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Feeding the Young Foal and Weanling

Feeding the Young Foal and Weanling

Written by Lorraine Fradl

That time of year is upon us again. Having only just barely caught our breath after an incredibly busy stud season, breeders and owners now must look forward to the hectic few months preparing their young stock for the upcoming sales.

Finally the benefits will be reaped for the hours spent trawling through stallion cards selecting the best match for the mare’s pedigree, proceeded by months of pampering and fussing over what to feed her, endless sleepless nights on foal watch, and then finally having to keep on guard for the following months as the little youngster embarks on a mission of self-destruction through life picking up every sniffle and scratch going!


Throughout all this time though, it is not just the sniffle and the scratches that demand the attention of the owner, but more importantly the foal’s growth and development. Any disturbances to skeletal growth during this period could have serious consequences, and could render a valuable foal worthless. The period between three and nine months seem to be the most precarious for the foal in terms of developmental problems. During this time serious conditions can develop that might restrict the athletic potential of a horse. Through good management, regular farrier visits and ensuring the foal has received adequate nutrition to meet his growing needs, the chance of a developmental orthopaedic disease occurring would be minimal.

Equine Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD) is a significant problem facing many breeders of today and encompasses all orthopaedic problems and general growth disturbances seen in the growing horse.

The most common DOD’s include:

  • Osteochondritis Dessicans (OCD) – a flap or fragment on the articular surface of the bone or floating within the joint
  • Subchondral Cysts – thickened joint cartilage
  • Cervical Vertebrae Malformation (Wobbler Syndrome) – poor bone development causing a pinching of the spinal column
  • Angular Limb Deformities – deviations in the limb alignment medially (varus) or laterally (valgus) due to poor bone formation and uneven weight distribution
  • Epiphysitis or Physitis – an inflammation of the growth plate
  • Flexural Deformities – result of poor bone formation, pain or rapid bone growth
  • Cuboidal Bone Abnormalities – poor bone formation in the knee and hock
  • Angular Limb Deformities – result from poor bone formation, uneven weight distribution or pain

Bone development begins before birth and continues beyond 18 months of age, with the majority of growth occurring with the first three months. In young growing horses, skeletal bones initially develop from cartilage, which is gradually converted into hard bone through a process called endochondral ossification. During maturation, two growth plates develop at each end of the long bones (e.g. cannon bone). The epiphysis faces the joint, and the metaphysis faces the shaft of the bone and together they are called the physis. If the supply of vital nutrients via the blood to the developing area is impaired, the growth process is compromised.

A defect in the cartilage of the growth plate facing the joint (the epiphyseal growth plate) may cause problems such as OCD and bone cysts. However, if the defect occurs within the bone at the metaphyseal growth plate (the growth plate for adding length), problems arise in alignment and weight carrying ability, which can cause an angular limb deformity. Growth plates close at different times for different bones. It is very important that corrections to alignment and weight distribution be carried out before the plate closes.

Several factors have been implicated in a horse being predisposed to DOD: genetics, rapid growth and excessive body size, mechanical stress and trauma, high carbohydrate and/or high energy diets, mineral imbalances, and an uneven growth curve. It is very important to monitor growth rates and evaluate the foal’s skeletal development. Steady moderate growth along a typical growth curve appears to provide the best method of reducing developmental problems. It is up to the breeder to be aware of situations in the foal’s life that may affect his growth curve, such as changes in the quality of the mare’s milk, climate and environment, periods of stress or rapid or compensatory growth.

Mare’s milk, from the 3rd month of lactation, will begin to drop in both quantity and quality, as will the foal’s ability to digest milk. If requirements cannot be met by pasture and forage alone to meet the foal’s nutritional needs then an alternative source of nutrient supply will need to be provided.
Connolly’s Red Mills Foal Pellets or Foal and Yearling Cooked Mix are specially formulated to meet the requirements of growing young stock. Foal pellets can be introduced from as early as 3 weeks of age. The ability of the foregut to utilise grain at this age is surprisingly high. Unlike the hindgut which does not develop fully until the foal is about 2-3 months of age, impeding the foal’s ability to extract significant nutrients from forages.

In the young growing horse, energy, protein, minerals and vitamins are first directed to maintenance requirements such as boosting the immune system, and any additional nutrients are then used for skeletal growth. Demand on these nutrients can be very high in cold wet years in comparison to warm drier years. So as not to compromise bone development breeders may need to supplement with additional hard feed or with a quality balancer, such as Connolly’s Red Mills Grocare.

Breeders should avoid ‘growth spikes’ in their young foals, as these are particularly dangerous in inducing a DOD. A spike or growth surge commonly occurs following a period of slow or decreased growth due to stress, illness, shipping or weaning.




Weaning is a time of enormous stress for a young foal and it is not uncommon for foals to drop in condition during this period due to stress and a reduction in feed intake. All measures should be taken to keep stress to a minimum and to ensure that the foal eats well, minimising any disturbance that may take place in his growth rate. It is very important that the foal is eating well before beginning weaning.

A tendency towards rapid growth may be an inherited trait and should be monitored carefully. However, excessive growth from over feeding, especially energy, has a direct link with the incidence of DOD. Producers often desire to have large foals for maximum benefit in the sales ring. An animal growing at a more rapid rate has an increased requirement for all nutrients. If growing horses are fed elevated amounts of energy but low levels of other nutrients, there will be an increase in weight before the skeleton has sufficiently developed to carry the added weight. The careful balance of protein, calcium and phosphorus in relation to energy is essential for optimal growth and skeletal development. Other minerals involved in bone formation include copper, zinc, manganese and selenium. Deficiencies or imbalances may lead to weak porous bone.

Balancers are an ideal way of ensuring the youngster receives essential nutrients while also controlling calorie intake. In addition to the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals contained in a balancer pellet other ingredients could include:

  • Yeast is proven to enhance fibre digestion and mineral absorption
  • MOS and FOS are a unique blend of mannan- and fructo-oligosaccharides to boost gut flora and health (pathogen cleansing and prebiotic effects respectively)
  • L-Carnitine directly impacts in improving nutrient conversion into lean muscle formation at the expense of fat deposition
  • Biotin and Methionine for improved hoof growth and development

Balancers can be added to hard feed or fed alone. As each feed manufacturer will have different specifications in relation to their product it is important to follow the feeding guidelines provided.

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