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How to feed your weaned horse this winter

Weaning is a traumatic time for mare and foal, both psychologically and nutritionally.

The way you feed your foal before and after it can help ease the trauma and set it on the right track for the coming year. Different courses for different horses THE AIM of feeding the majority of part-bred, native and warm blood type foals would be to achieve a consistent, moderate and, therefore, safe level of growth. Thoroughbred horses bred for the track, however, have to be fed to grow rapidly so that they reach their mature height and weight far earlier. These obviously look better at the yearling sales and need to be more mature as they are expected to perform, in the same way as an adult horse, from two years old. Good Thoroughbred studs know how to achieve rapid growth whilst maintaining soundness. This is a highly specialised feeding area, about which entire books have been written, and so should be left to the experts in that field to come up with the best diet and feeding regime. Whilst rapid growth may win you rosettes in showing classes in the short term, a more moderate and steady growth rate will carry less risk of problems such as developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) in the long term. It will also be a lot easier on your pocket! Developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) So what exactly is DOD? It is a descriptive term that covers an array of joint and bone disorders seen in growing horses. This includes osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD; defective bone and cartilage at the joint surface), epiphysitis (enlarged, painful growth plates) and also flexure and angular limb deformities. The cause of DOD is multi-factorial and genetics play a big role. Horses with a genetic predisposition for a large mature size (eg warmbloods) often develop skeletal problems regardless of how well they are fed and managed as youngsters. So it is important to realise that it is not always the keepers fault if DOD occurs. Management and nutrition are two things that we can do something about to help alleviate any genetic predisposition. Creep feeding From fairly early on in lactation, a foal will probably have been picking at his mother’s feed. This is great as it gets their digestive systems used to dealing with hard feed. It is worth noting that his requirements are different from his mother’s and it is advisable to purchase in a feed specifically intended for the foal for at least a month prior to weaning (preferably longer), this at least ensures continuity of feeding. There are products that are designed to fulfill the needs of both the mare and the foal and these can be a more practical route to take (ie Dodson and Horrell’s Suregrow and Mare and Youngstock). A trial carried out at Kentucky University highlighted the benefits of creep feeding. Foals who were creep fed lost less weight at weaning as their digestive systems were used to the feed prior to weaning. It was found that the creep fed foals experienced less problems later in life due to the fact that they exhibited a steady growth and there was no spurt of compensatory growth after the post-weaning slump, which can be the primary cause of growth disorders. In general creep fed foals have a far less stressful weaning with little or no interruption in growth. Consistent growth Consistency of growth is just as important as the rate of growth – in fact, research has shown that it may be more important. In a trial where feed was restricted in foals for four months and then uncontrolled; 65% of them developed deformities. None of the control horses had any problems. Sudden changes in growth rate must, therefore, be avoided. This can be quite tricky when it comes to the spring flush of grass, so make sure that you keep an eye on your youngsters growth rate and condition score. Never allow your foal or yearling to become obese. In fact it is better to be able to see the faint outline of their ribs at this age than to let them get fat), and adjust the energy content of their feed accordingly. It is energy and not protein that makes them fat! Forage Good quality forage (hay or haylage and, of course, grass) is important for the weanling. It should make up the greatest proportion of his diet and be of good eating/respiratory quality as well as a decent nutritional specification. Good bones It was once thought that high protein diets were the cause of DOD but research has well and truly dispelled this myth. It seems that feeding high energy diets with an imbalance of nutrients is the most common cause. Diets for young horses must be formulated with great care. Nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus and other minerals and vitamins must be provided in the correct amounts relative to each other and in balance with the amount of energy fed. This is because growing horses fed high energy diets with nutrient imbalances may grow faster than their bones can develop, leading to DOD. Quality protein (which should be listed on the feed label as coming from soya bean meal (hipro or full fat) and/or lysine, methionine etc) is crucial to help prevent the development of DOD. Bone consists of protein and mineral components. The protein (osteoid) makes up 20% of mature bone. The mineral components are primarily calcium and phosphorus, which is why it is essential that these are in the correct proportion to each other (calcium:phosphorus should be 2:1 -1:1, the ratio should never be allowed to slip in the opposite direction in favour of phosphorous). Protein forms the framework on which these minerals are deposited and so is an essential part of the young horse’s diet, especially as it is also crucial for muscle development, healthy hooves and coat condition. Exercise is good for them Environment is the third essential bone building factor. Foals and all youngsters should be turned out as much as possible in as large a space as possible. In fact, the way most youngsters are kept in Scotland, out for the majority of the time, is ideal. This is because bone strength and development also requires exercise. Animals that are shut in during the crucial first two years will have lower bone strength compared to their outdoor counterparts and this can lead to future lameness problems when it comes to bringing them in to work. Forced exercise, however, (eg lunging in circles etc) is not good for the developing skeleton and should, therefore, be avoided. Key nutrition We have ascertained that for healthy skeletal development the young horse requires minerals (particularly calcium and phosphorus and in the correct ratio), vitamins, trace elements and protein. Energy is required for growth but should be adjusted, according to grass/forage quality, climate and paddock size (amount of exercise), to maintain consistent but moderate growth. For feeding youngsters it is always worth feeding a compounded feed to ensure that there are no deficiencies. Proprietary feeds will be balanced for all the important nutrients. Most feeds formulated for non-thoroughbreds are of the concentrate type (a specialised balancer), to provide all the protein, minerals etc in a balanced form that the youngster requires without excessive amounts of energy. This can be fed alongside a quality alfalfa or grass based chaff according to condition. These include Suregrow (pellet) and Mare and Youngstock mix from Dodson and Horrell. Some standard balancer pellets can also be used, eg Equilibra 500, but please check with the manufacturer for feeding advice. Energy can be adjusted accordingly by using forages (including grazing), oil and/or beet pulp. There is some indication that excessive starch (ie from cereals) fed to youngsters can lead to problems with insulin resistance in later life and may also have a link to DOD in those breeds predisposed to it. So the use of cereals (oats, barley) should be kept to a minimum and used if absolutely necessary. Care must also be taken that the feed is not made unbalanced as a result of using cereals. Seek advice Always seek advice if you are the least bit unsure as to what to feed your youngster. Specially formulated compound feeds are the safest and most appropriate way to feed your youngster to avoid any heart-ache. For non-thoroughbred types an appropriate balancer will fulfil requirements without providing too much energy.