Feeding Foals During Weaning and Post Weaning – An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Properly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone!

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.  The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day. Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification. Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them. The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds! The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan. Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal if that can be avoided.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.

There are a number of ways to separate the foals from their mothers and many farms manage in different ways.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score. Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning. This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage. The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.  This limits nutrient availability and may limit growth and development.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition. Uniform growth and maintaining target body condition is essential to reduce risk of certain types of Developmental Orthopedic Disease. One of the things we want to avoid is letting the weanling get off normal growth rate, then deciding to push for rapid growth as a yearling to hit target for show or for scheduled sales.

Feeding Foals

Similar to human babies, the nutrition and care a foal receives in the “baby” stage can have an effect on its whole life – including soundness and development issues that may not become obvious until years down the road. Starting your foal on the right path to nutritional health will pay off not only in the immediate future but in the long term as well.

Within a few hours of being born your foal will take in the mare’s first milk. This milk is known as colostrum and it provides valuable antibodies that help prevent diseases. In the first several weeks of life your foal focuses on nursing to get all of his nutrition. Your foal should consume 15-25% of his bodyweight daily in milk and will be gaining from 2-3 lbs. per day. If you notice your foal nursing longer than 30 minutes at a time, you may need to investigate and make sure that the mare is producing enough milk to the foal.

Foal scratching face

Ferris with mom Rosie - foals exhibit the most entertaining behaviors....

As early as one week of age your foal may start taking some interest in feed by nibbling at hay or grain. This initial interest may be just a way of imitating mom, but the foal soon learns to use these other sources of nutrition and his digestive tract quickly adjusts to solid food. One of the things your foal may eat might not look all that appetizing to you, but coprophagy (eating manure) is now recognized as being normal in foal behavior. It is thought to be a way that the foal’s hindgut gets prepared ferment forages later on.

Between weeks 13 – 24 your foal’s source of nutrition from his dam is starting to dwindle as the lactating mare produces less and less milk. At this point we want to make sure that the foal has a good and balanced supplemental source of nutrition; you may want to start a creep feeding program to make sure your foal has good access to this supplemental diet. 

Foal feed needs to be focused on providing balance to the diet.  Metabolic bone disease is something almost all foal owners fear. Foals who grow too rapidly, gain weight too quickly or who have an imbalance in essential parts of the diet (minerals, protein, calories, etc.) can end up with these serious health issues, which can include DOD (Developmental Orthopedic Disease), physitis, contracted tendons and others. Make sure that you are providing  a good, digestible source of protein (tip: look for guaranteed levels of amino acids), correct amounts  of vitamins and minerals (particularly important are calcium & phosphorus,  copper & zinc and selenium & vitamin E)  and the right amount of calories for sound growth.

Check out our Equine Growth Chart to chart your foal’s progress!