Feeding for sound bones

When breeding a young horse, one of the highest priorities, regardless of what the horse is being bred for, is to have the foal develop with strong bones and ‘clean’ legs, free from developmental disease and defects like osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). Developmental orthopaedic diseases (DODs) are known to be what is called ‘multifactoral, or caused by multiple things. One of the best known and also easiest to manipulate causes is nutrition. Unfortunately DOD and the role nutrition plays is not well understood in much of the breeding community. It is well known that overfeeding is a cause but unfortunately many a breeder’s answer to that is to not feed nearly enough and in doing so unwittingly causing problems through other mechanisms like mineral deficiencies.So how do you feed young horses for sound bones? Let us take a look…

CONTROL GROWTH RATE

The one very predictable way to increase a horse’s risk of developmental bone diseases including OCD is to feed too much and make youngsters grow too fast. In this situation the young horse’s bones grow too quickly to be properly mineralised, or problems like contracted tendons and being over at the knees develop and put uneven pressure on growing bones and joints.

To minimise the risk of rapid growth rates causing problems with bone development, feeding regimes need to be closely controlled and adjusted as needed to match changing pasture and climate conditions and an individual horse’s requirements. Growth rates should be closely monitored through regular weighing where possible. The people responsible for feeding should also be observant, experienced and diligent, checking for signs of overfeeding and rapid rates of growth including excess body condition, physitis or any deviation in leg structure from normal in one or more of the horses in a group on a daily basis. As soon as any signs of overfeeding are noticed, feed regimes should be adjusted immediately to bring growth rates back in check.

In keeping growth rates in check however you also need to be really careful that you don’t hold youngsters back too much for fear of DOD. Horses that are stunted from an early age by overzealous control of their growth rates may never actually reach their full potential for growth at a later age … it is all a balancing act.

MIND YOUR MINERALS

It is also well recognised that unbalanced mineral nutrition can lead to developmental issues in growing thoroughbreds. While a growing horse requires an extensive suite of minerals, minerals of particular importance for bone development are calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese. Not only do these minerals need to be supplied in the diet at correct levels, but they also need to be provided in the right ratios so that one mineral doesn’t block the absorption of the other (for example too much phosphorus will block the absorption of calcium, too much zinc will block the absorption of copper and too much potassium will block the absorption of magnesium).

Balancing the mineral component of growing horse rations is not a super simple task, but this is where FeedXL comes into play. FeedXL allows you to see if these mineral requirements are being met in a young horse’s diet and also if they are in the correct ratios to one another.

FeedXL also allows you to constantly adjust diets as a youngster’s growth rate changes allowing you to control growth rate (by increasing or decreasing feed amounts) without ever compromising mineral intakes.

ARE THERE PROBLEMS LURKING IN YOUR PASTURE?

Because so much of a young horse’s sound development is dependent on mineral intake it is important to have your pasture (or hay) tested to assess its mineral status throughout the year. Pastures can have various characteristics that can quite quickly unbalance a diet and bring your entire feeding regime unstuck. Some examples from pastures that I have looked at in the past 12 months include:

  • Unbalanced calcium to phosphorus ratio – Pastures that contain more phosphorus than calcium are more common than you would imagine and if not corrected by careful calcium supplementation can lead to a long term calcium deficiency which will almost certainly disrupt sound bone development.
  • Unbalanced zinc to copper ratio – Pastures that contain more than 5 parts zinc to 1 part copper put horses at risk of a copper deficiency. While not common, it is critical that this ratio is corrected through calculated supplementation to avoid copper deficiency.
  • Extreme potassium content – Potassium contents upwards of 55 grams per kilogram of pasture dry matter have recently been recorded in horse pastures. While very little work has been done on the impact of this in horses, it is well recognised that potassium at these levels will disrupt the absorption and metabolism of both magnesium and calcium in other animal species and circumstantial evidence suggests this may be the case in horses.
  • Mineral deficiencies – this is perhaps the most common problem seen in pastures. Calcium, copper and zinc are the three most common deficiencies seen of minerals important to bone development. Phosphorus and very occasionally manganese can also be too low to meet a growing horse’s requirements. Luckily this problem is also the easiest to correct through calculated supplementation with good quality feeds or pasture balancer pellets.

Because of all the spanners that pasture can throw into your feeding regime the first step toward putting together a well balanced feeding regime for growing horses should always be pasture analysis. Here at FeedXL we recommend you use Equi-Analytical (http://www.equi-analytical.com/) for your pasture analysis needs.

PROVIDE GOOD BUILDING BLOCKS

Bone is built upon protein, both collagen and non-collagenous proteins, so it is reasonable to assume that the protein quality of the diet will have an impact on the quality and soundness of bone in growing horses. Diets based on high quality protein will better support sound bone development than rations based on low quality sources of protein like cottonseed meal.

WHAT ABOUT FANCY STUFF?

There are many supplements and feed additives on the market nowadays that will claim they can help reduce OCD and other bone issues. Some are backed by credible science, others aren’t. The key to using any of these supplements though, if you wish to give them a try, is to make sure you are feeding them with a well balanced diet, as no matter how good they are or claim to be, using them when other problems already exist in the diet is not going to give you better results. For example adding silica to diets that are deficient in copper is not going to solve any problems that may exist due to the copper deficiency.

THERE IS STILL A LOT WE DON’T KNOW…

While managing growth rates, feeding well balanced diets that are formulated to suit pasture conditions, meeting all mineral requirements and feeding diets with high quality protein will give you the very best chance of producing a sound yearling, some horses will still develop bone issues, even under the very best conditions. It is also well recognised that some mares will consistently throw foals that go on to develop OCD or other issues. What we still don’t know is why, what is genetically different about these animals that puts them at much higher risk?

