent any developmental problems
  • Checking your foals physical condition on a daily basis and carefully observing the foal for signs of fever, illness, or developmental disorders
  • Consulting with your veterinarian any time the foal shows any of the following signs: listlessness, weakness, lack of vigorous suckling, nasal or eye discharge, coughing, lameness, swollen joints or diarrhea

Another important aspect of total care management is a well-thought-out exercise program. The exercise routine should include the following:

  • Stall time should be limited to no more than 10 hours per day
  • Unless there is a medical concern, foals and young horses should be allowed free choice exercise daily
  • Use longeing, pen or treadmill work judiciously: Excess forced exercise can strain joints, ligaments, and growing limbs
  • Never exercise a foal to a point of fatigue. If the foals limbs begin to shake or if it can't keep up with the adult horses in a herd, confine the foal and mare until the foal is rested

Other important care management concerns include:

  • Checking the foal's surroundings for any hazards such as nails, wire fencing or equipment that might cause injury and remove hazards immediately
  • Providing a clean, safe environment with adequate shelter from the elements
  • Socializing your foal for a well-rounded interactive life with other horses, animals and people

Watching a foal grow into a spry, healthy horse is one of the greatest joys of horsemanship. Yes, it takes hard work, plenty of planning, and adherence to the best management principles available, but the rewards are great for both you and your horse.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.