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Nutrition for the foal and young, growing horse

Foal nutrition begins in the pregnant mare and continues through lactation, and then foal growth on into adulthood. The main objective for feeding the foal, besides well-balanced nutrition, should be for steady growth, trying to avoid growth spurts. If the essential nutrients are not given during the early years, the optimum growth potential of the horse will not be achieved. Also, denying the young horse proper nutrients and then later giving excessive nutrients only predisposes the youngster to growth spurts and potential problems such as epiphysitis* (inflammation of growth plates and contracted tendons (a condition where the long bones grow faster than the tendons).

*It is important to note that epiphysitis is more commonly developed due to inadequate mineral intake rather than high protein diets.

Diet and exercise play an important role in the growing horse. Creep feeding plays an important role in the foal and weanling for steady growth. The mare’s quality of milk drops significantly starting as early as the second month of lactation as the foal increasingly needs more for optimum growth. The foal has a much smaller stomach, obviously, and requires smaller, more frequent meals. By creep feeding, you avoid a sudden large increase in their diet as a weanling.

Exercise is as equally important as is diet in the young, growing horse. Exercise stimulates growth and, without it, the horse cannot grow strong bones and will not reach optimum growth. The stress exercise places on the growing bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles provides the desirable environment for healthy, strong growth and getting the young horse ready for future performance careers. Essentially, use/stress causes a sort of “breakdown” of cells, which increases blood flow and the development of more new cells, thus, increasing density and strength.

Protein and the Growing Horse

The young growing horse requires more protein than do adult horses. Inadequate protein will lead to less than optimal growth, while excessive protein has not been shown to create any problems in the young, growing horse (along with adequate minerals and exercise). Bone growth requires protein and minerals. Protein provides energy, and energy provides growth stimulation, not the development of bone. Minerals are the major source for bone development. Both are equally essential in the diet. It is important to note that most feeds use soybean meal for the protein source, which is a good protein source; however, it is important to remember the essential amino acids the young horse needs. Simply increasing the crude protein is not adequate. Most vegetable-based protein sources lack adequate essential amino acids, including lysine, methionine, leucine, and arginine.

Minerals and Vitamins

Bone is living tissue and is made of protein and mineral. The protein provides the structure for the deposition of minerals. Mineral/vitamin deficiencies provide an environment for a weak structure. A young horse may rapidly gain weight, but without a healthy balance of minerals and vitamins, the young horse will not have a strong structure to hold that weight. Calcium, phosphorus (don’t forget the calcium:phosphorus ratio discussed above in ‘Basic Nutrition’), magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, iodine, manganese, and salt are all required for adequate growth. It is not uncommon for pastures to be deficient in at least some of these minerals. A diet deficient in calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, vitamin A and vitamin D all lead to bone demineralization.

As stated above, the calcium/phosphorus ratio is very important. Your calcium level must be equal or higher than the phosphorus. An imbalance of this results in bone demineralization. However, too high calcium can interfere with zinc absorption. Calcium deficiency does not result in a growth retardation, but will result in weak bones. Calcium also plays an important role in muscle and nerve function. Phosphorus deficiency usually results in growth retardation and weak bones. The calcium: phosphorus ratio should be kept in the range of 1:1 to 2:1.

Magnesium plays a role in calcium absorption and muscle function. Vitamin D increases absorption of these minerals. Vitamin A plays an important role in eyes, tendons, bones, and cell growth and a deficiency adversely affects bone strength.

The key points to remember when feeding the foal and young, growing horse:

• Adequate nutrition begins in the pregnant mare and lactating mare.
• Creep feeding plays an important role in achieving a steady rate of growth.
• Consider your protein source and supplement with essential amino acids.
• Provide a well-balanced mineral/vitamin diet.
• Last but not least, provide adequate exercise/turnout for optimum results of your well-balanced nutritional diet.