There is however a lot we do know and with some good management and the use of tools like pasture testing and FeedXL you can dramatically reduce the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases in your growing horses to produce sound, athletic horses for any equestrian discipline.

Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist and horse nut. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and going on 13 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in January, 2014. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.

Feeding the lactating mare

Getting a lactating mare’s feeding right is critical to ensure she can provide milk for her foal and provide the required nutrients for a foetus if she is pregnant again. A balanced diet is also essential to keep the mare healthy so that she can continue to reproduce or go back into work after her foal at foot is weaned.

As for all horses, a mare’s requirement for energy (calories), protein, vitamins and minerals must be met. These nutrients and the role they play in a lactating mare’s diet are looked at below.

Energy

A lactating mare’s requirement for energy is double that needed by a mature idle horse.

Not feeding a lactating mare enough energy means she will lose weight. If she falls below a condition score of 5 (on the Henneke 1 to 9 scale), it may make it difficult to get her back in foal and could also reduce the amount of milk she produces for her foal.

If she is allowed to exceed a condition score of 7 her milk production may fall and it also puts unnecessary pressure on her joints and hooves which will cause pain and lameness for the mare.

The basis of a mare’s energy intake should be provided by pasture and/or hay. If pasture and/or hay is not enough to maintain body condition, high energy feeds like cooked cereal grains, high energy fibres and oils can be added to the diet.

To manage energy intake, you should condition score your lactating mares regularly and adjust their energy intake up if they are losing weight and down if they are gaining weight.

Protein and Amino Acids

Lactating mares need good quality protein to enable them to provide milk for the foal and to maintain their own muscle mass. Not enough protein in a lactating mare’s diet will cause milk production to fall and the mare will begin to lose muscle.

The majority of the protein in the mare’s diet should come from the pasture and/or hay the diet is based on. When there is not enough protein in the pasture/hay to meet a mare’s requirements, good quality protein sources that are rich in essential amino acids such as soybean, lupins, faba bean, canola meal and lucerne or feeds based on these ingredients should be used to meet requirements. Poor quality sources of protein such as cottonseed meal should always be avoided in lactating mare diets.

Because the NRC 2007 lysine requirements (used by FeedXL.com) are now quite high many of you will find that lysine requirements are quite difficult to meet, especially for mares grazing lower quality pastures including the sub-tropical C4 Type pastures. I find the best way to help with meeting lysine requirements is to first add some Lucerne hay to the diet to replace some of the lower quality forage she is eating. Then with this better source of lysine coming from the forage base you will find it a lot easier to meet lysine requirements using appropriate high quality feeds.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins are extremely important in the lactating mare’s diet and have an impact on the mare’s health and fertility as well as the foal’s growth, muscle development and immune function. Mares with access to green pasture will have the majority of their vitamin requirements met by the pasture alone. Mares with no access to pasture will generally need to be supplemented with vitamins.

A lactating mare has massive requirements for minerals, and particularly for the macro-minerals calcium and phosphorous, which are found in large quantities in milk. It is also important to meet her requirements for trace minerals as they are required to ensure the structural soundness of her future foals.
Not meeting the lactating mare’s requirements for minerals will mean her body reserves are depleted, leaving her susceptible to disease and lameness. Mineral deficiency can also reduce her milk production and fertility and can affect the soundness of future foals.

A lactating mare’s mineral requirements will be partially met by the forage/hay in her diet. However, it is unlikely a mare’s full mineral requirements will be met, so some supplementation will almost certainly be necessary.

Vitamins and minerals can be supplemented in the form of a concentrated vitamin/mineral supplement or in the form of a complete feed, depending on your preference for style of feeding and how much feed your mare needs to maintain body condition.

If your mare is an easy keeper, using a concentrated vitamin/mineral supplement will allow you to provide the vitamins and minerals she needs without providing additional calories that could make her gain unneeded weight. Well formulated balancer pellets are particularly useful for these mares. On the other hand, if your mare is a hard keeper, it would be easiest to use a complete feed that provides the mare with additional calories and protein as well as providing the vitamins and minerals she needs.

Which is the best feed for your mare?

When choosing the right feed and developing a feeding program for your lactating mare(s) you need to consider the following:

  1. Do you have pasture available?
  2. What sort of pasture do you have and what is its quality like?
  3. Will your mare maintain bodyweight on pasture alone, or do you need to feed additional feed for her to maintain bodyweight?
  4. What hay do you have available and what is its quality like?
  5. Is your mare an easy or hard keeper?
  6. Does she need to gain, maintain or lose weight?
  7. What stage of lactation is she in?
  8. Do you prefer to feed a complete feed or mix your own feeds using supplements?

The answers to these questions will determine whether a complete feed or a supplement is best for your mare and will also help you determine what amount of feed your mare needs. If your mare is a hard keeper or if you have very little or only poor quality pasture available a complete feed will most likely be needed. If you have good quality pasture and/or your mare is an easy keeper you may find a vitamin/mineral supplement is all that is required.

Regardless of what you choose to feed, ensure your lactating mare always has free access to forage in the form of pasture or hay, a salt lick and very clean, fresh water.

FeedXL It!

FeedXL will help you put together a balanced diet that meets the energy, protein, lysine, mineral and vitamin needs of your lactating mare to ensure that she remains healthy and productive during this phase of her reproductive cycle.

