Youngsters – foal management

Foal Management

Ultimately the aim of breeding is to produce an adult horse capable of being an athlete. Even before a live foal is born the nutrition of the mare through pregnancy, the management of the foal from day one, through weaning and continuing through the first years of life is vital to ensure that athletic ability. “Nature”, the breeding, and “nurture”, the upbringing, both have a role in producing the best adult specimen.

Good genetics play a large role in determining the quality of the foal that is produced but this is not a guarantee!! The “better quality” sire and dam used will increase the odds of getting a “better quality foal”.

Foal conformation is important and has a genetic input 

Obviously, breeding stock with major genetic weaknesses shouldn’t be used for breeding with the intention that these defects will be removed from the breed. However, the term “good breeding” also applies to characteristics such as good body and limb conformation which are more important for the horse to remain sound throughout its life. A horse with the “best” possible sire and dam will not be successful without sound body and limbs. Aesthetics or looks also play a huge part in determining the perceived quality of the end result although this is very subjective. From a veterinary point-of-view aesthetics are of secondary importance to health and soundness but ultimately from a showing perspective, “quality” in terms of “type” or “prettiness” are the things that catch one’s eye. It is possible to be completely objective about conformation and questions such as “Are the legs and feet symmetrical?” or “Are the limbs straight or are they rotated in or out?” can be answered with conviction and not be open to interpretation.

The ambitions of the breeder or owner must be taken into consideration. If a short-term in-hand showing career is all that is required, less care about the suitability for a future ridden career or future soundness may be taken. Possibly clarification about judging requirements could help future breeding?

Foal management includes feeding, access to pasture, farriery and exercise.

Excellent conformation as a foal leads to excellent conformation as an adult with care and good management 


Foal Growth and Development

The influence of feeding the pregnant and lactating mare

Supplementing the pregnant mare with copper in late gestation has been shown to help foal development and reduce the incidence of developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) such as OCD. However, providing copper to a growing foal has been found to have no effect on incidence of OCD.   Also as mares get older they provide lower levels of copper and zinc into the colostrum and therefore potentially lead to increased risks of developmental orthopaedic disease in foals of older mares.

The natural weaning of the foal is started by the mare from 4 months of age but continues by the mare and foal gradually reducing the feeding duration and frequency alongside an increase forage feeding.

Foals born to mares in good condition tend to have higher growth rates than respective foals born to underweight mares. Not surprisingly, lactating mares fed good diets with high energy content also produce good growth rates in their foals but the content of the diet is of vital importance because it affects the production and composition of the milk.

Protein, fat, sugars, fibre and forage intake.

Good quality protein, rich in essential amino acids, is important for milk production and to allow good growth rates in foals.

High protein and starch diets fed alongside good forage (grass, hay or haylage) is the best for milk production without causing excessive growth rates in the foal. Ensuring fat is also in the diet helps to maintain the mare’s fat levels and provides good fat, and therefore, energy content in the milk. However, mares fed excessively high fat diets can lead to greater growth rates in their foal which may not allow adequate bone maturity as a result of lack of mineralisation; this may be one factor in the cause of developmental orthopaedic diseases such as OCD.

Minerals and vitamins intake is also important for mare’s health, in particular, calcium and phosphorus. However, the mare’s dietary intake of vitamins and minerals does not affect the milk content of these nutrients.

Feeding the Foal

Although milk is a major part of a foal’s diet, the consumption of grass, forage and creep feed starts very early. Up to two months of age, milk consumption increases but the proportion of protein and fat decreases and sugar (lactose) increases.

As previously stated altering the minerals in a mare’s diet does not affect the milk composition. Therefore, it is important to supplement the foal’s diet with calcium and phosphorus to allow normal bone growth.

As previously stated, supplementing copper to a growing foal has been found to have no effect on incidence of OCD.

It appears that mare’s milk provides all the foal’s dietary requirements of potassium, sodium, magnesium and zinc but only a proportion, albeit a high proportion, of calcium, phosphorus and copper; therefore a foal must always have access to good quality creep or forage feed to provide these extra requirements.

Creep feed should be provided from 1-2 months at the latest although foals commonly will “explore” their mother’s feed from a few days old, if the mare allows it to!! Small feeds and often are better for the foal as they mimic normal “nursing” but this has to be provided in a bucket only accessible to the foal.


Feeding the yearling, two and three year old

Excessive growth rates without adequate nutrition can lead to DOD, such as bone and joint problems. These include OCD, angular limb deformities and “Wobbler Syndrome” as a result of spinal malformation. Genetics generally determine the final mature size provided correct nutrition is provided, so weight gain during the first 2 years of life only affects the age at which the animal reaches maturity.

To ensure optimum health, it is better to feed diets that have all the required nutrients and not just rely on adequate energy levels.  It is important to provide the correct levels of both calcium and phosphorus and the correct ratio of each as well as the adequate copper levels.

As age progresses, it is important to provide a good balanced diet containing adequate protein, vitamin, and mineral intakes. Ensuring at least 1-1.5% body weight in forage along with a suitable concentrate feed allows a steady but not excessive growth in the winter when grass is not as lush as other times of year.

The constant monitoring of weight, using a weigh-bridge ideally, or a weigh-tape and an assessment of the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system is important to prevent rapid or excessive growth. Weight and BCS should be monitored regularly, every two weeks, to ensure regular growth rates and no irregular acceleration or deceleration in weight gain.

Feeding levels should be estimated and altered according to the requirements for maintenance and growth rates according to feed company recommendations.   They are altered by increasing or decreasing feed levels by taking heed of the weight and body condition score.   Muscular development and exercise levels, if applicable, should be monitored regularly.

Feeding practice should be based on maintaining the desired condition and development as well as the growth of the horse as it matures and progresses into training.

Access to pasture

Regular turn-out and access to reasonable-quality grazing is important from early in a foal’s development. This provides access to a good quality diet and the ability to exercise for skeletal, muscular and orthopaedic development.


Regular farriery is vital to identify, as well as to prevent, any hoof and limb abnormalities in the growing animal.


Extreme care needs to be taken with the amount and type of exercise carried out in a growing animal. Overdoing this potentially can lead to serious problems both at the time and in later life and therefore, it may be prudent to wait until skeletal maturity is established before placing too much pressure on a young horse. This particularly applies to back muscle development with regards to saddling but applies to all disciplines with regards to immature joints and muscles. Extending the training period in young horses to allow orthopaedic development at a more sedate pace will allow adaptation of these structures such as muscles, joints, bones, tendons and ligaments. This adaptation may take up to 4 months, hence the need to take it slowly with exercise levels particularly for breaking and backing.

There are several “pieces of the jigsaw” that need to be slotted into place to produce the fully adapted animal. It still appears that the production of a healthy animal is luck, on our part, as a result of conflicting viewpoints from research. However, tremendous progress has been made and this will continue!