Although it has been a very odd couple of years for us all, there are still the usual inevitable events to prepare for in the horsey calendar.

This time of year, one major event for horse and pony owners is that of weaning foals. It can be a traumatic time for mare and foal, both psychologically and nutritionally, but with a bit of planning and preparation it needn’t be too traumatic for either.

The way you feed your foal before and after weaning can help ease the trauma of this part of the equation and set him on the right track for the coming year.

Different courses for different horses

The aim of feeding the majority of foals would be to achieve a consistent, moderate and, therefore, safe level of growth. Whilst rapid growth may win you rosettes in showing classes in the short term, a more moderate and steady growth rate will carry less risk of problems such as developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) in the long term. It will also be a lot easier on your pocket!

Creep feeding

From fairly early on in its life the foal will probably have been picking at his mother’s feed.

This is great as it gets their digestive system used to dealing with hard feed. It is worth noting that his requirements are quite different from his mother's and it is advisable to use a feed that is specifically intended for the foal for at least a month prior to weaning (preferably longer), this at least ensures continuity of feeding post weaning (one less stress!).

There are products that are designed to fulfill the needs of both the mare and the foal and these can be a more practical route to take (ie Gain Stud Care Balancer, Dodson and Horrell’s Suregrow, and Bailey’s Stud Balancer).

A trial carried out at Kentucky University highlighted the benefits of creep feeding. Foals who were creep fed lost less weight at weaning as their digestive systems were used to the feed prior to weaning. It was found that the creep fed foals experienced less problems later in life.

This is due to the fact that they exhibited a steady growth and there was no spurt of compensatory growth after the post-weaning slump, which can be the primary cause of growth disorders. In general, creep fed foals have a far less stressful weaning with little or no interruption in growth.

Consistent growth

Consistency of growth is just as important as the rate of growth; in fact, research has shown that it may be more important.

In a trial where feed was restricted in foals for four months and then uncontrolled; 65% of them developed deformities. None of the control horses had any problems. Sudden changes in growth rate must, therefore, be avoided.

This can be quite tricky when it comes to the spring flush of grass, so make sure that you keep an eye on your youngsters growth rate and condition score (never allow your foal or yearling to become obese, in fact it is better to be able to see the faint outline of their ribs at this age than to let them get fat), and adjust the energy content of their feed accordingly. It is energy and not protein that makes them fat!


Good quality forage (hay or haylage and, of course, grass) is very important for the weanling.

It should make up the greatest proportion of his diet and be of good eating/respiratory quality as well as a decent nutritional specification.

Good bones

It was once thought that high protein diets were the cause of DOD but research has well and truly dispelled this myth.

It seems that feeding high energy diets with an imbalance of nutrients is the most common cause. Diets for young horses must be formulated with great care.

Nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus and other minerals and vitamins must be provided in the correct amounts relative to each other and in balance with the amount of energy fed. This is because growing horses fed high energy diets with nutrient imbalances may grow faster than their bones can develop, leading to DOD.

Quality protein (which should be listed on the feed label as coming from soya bean meal (hipro or full fat), linseed meal and/or lysine, methionine etc) is crucial to help prevent the development of DOD. Bone consists of protein and mineral components.

The protein (osteoid) makes up 20% of mature bone. The mineral components are primarily calcium and phosphorus, which is why it is essential that these are in the correct proportion to each other (calcium:phosphorus should be 2:1-1:1, the ratio should never be allowed to slip in the opposite direction in favour of phosphorous).

Protein forms the framework on which these minerals are deposited and so is an essential part of the young horse’s diet, especially as it is also crucial for muscle development, healthy hooves and coat condition.

Exercise is good

Environment is also an essential bone building factor. Foals and all youngsters should be turned out as much as possible in as large a space as possible. In fact the way most youngsters are kept in Scotland, out for the majority of the time, is ideal. This is because bone strength and development also requires exercise.

Animals that are shut in during the crucial first two years will have lower bone strength compared to their outdoor counterparts and this can lead to future lameness problems when it comes to bringing them in to work. Forced exercise, however (eg lunging in circles etc), is not good for the developing skeleton and should therefore be avoided.

Key nutrition

We have ascertained that for healthy skeletal development the young horse requires minerals (particularly calcium and phosphorus and in the correct ratio), vitamins, trace elements and protein.

Energy is required for growth but should be adjusted, according to grass/forage quality, climate and paddock size (amount of exercise), to maintain consistent but moderate growth. For feeding youngsters it is always worth feeding a compound feed to ensure that there are no deficiencies.

Proprietary feeds will be balanced for all the important nutrients. Most feeds formulated for non-Thoroughbreds are of the concentrate type (a specialised balancer), to provide all the protein, minerals etc that the youngster requires, in a balanced form without excessive amounts of energy.

This can be fed alongside a quality alfalfa or grass based chaff according to condition. There is some indication that excessive starch (ie from cereals) fed to youngsters can lead to problems with insulin resistance in later life and may also have a link to DOD in those breeds predisposed to it.

So the use of cereals, like oats and barley, should be kept to a minimum and only used if absolutely necessary. Care must also be taken that the feed is not made unbalanced as a result of using cereals (only use with a balancer).

Seek advice

Always seek advice from a qualified nutritionist if you are the least bit unsure as to what to feed your youngster.

Specially formulated compound feeds are the safest and most appropriate way to feed your youngster to avoid any heart-ache. For non-Thoroughbred types an appropriate balancer will fulfil requirements without providing too much energy.