And just as importantly, FeedXL will allow you to accurately create diets for your growing foal. A growing horse’s requirements are constantly changing and the future soundness and health of your foal really depends on you getting nutrition right in the formative years of its life. So don’t guess at what you should be feeding (please). Investing a little time now on a good diet for your mare and growing horse can save you a lot of time, frustration and heartache in the future.

Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist and horse nut. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and going on 12 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in September, 2014. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.

Raising an orphan foal

While seeing a healthy foal raised successfully by its dam is every breeder’s goal, unfortunately situations do arise where foals are unable to be suckled by their mothers and alternatives must be found. Whether the foal was orphaned due to complications during delivery, the mare is unable or unwilling to raise the foal or the foal needs to be weaned early to reduce the stress placed on its dam or to allow its dam to travel long distances to be bred, an alternative source of milk and maternal care must be found.Orphaned foals can be raised by a nurse mare or they can be hand reared using a commercial milk replacer. The method chosen to rear the foal will depend on the availability of a nurse mare, the age and value of the foal, the expense associated with these options, as well as the time available and the skills of the foal’s carers.

Rearing Methods

Nurse Mares

If a nurse mare is, or can be made available for your foal it will allow your foal to be raised in the most natural way possible. Once the mare has ‘adopted’ her new foal this method is also less time consuming for the foal’s carers.

While nurse mares will provide an excellent start for your orphan foal there are some important points to consider before using this option, including:

  • You must match the mare’s size to that of the foal’s dam. The amount of milk a mare produces is largely dependent on her bodyweight. Fostering a foal from a 500 kg thoroughbred mare onto an 800 kg draught mare will mean that foal gets a lot more milk than it otherwise would have from its original dam. Too much milk can make foals grow so quickly that developmental problems may occur.
  • You must match the foal’s age with the mare’s stage of lactation. As a mare progresses through lactation the composition of her milk changes. Milk in the early stages of lactation is higher in protein, fats and lactose than milk produced later. If a one week old foal is fostered onto a mare that has been lactating for a few months its requirements for energy and protein may not be met and its growth may be stunted.

If a nurse mare that is in a suitable stage of lactation with a similar bodyweight to the foal’s dam can be located and the expense is justified, this is certainly the most desirable way for your orphan foal to be raised. Not only will excellent nutrition be provided, but the mare will also teach the foal how to graze and ‘be a horse’ and provide it with a source of manure the foal can eat in order to populate its gut with beneficial bacteria.

Hand Rearing

If a nurse mare is not an option the foal will need to be hand reared using a milk replacer. While hand rearing requires patience and time, when done properly with a good quality milk replacer that mimics the composition of mare’s milk it can achieve excellent results. Important points to consider when hand rearing foals include:

  • The milk replacer you use must resemble mare’s milk. Calf and lamb milk replacers are not suitable as they are too high in protein and fat and too low in lactose. Unsuitable milk replacers will cause problems like scouring and stunted growth.
  • Foals will suckle from their dams many times a day, drinking their milk in frequent small meals. When hand rearing foals, this feeding behaviour needs to be mimicked by feeding many small feeds a day. This can be time consuming.
  • A buddy needs to be available to keep the foal company, provide some body warmth and teach the foal how to graze and ‘be a horse’. Buddies are also important as a source of manure foals can eat to populate their gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria. Ideally the foal’s buddy should be a healthy and calm horse or pony.

Hand rearing an orphan foal requires patience and a commitment to the health and nutrition of the foal, however it can be a very rewarding experience. Here are some pointers to help you successfully hand rear a foal.

Selecting a milk replacer

When choosing a milk replacer you should look for one that will closely resemble mare’s milk. Mare’s milk is lower in protein and fat than cow’s milk, but higher in lactose. Mare’s milk replacers should contain around 18 % – 22% protein, 13% – 15% fat, 50% – 55% lactose and less than 0.5% fibre and should be fed as a 12.5 % solution (meaning you should mix 125 grams of milk powder per 875 mls of water). Using a milk replacer that is too high in protein or fat and too low in lactose can lead to problems like scouring and stunted growth. Vet prescribed low lactose milk formulas are NOT suitable for foals.

Emergency Milk Replacer

If your animals are anything like mine they won’t choose 10 am on a Tuesday morning to land you with an orphan foal, it will more likely be 11 pm on Christmas Eve. It might take you some time to source a suitable milk replacer, but in the interim you can use the following formula which we have with many foals with good success:

125 g Skim Milk Powder
125 g Whole Milk Powder (you can use calf milk replacer, but be sure to make sure it is safe for foals)
1.75 L Warm Water

Blending the skim milk powder with the whole milk powder reduces the fat content and increases the lactose content of the milk to make it more like mare’s milk.

Feeding Milk Replacers

Using a high quality Mare’s Milk Replacer will only be effective if it is fed correctly. Feeding too much, too little or large meals of milk replacer will cause problems like stunted growth, a pot-bellied appearance and scouring or diarrhoea. Following the guidelines below will give you the best results:

How much to feed

The following table provides a guideline for the amount of milk to feed your foal:

Age Mare’s Milk Replacer (amount per day)
Newborn Colostrum**
1 – 3 days 1 L/10 kg BW
3 – 7 days 1.5 L/10 kg BW
1 – 4 weeks 2 L/10 kg BW
1 – 4 months  2 L/10 kg BW

BW – bodyweight
* More information on colostrum below

If a foal is not achieving the weight gain you want, increase the amount of milk being fed to a maximum of 2.5 litres per 10 kg of bodyweight. If a foal is gaining too much weight, reduce the amount of milk being fed until his rate of growth is at a more appropriate level.
All foals must have constant access to clean fresh water and should always have lucerne hay or chaff as well as grass hay or pasture available. A creep feed can also be introduced around 2 weeks of age. Information on using a creep feed is below.

