By Deborah Leabeater MSc, CBiol, MIBiol, R.Nutr. Senior equine nutritional consultant to Balanced Horse feeds
There are many factors that influence the development of young horses and ponies, but nutrition is a factor that must be controlled by the horse keeper. Feeding should be regularly evaluated, and adjusted if necessary. There are many different variables; the quantity of milk consumed and the nutrient levels in pasture that broadly cannot be controlled, so there is no question that poor nutrition as a young horse can have a negative effect on development. It is therefore very important that feeding programmes are carefully designed and monitored to ensure horses meet their full genetic potential.
Much of the research into feeding young horses has centred on reducing the chance and severity of developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD), and most involved agree that whilst nutrition is a cause of DOD, there are several other causes including genetic and environmental factors, hormonal changes and trauma.
The main areas of nutrition that relate to DOD are thought to include overfeeding energy, especially in high starch rations, and mineral excesses, deficiencies or imbalances.
However, with the correct emphasis on the controlling energy intake, it has resulted in some horse keepers creating a problem, underfeeding protein, especially at certain key stages in development.
At around 12 weeks, the nutrient levels in the mares’ milk reduce to levels that are probably not adequate for the demands of some modern day performance horses, so some supplemental feeding is required.
By then the foal will have started to consume large amounts of pasture, so then it is important that the quality of the pasture is known. It may not always be possible, but if time and money allow then having the pasture analysed regularly (2-3 times per year) will provide useful data on mineral, protein (and amino acid), fibre and energy levels.
The quality of palatable pasture is also very important. Fields or paddocks that are left un-grazed by horses can affect intake, even though the grazing may appear to offer plenty of green material.
Actual intakes are hard to estimate, but good pasture management should ensure that the pasture is suitable for all animals. In certain clinical and veterinary situations where there is a need for reduced energy (hence pasture) intake, then small paddocks with limited grazed will prove useful.
There are several functions and benefits of feeding a foal.
1 – To prevent deficiencies occurring when the mares’ milk and the pasture with low levels of certain minerals are the only feeds available.
2 – To encourage the intake of grain and fibre sources to allow the gut intestinal tract to develop.
3 – To encourage independence to help when it comes to weaning.
In practise, a healthy foal born before June, on a well managed healthy pasture combined with a mare milking normally, then very little additional energy or protein will be needed until the foal is 4-5 months old.
However, since almost all of theUKand Irish pastures are low in key minerals, additional minerals will need to be provided from 10-12 weeks old while the foal is still nursing. The minerals can be provided in the form of a daily feed, selected to provide high levels of minerals and little protein or energy, or less ideally as intake cannot be controlled, through especially formulated mineral licks.
Late foals (who will often begin grazing at a time when protein, energy and mineral levels have declined further), foals whose dams are poor milkers, or foals with poor bodyweight and condition may require additional protein and energy as well as minerals within a daily feed. The foal should then be monitored to ensure that the growth rate is adequate, not excessive.
It is important to remember that as one of the foal’s sources of nutrition and security is removed, an alternative source is provided.
For early foals, weaning comes at a time when pasture protein, energy and mineral levels are falling (June – August), and pasture quality may be low if the weather has been especially hot.
So for many foals, not only milk has gone as a source of nutrition but the pasture may be of a lower quality, and reduced nutrients from other sources.
This indicates that pasture alone will not meet the mineral, energy and protein requirements of a weanling, so the introduction of daily feeding is vital.
A youngstock/yearling ration may be introduced, and in order to keep up daily mineral requirements it should be fed at up to a maximum of 3kg per day.
If additional energy is not required then feeding a high protein and mineral feed at around 1-1.5kg per day, limiting energy intake but still making sure that the protein and mineral requirements are met.
Worms can also be a problem for weanlings, and in very serious cases protein loss can occur. Often the importance of a correct worming programme is overlooked, with some believing that with a closed population of mixed animals, and regular dung removal will be adequate. In these cases a vet should be consulted to put a worming programme in place, and then it is even more important that the weaned foals are already on a correct nutritional programme to ensure that they do not suffer any drop in development before the worming programme has been put in place.
On a final note, it is important to consider that foals who have not received the correct nutrition from a weanling who are then sometimes as a two year old expected to consume vast quantities of concentrate feed per day, in some cases up to 9kg! So it is hardly surprising that then problems arise.