Nutrition for Mares and Foals: Monitor Their Special Needs

A healthy mare and foal running together.
A healthy mare and foal running together. Kent Weakley

When raising foals, our goal is to optimize health and growth. This means proper and adequate nutrition and avoiding extremes that could lead to problems.

The foal’s diet is milk at first, but he soon starts nibbling grass or whatever mama is eating, mimicking her.

By a week of age he is regularly sampling what she eats—forages and/or grain. The majority of his diet, however, will be milk for the first three months.

Foals grow fastest during their first three months, but there’s usually not a lot we need to do in terms of feeding the foal except to pay attention to what the mare is eating and make sure she is properly fed.

We don’t want her gaining or losing too much weight during lactation.  She provides nutrients to the foal with her milk, supplying what he needs during this time of swift growth, so you don’t want her losing weight in her effort to feed him.

It’s not necessary to supplement the foal during the first three months unless the mare isn’t providing adequate milk, but make sure the foal doesn’t eat too much of mom’s feed if she’s being given a lot of concentrates.

Some foals may be eating a significant amount of the mare’s feed by the time they are three months old. This can lead to rapid growth, which may in turn lead to developmental problems.

After about three months, however, you can start adding some creep feed to the foal’s diet if needed. This should be something that is fairly high in protein—somewhere between 16 and 18%.  The foal needs a high-quality protein with the right balance of amino acids.

What you feed a foal should be highly digestible with the right balance of carbohydrates—not too much starch--while containing some digestible fiber and a little fat.

Starting foals on creep feeds can help them adjust to life after weaning. The forages (green pasture while they are out with their mothers) help them develop adequate populations of fiber-digesting bacteria in the gut, but the concentrate also has an influence on the microbiota and production of digestive enzymes.

If the foal already has forage and concentrate in the diet, when he’s weaned and no longer has mom’s milk, there won’t be such an abrupt change in the microbes in his gut, which makes that transition easier. The GI tract is already primed for digesting concentrates, and the foal already knows how to eat this feed.

He also needs high quality forages. In addition to pasture, he may need a good quality grass hay or an alfalfa-grass mix.

The better the forage quality, the more calories the foal will get from what he consumes, and the less excess bulk will be maintained in the digestive tract.

Feeding good digestible fiber is one way to keep a foal from getting the typical pot-bellied look of many weanlings.

Age at weaning will make some difference in what you feed. Some foals must be weaned earlier than others, for various reasons—such as the mare becoming too thin, or not providing enough milk, or giving too much milk and putting the foal at risk for developmental problems.

When weaned at 4 months or younger, addition of a milk-based creep feed is advisable.

The goal when feeding any foal is to maintain steady growth. You don’t want erratic growth and compensatory spurts. Too-rapid growth often occurs after a slowdown in growth rate--which may be due to weaning or illness or inadequate nutrition at some point.

Then when the foal gets better (if he was sick) or adjusts to weaning or has opportunity to eat more again, there’s usually a growth spurt to make up for the slowdown.

That’s when the skeletal system is most vulnerable to orthopedic problems, so you want to keep a smooth growth rate without those spurts.

Try to provide the proper amount of calories for steady growth. If foals receive too many calories they may get too fat, which is not healthy for the skeletal system, and increases the chance of developmental orthopedic disease. You want to maintain moderate body condition and steady growth.

A foal’s genetics determine how big the foal will be.  You can feed and push a foal that genetically isn’t predetermined to be big, and he won’t become big. That foal will probably just become fat.

It doesn’t really matter if a foal is below or above the average for his age and breed, as long as the growth rate is consistent and follows that curve.

If you see a deviation, however, like growth rate falling off, take a closer look at that foal to see if there is something wrong.

If you see a growth spurt, evaluate the diet and make adjustments if the foal is getting too much feed.

To make sure the foal is maintaining desired moderate steady growth you can do monthly measurements and see if there are deviations—such as spurts or falling off in growth rate.  Measure both height and weight.

You might have a foal with steady growth in weight but not in height, which means he’s getting fatter instead of taller, or a foal with the opposite problem—getting very tall but thin and not gaining proper weight. It’s important to look at both height and weight.

Remember that grass is the best forage for foals.  A recent study showed foals that were out on pasture 24/7 had significantly lower incidence of osteochondrosis than foals that were raised spending 100% of their time confined in stalls or stalls with turnout.

The diet must contain the proper building blocks for the growing foal, especially for the bones, at that age. If a foal is experiencing rapid compensatory growth or has a severe case of physitis, you need to cut back just on calories rather than all the other elements of diet.

Cutting the calories will slow the too-rapid growth, but the foal will still be growing—and needs the right amount of protein, minerals and vitamins for developing strong bones.

A foal suffering from a severe case of physitis, for example, might need to be cut back to just a ration balancer and some good quality grass hay, rather than large amounts of concentrates.

The ration balancer would contain the necessary protein (amino acids), minerals and vitamins essential to health and proper growth, without adding a lot of calories that would fuel more rapid growth.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.