Mixing Guidelines

Mix 125 grams of Mare’s Milk Replacer per 875 mls of of fresh, warm water and mix thoroughly with a whisk until dissolved (follow manufacturer directions if they differ from this). Be sure to keep all mixing and feeding equipment clean. Wash buckets and teats in hot water after every use and clean with soapy hot water at least once a day.

It is best if milk is mixed fresh for each feeding. However if time is a constraint, the foal’s daily ration of milk can be mixed ahead of time and kept covered in a cool area or refrigerated until it is used. Any milk that is not used after 24 hours should be discarded.

Feeding Frequency

Foals drink milk frequently in many small meals from their mother. Feeding milk to orphan foals in large meals causes the milk to rush through their stomach and small intestine undigested. This will result in the foal getting very little nutritive value from the milk and also means the sugary milk will be fermented in the foal’s sensitive hindgut. This will lead to scours and may also cause the ‘pot-bellied’ appearance so common in poddy fed animals.

To avoid these problems, orphan foals must be fed milk replacer in as many small meals as possible. The following table should be used as a guide to the number of times a foal should be fed each day. The foal’s daily milk intake should be divided equally into the number of meals it will receive per day.

Age Number of feeds
Newborn Colostrum**
1 – 3 days 12 – 16 times/day
3 – 7 days 8 – 12 times/day
1 – 2 weeks 6 – 8 times/day
3 – 4 weeks 4 – 6 times/day
1 – 2 months  3 – 4 times/day
3 – 4 months  2 – 3 times/day

These feeding frequencies should be used as a guide only. Feeding this frequently is time consuming and difficult if only one person is involved. If feeding this frequently is not possible, feed as often as you are able, with a minimum of four feeds per day being acceptable after the first week. The more frequently you can feed, the better results you will get.

Getting your foal to drink from a bucket will allow your foal to feed frequently without you needing to be there. See below for more information on bucket feeding.

Feeding Methods for Milk Replacers

Orphan foals are best introduced to the milk replacer through bottle feeding and then taught to drink from a bucket once they are used to not suckling from their dam and accustomed the taste of the milk replacer. Bucket training can start from 2-7 days of age. Where possible in the first one to two weeks, milk should be consistently fed at body temperature. After this time it is acceptable to feed milk at the foal’s environmental temperature.

A small bottle fitted with an infant’s or lamb’s teat is ideal for bottle feeding. When bottle feeding, it is important to keep the bottle at a height so that the foal’s nose is below the level of its eyes. In this position, the foal can swallow easily and the risk of milk being inhaled into the foal’s lungs as it sucks is reduced. The bottle should also be shaken occasionally during feeding.

Once the foal is readily drinking the milk replacer, the foal can be taught to drink from a bucket. It’s best to begin when the foal is hungry. Offer the foal milk in a wide dish and stimulate drinking by allowing the foal to suck on a milk-wet finger. Gradually draw the foal towards the milk so the foal’s mouth is in the milk. Take care to keep its nostrils out of the milk. Once the foal starts to take in milk, remove the finger. Repeat this process until the foal learns to drink on its own. This may require some patience, but it is worth the effort.

Once the foal is drinking from the dish, begin feeding from a light coloured plastic bucket, 30 cm in diameter and 20-25 cm deep. To stop the foal from standing in its bucket or tipping it over, secure the bucket to a wall or fence at a height that is below the foal’s chest. Alternatively, build a small hay bale barrier with bales on 4 sides of the bucket to allow the foal to easily reach the milk but stop it from tipping over the bucket.

Once the foal is used to drinking from a bucket and is regulating the amount of milk it drinks in one meal you can leave milk constantly available to the foal so it may drink its milk in many small meals. If you do leave milk constantly available be sure not to exceed the foals total daily allowed intake and replace the milk with fresh milk and thoroughly clean the bucket at least twice per day in winter and four times per day in summer.

If you find that your foal is drinking all of the milk you are leaving out in one or two large meals you will have to continue providing milk in as many meals as you can manage in one day, using Table 4 as a guide. Allowing a foal to drink large meals can result in stunted growth and scouring.

Creep Feeding

A high quality creep feed specially formulated for foals can be introduced to supplement milk intake starting at two weeks of age. Providing foals with a creep feed has been shown to improve the growth and development of young foals.

A foal creep feed should contain 16 to 20% high quality protein with good levels of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine from milk and plant sources like soybean. It should also be fortified with minerals to support sound bone development and vitamins to support muscle growth and a strong immune system.

Unrestricted access to clean, fresh drinking water should be provided near the feeding area and Lucerne/alfalfa hay or chaff as well as grass hay or pasture must be made freely available.

Weaning

An orphan foal can be weaned once it is confidently grazing pasture and growing well at around 4 months of age. If the foal is doing very well and time to care for the foal is limited it may be weaned at 3 months. If the foal is doing poorly and time is available to care for the foal you should continue to supplement it with milk until 5 months of age.

To wean the foal, gradually reduce the amount of milk it is receiving by 0.5 to 1 litre per day, depending on how quickly you want to wean the foal. At the same time, gradually increase the amount of creep/concentrate feed and Lucerne/alfalfa chaff to 120 g/10 kg of bodyweight. If the foal is to be weaned into a group of weanlings that are eating a different diet, introduce the new feed slowly as you decrease the amount of milk and creep feed.

Ideally, an orphan foal should be weaned into a group of other weanlings to encourage normal psychological development. However, if the foal is behind other weanlings in stage of development it may be best to keep it separate and continue supplementing it individually until 6 months of age. Once the foal is allowed to run with other weanlings or horses, continue to carefully monitor the foal for any nutritional, health or growth setbacks.

Rearing Healthy Orphan Foals

Keeping a close eye on your orphan foal and getting to know its personality and normal levels of activity will allow you to quickly notice when the foal isn’t as alert, active or hungry. Changes in a foal’s behaviour may signal a problem and you should be on the lookout for signs of scouring, colic, poor appetite and fever. If you are concerned about your foal’s state of health you should always contact your veterinarian.

Some important aspects of raising a healthy orphan foal are outlined below:

Colostrum

Colostrum is the first milk available to the foal from its dam and contains high concentrations of antibodies (immunoglobulins), protein, energy, minerals and other essential nutrients necessary for foal survival, well-being and resistance to diseases in early life.

The newborn foal has little active immunity against disease and must absorb antibodies from the colostrum through the wall of the intestine to gain protection. Antibodies are complex proteins designed to combat infection. If a foal does not receive enough antibodies from colostrum in the very early stages after birth its risk of infection will be high and chance of survival low. A foal’s ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum is highest immediately after birth and declines in the following 24 hours.

Regardless of which rearing method is chosen, it is important for foals orphaned at birth to receive an adequate intake of colostrum prior to being placed on a foster mare or given a milk replacer.

It is important to provide the foal with at least 750-1000 ml/10kg of bodyweight of colostrum within 12 hours of birth. The total volume of colostrum a foal needs can be divided into equal quantities and fed to the foal by bottle every hour for the first 12 hours of life. If you can’t obtain colostrum from the foal’s dam, high quality frozen colostrum is available. Contact your veterinarian if you require colostrum. Frozen colostrum should never be heated to thaw and certainly should never be microwaved it as this will destroy the antibodies.

Ideally a foal’s level of immunity and resistance to infectious disease should be assessed at 6 to 10 hours of age by testing for serum IgG antibody levels. If IgG levels are low, the foal should be given additional colostrum with high IgG levels if this is available. If high quality colostrum is not available, the foal will need intravenous administration of IgG antibodies. Failure to achieve adequate IgG levels will leave the foal exposed to disease and infection, making it difficult for the foal to thrive, and ultimately reduce its chance of survival.

Navel Disinfection

The navel of a newborn foal is the simplest and most likely site for direct infection to enter the foal. To prevent navel infections, the umbilical cord stump should be soaked for several seconds in a 1% povidone-iodine solution twice daily for 3 days. The foal’s environment should also be kept clean to reduce the chance of naval infection (more on hygiene below).

The naval should be regularly checked for signs of infection including, heat, reddening, moistness, swelling or discharge. If the naval does become inflamed you should seek immediate veterinary advice.
Observe Bowel Action

Meconium (first faeces) should be passed by the foal within one-half to 6 hours after birth. If you notice a foal repeatedly getting up and down, straining with its tail up and an arched back, switching its tail and making repeated attempts to urinate or defecate without passing meconium, seek veterinary advice.

Scour Prevention and Treatment

Scours may be caused by environmental stresses, internal parasites, viruses, bacterial infections, overfeeding, feeding changes, gastric ulcers or feeding poor quality or inappropriate milk replacers and feeds. Foals suffering from diarrhoea can become dehydrated and depressed within hours and therefore appropriate and rapid treatment is vital and it may be necessary to seek veterinary advice. The following management practices can help in preventing scouring in foals:

  • Ensure the foal receives adequate colostrum and has good levels of serum IgG antibodies.
  • Keep the foal’s environment clean.
  • Use an appropriate foal milk replacer. Using unsuitable milk replacers with high levels of fat like those designed for lambs or calves will result in scouring.
  • Avoid feeding more than the recommended amount of milk replacer or feeding large quantities of milk in a single meal. Large amounts of milk overload the ability of the digestive tract to digest and absorb the sugars and protein in the milk and causes light coloured pasty diarrhoea and a “pot-bellied” appearance.
  • Never mix table sugar, brown sugar or other sweetener to foal milk replacer.
  • Keep the feeding routine the same and make any changes slowly. This includes milk temperature, feeding method, time and person doing the feeding. Introduce new feeds including creep feeds slowly.
  • Minimise environmental stresses.
  • Minimise environmental stresses.

If scouring is due to overfeeding milk replacer or feeding an inappropriate milk replacer, first get the foal onto an appropriate replacer. These foals should then be fed a diluted milk mix (30% weaker) in more frequent and smaller meals until scouring stops. They can then be gradually reintroduced to a full strength mix and decreased feeding frequencies.

If you suspect the scouring is due to an infectious organism or internal parasites you should contact your veterinarian immediately to devise a suitable treatment plan. If you are unsure what is causing the scouring, contact your veterinarian for a diagnosis.

Internal Parasite Control

Internal parasite control is an important component of foal husbandry. Failure to control intestinal parasites will result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in slow growth rates, a rough coat, general unthriftiness and stunted development. A cough may also be evident.

Foals can be drenched with a foal safe deworming medication at 6 to 8 weeks of age. Seek veterinary advice if you feel a foal needs drenching earlier than 6 weeks. Care should also be taken to deworm nanny mares or the foal’s buddy at the same time. Paddocks should be rotated to reduce pasture worm contamination levels, with foals, nannys and/or buddies placed onto a fresh pasture paddock following drenching. Drenches should be rotated to avoid worm resistance. Ideally you should use faecal egg count tests on your orphan foal to ensure your worming program is effective.

Vaccination

Foals should be vaccinated for tetanus. If the colostrum the foal received was from a mare that was not vaccinated for tetanus in the last trimester of pregnancy or from a mare whose vaccination history was unknown, the foal should also be given the tetanus antitoxin at 1 to 2 days of age. Foals may also need to be vaccinated for strangles and other infectious or insect borne diseases. Discuss your foal’s vaccination requirements with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate schedule.

Hygiene

Keeping a foal’s feeding equipment, as well as its environment clean will reduce the likelihood of infection and diseases occurring. Good hygiene practices include:

  • Regularly change the foals bedding to keep it clean and dry.
  • Soak the foal’s umbilical cord in a 1% povidone-iodine solution twice daily for 3 days.
  • Keep all milk replacer mixing and feeding equipment clean. Wash buckets and teats in hot water after every use and clean with soapy hot water at least once a day.
  • When bucket feeding, provide the foal with fresh milk at least twice a day in winter and 4 times per day in summer and thoroughly clean the bucket each time you change the milk.

Prevention of Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD)

Developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) is a term used to describe a group of diseases that affect the structural soundness of a growing horse. DOD includes osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), angular limb deformities, physitis, contracted tendons and wobbler syndrome. DOD can be caused by a number of factors including nutrition, genetics, exercise, environmental and management factors and trauma or injury.

The most critical time in a young horse’s growth and development is from birth to 9 months of age, during which any deficiencies in minerals or an oversupply of energy or restriction in exercise may predispose the foal to DOD.

The following preventative measures can be implemented to help minimise the incidence of DOD from developing:

  • Provide a balanced diet with particular attention given to the amounts of energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc and manganese in the feed. Use FeedXL to devise balanced rations for your orphan foal as he progresses through various stages of growth and development.
  • Avoid rapid growth rates and growth spurts by regularly monitoring weight gain and condition score of foals and weanlings.
  • Adjust milk and creep feed intake according to the foal’s growth rate and development to maintain a steady and adequate rate of growth. If foals are gaining too much weight reduce the amount of milk or creep feed these foals are receiving until a more desirable rate of growth is achieved.
  • Provide adequate exercise for normal bone and joint development. Twelve hours or more of daily paddock exercise should be made available to foals and weanlings.
  • Avoid excessive stress and trauma to young, growing bones and joints by not allowing foals and weanlings to exercise to fatigue or exhaustion.

Shelter

An orphan foal requires special care and it is important to keep the foal warm and dry as it will be deprived of the warmth of its dam. Provide a clean, dry, well ventilated but draught-free environment that is sheltered from the wind and rain. Foals should be stabled at night when the weather is wet and cold and covered with a lightweight rug for additional warmth. If the weather is warm and dry there is no need to stable the foal, but a companion should be available to the foal if it is left in a paddock or yard overnight.

Provide clean and soft bedding that is low in dust. Clean shavings are most desirable as they are lowest in respiratory irritants and toxins.

Allow foals daily access to outside paddocks for exercise and sunlight. An ideal paddock size is half a hectare per foal. Paddocks should be well drained, sheltered and rotated if possible or kept clean with droppings collected daily. Fences must be safe, secure and highly visible.

Companionship

Providing the orphan foal with a companion animal is a good idea for socialisation and to prevent the foal from fretting. A gentle and calm pony or horse is the best companion as they will help the foal learn how to graze, eat various feeds and will also teach them the ground rules of being a horse. Using another horse or pony also ensures manure is available for the foal to eat in order to establish healthy populations of beneficial bacteria in the hindgut. If a suitable horse or pony is not available, a poddy lamb or calf or a mule, donkey or goat may be used as a companion for the foal.

A rewarding journey

Raising an orphan foal is a labour intensive and at times difficult task. But, when done well you can achieve near normal growth rates and a well mannered and developed foal. We hope that the information provided here helps you to achieve success should you have the misfortune of being landed with a foal that cannot be raised by its natural dam.

Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist and horse nut. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and going on 12 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in August, 2014. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.

Feeding the weanling

Weanling stage is a critical stage in the growth and development of a horse and nutrition plays a pivotal role. Weanling nutrition influences the horse’s final size and perhaps more importantly plays a large role in determining the horse’s long term structural soundness.

As for all horses, a weanling’s energy, protein, mineral and vitamin requirements must be met. This article discusses each of these dietary components in some detail and 3 potential diets for weanlings in different circumstances are given.

Energy

The amount of energy (or calories) you provide in your weanling’s diet is what is going to determine how quickly the weanling grows and how much body condition it is carrying. Growth rate and body condition in weanlings are, in my opinion, the two most important parameters to manage. If you allow your weanling to grow too quickly or carry too much body condition you will put it at increased risk of bone and joint diseases. If the weanling grows too slowly you will potentially end up with a stunted horse that doesn’t reach its genetic potential.

Managing the amount of dietary energy your weanling eats allows you to manage how quickly your weanling is growing and how much body condition it carries. The table below gives you a guide to how much weight a weanling should gain per day (please note these growth rates are for a horse expected to mature at 550 kg).

Age Estimated Growth Rate
5 months 0.8 kg/day
6 months 0.7 kg/day
7 months 0.65 kg/day
8 months 0.6 kg/day
9 months 0.55 kg/day
10 months 0.5 kg/day
11 months 0.45 kg/day

Maintaining weanling growth rates around these levels will reduce the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases and ensure your weanling is not being stunted.

A weanling’s body condition should be maintained between 4.5 and 5.5 (on the Henneke System of condition scoring that uses a scale of 1 to 9) and should never be allowed to exceed a condition score of 6 (see FeedXL Newsletter #1 for more information on body condition scores).

If your weanling is growing slower than you would like, the amount of feed (and therefore dietary energy) you are feeding needs to be increased. If your weanling is growing too quickly or is too heavy in condition, the amount of feed (and therefore dietary energy) must be reduced. Growth rates and condition scores are the two parameters that will determine HOW MUCH feed your weanling needs.

You should also be sure to feed sources of dietary energy that are easy for young horses to digest. If you are feeding cereal grains and particularly corn and barley they should be cooked before they are fed (eg extruded, micronised, steam flaked, boiled). Oats doesn’t need to be cooked but it is best fed rolled as many young horses don’t chew oats well enough to be digested. High energy fibres like beet pulp, soy or lupin hulls and copra meal can also be used for weanlings.

Protein

Because a weanling is growing and developing, protein and protein quality are critical in ensuring you are providing all the right building blocks for growth and muscle and bone development. Not providing enough protein, or providing poor quality protein will result in a stunted weanling with poor muscle development. Low protein diets can also contribute to weanlings becoming fat, as they don’t have the building blocks to grow, so instead they lay down all their excess dietary energy as body fat.

High quality forages and particularly alfalfa/lucerne can provide much of a weanling’s daily protein requirement. Where additional supplementary feeds are needed, soybean or soybean based feeds are the best source of protein for growing horses as they contain high concentrations of the essential amino acids needed for muscle and bone development. Canola meal, lupins and faba beans are also good sources of protein. Cottonseed meal should be avoided as its content and availability of the most limiting amino acid, lysine, is poor.

Many people are scared of feeding protein to their growing horses for fear of causing developmental disease in the bones and joints. Protein DOES NOT cause developmental orthopaedic diseases and restricting protein intake below requirements will stunt growth as well as affect bone and muscle development. Be sure to always meet the protein and lysine requirements given by FeedXL for your weanlings.

Minerals

Minerals play a MAJOR role in determining the future structural soundness of your weanlings. Failure to meet your weanling’s mineral requirements, and particularly calcium, phosphorous, copper, zinc, manganese and sodium means your weanling won’t have the necessary nutrients to build sound bone and cartilage. Deficiencies of other minerals like iodine and selenium can also limit growth rates and contribute to muscle disease.

I am yet to analyse a pasture or hay sample that contains a concentration of these minerals high enough to meet a weanling’s requirements, meaning a weanling will ALWAYS need to be supplemented with minerals at the very least. FeedXL will calculate your weanling’s specific mineral requirements and show you if its diet is or is not meeting those requirements.

Depending on your weanling’s need for additional calories, minerals can be supplemented in the form of a complete feed, where the minerals are mixed in with a sweetfeed/textured feed or pellet or can be fed as a low dose rate mineral supplement or balancer pellet. Weanlings should also always have access to a salt lick.

Vitamins

Vitamins are essential for all horses and weanlings are no exception. Failure to meet vitamin requirements can slow growth rates, affect feed intake and predispose the weanling to infectious diseases. Weanlings grazing green pasture and supplemented with a good quality complete feed, supplement or balancer pellet will generally have their vitamin requirements met. If you are feeding weanlings under drought conditions, particular attention must be paid to their vitamin intake as it is green pasture that usually provides a majority of their vitamin intake.

Again, FeedXL will calculate your weanling’s vitamin requirements and will show you if any deficiencies exist in its current ration.

Example Diets

The following diets are examples of diets that may be used for weanlings 6 months of age weighing 250 kg and growing at 0.8 kg per day (which are parameters typical of a horse that will mature at 550 kg bodyweight).

Diet 1 – Weanling growing too quickly or carrying too much body condition

0.5 – 1 kg/day High Quality Ration Balancer Pellet
300 g/day Full Fat Soybean
Free Choice Pasture or Hay* and a Plain Salt Lick

Diet 2 – Weanling growing at the desired rate and in good body condition

1.5 – 2 kg/day Concentrated Complete Feed
Free Choice Pasture or Hay* and salt lick

Diet 3 – Weanling growing slower than the desired rate (needs a push along)

2 – 3.5 kg/day Complete Feed
Free Choice Pasture or Hay* and salt lick

* If the pasture or hay is poor quality, feeding 2 kg/day of lucerne hay will lift the overall quality of the forage.

Don’t Hold Them Back

All too often I see young horses underfed because their owner is so petrified of bone disease. The key to growing out sound young horses is to feed a balanced diet, NOT a restricted diet. If you feed correctly to maintain a steady growth rate whilst meeting all of the youngster’s protein, mineral and vitamin requirements, the risk of bone and joint disease is radically reduced. Feeding correctly in the first 12 months of a horse’s life gives you the best chance at having a well grown yet sound horse in the future.

 

Dr. Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist and horse nut. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and going on 13 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses.

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in March, 2014. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.

Feeding pregnant mares

Pregnant mares carry your hopes and dreams, be it for the next big champion or just a quiet riding companion. Regardless of what you are breeding, good care of the mare during her various stages of pregnancy has long term impacts on both her and her foal’s long term health and athletic capacity. Here are some tips for keeping mares healthy and breeding sound, strong and athletic foals.

Tip #1: Don’t let mares get fat

Mares in their early stages of pregnancy don’t need many, if any additional calories than they needed when they weren’t in foal. All mares are different, so to really know how much feed your pregnant mares need you should condition score regularly. Pregnant mares should ideally be maintained at a condition score of 6 and should not be allowed to exceed a score of 7. Having mares too fat can:

  • Reduce their milk production when they foal.
  • Put unnecessary strain on their hooves and joints, making them heavy and uncomfortable.
  • Lead to difficulty foaling (though this isn’t necessarily proven to occur).
  • Make it difficult to fall pregnant again, particularly if a mare is forced to lose weight just prior to or immediately following foaling.

As mares progress through their pregnancy their requirement for energy and protein does increase, so you may find you need to feed additional feed to maintain their body condition score. For more information on Condition Scoring read our FeedXL Newsletter #1. If you are feeding pregnant mares, get in the habit of running your hands over them every time you feed them. Doing this means you will quickly pick up if they are putting on more condition than they need and will allow you to adjust their feed intake accordingly.

Tip #2 – Don’t let mares get skinny

A pregnant mare shouldn’t be allowed to drop below a condition score of 5. Mares that are any lighter will fall away quickly after foaling, reducing the body energy and protein reserves for milk production and also switching off the reproductive cycles, making it difficult or impossible to get in foal again. Thin mares may also be more susceptible to disease.

Again, get in the habit of running your hands over your mares to assess whether they need more feed to hold them in the desired body condition. If you notice their ribs becoming easier to feel or their topline and rump starting to fall away, you will need to increase the amount of feed they are getting. Because so much room is taken up in the mare’s abdomen late in the pregnancy you will likely need to feed high energy grains (make sure they are cooked—see FeedXL Newsletter #18) or high energy fibre feeds that use ingredients like sugarbeet pulp or soybean hulls to allow them to increase their energy intake enough to hold their body condition. High fat feeds are also useful for late pregnant mares.

 

Tip #3 ­ Make sure mineral and vitamin requirements are met

Meeting the mineral and vitamin requirements of pregnant mares during early and late pregnancy is crucial to:

  • Promote the sound development of their foals.
  • Prevent deficiencies like iodine that can affect the thriftiness and survival of newborn foals.
  • Prevent problems in the mares like retained placenta and the associated laminitis.
  • Maintain a strong immune system in the mare and foal.
  • Maintain the long‐term health and soundness of the mare for future reproduction.

While pregnant mares can often be maintained on good quality pasture with little additional feed, without supplementation of minerals, a pasture‐only diet will almost certainly have quite dramatic deficiencies of copper and zinc and depending on the geographical location may also be very deficient in calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iodine and selenium.

If the mare doesn’t receive the additional minerals she needs to support herself and her growing foetus she will draw them from her own body reserves. However if she is required to do this for many consecutive breeding seasons it will eventually have implications for both her and her future foals’ long‐term health, soundness and athletic ability. One study has shown that foals born to mares early in her breeding career have less structural problems than foals born later in that mare’s life, which may indicate that over consecutive pregnancies, mares can run out of reserves of minerals that directly impact the sound development of her foals.

FeedXL allows you to quickly and easily determine your mare’s requirements for these critical minerals as well as vitamins and helps you make sure the diet you are feeding is meeting her requirements through all stages of pregnancy.

Tip #4 – Feed high quality protein

During pregnancy a mare requires high quality protein to meet her own requirements and those of her growing foetus. If the pasture your mare is on is of low quality (for example sub‐tropical C4 Type pastures, or pasture that has matured, gone to seed or browned off), add some high quality alfalfa/lucerne hay to raise the quality of protein in the forage component of her diet.

If you are using supplementary feeds on low quality pasture, select feeds that use legumes and oilseeds with quality protein, including soybean, lupins, faba/field beans and canola meal. Low quality protein sources like cottonseed meal shouldn’t be used for pregnant mares. FeedXL will help you make sure you are feeding enough good quality protein to your mares to produce healthy foals and will also stop you from overfeeding protein which will make your mare’s diet very expensive.

Tip #5 – Make the most of pasture if you have it

Pasture is an excellent source of energy and protein. Feeding a diet that relies largely on pasture has two main positive effects. The first is it will make for an economical diet, with pasture being one of your cheapest feeds available. Secondly, a high fibre diet will keep your mare’s gastrointestinal tract healthy, reducing the risk of problems like colic (something to be avoided in a pregnant mare).

To really know what is in your pasture and what your mare needs in addition for her diet to be balanced, you should have your pasture tested for energy, protein and minerals levels. Once you have had your pasture tested we can enter the results into your FeedXL account so you can see what is in and what is missing from your specific pasture. Then you only need to add what is missing from the mare’s diet. Equi‐Analytical can run a full analysis starting at $26 USD. It is well worth the investment. If you rely on hay for your mare’s main source of forage this too can be tested and the results put into FeedXL.

Summary

Because it is so often said that a pregnant mare needs little more than a horse at maintenance, it is sometimes mistakenly thought that mares and particularly early pregnant mares can be fed diets of forage only with little or no supplementation. However while a pasture or good quality hay diet may be sufficient to maintain your mare’s bodyweight, it will almost certainly be lacking in critical nutrient including minerals that can determine if your foal is born structurally sound or not.

Keeping mares in the correct body condition, making sure you meet mineral and vitamins requirements from day 1 of the pregnancy, feeding high quality protein and using pasture when you can will help you to breed sound foals that are healthy and full of life when born. It will also mean your mares can remain healthy and able to produce strong foals with good structural soundness year in, year out. Being pregnant may not appear to be hard work, but it will take a toll on your mare’s body if she is not properly cared for.

 

This newsletter by Dr. Nerida Richards was originally posted to the FeedXL user forums for FeedXL subscribers in May, 2010. If you would like be among the first to receive our newsletters then please consider subscribing to FeedXL.