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Feeding and Fitting Young Horses for Show and Sale, Part One: NutritionBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 26, 2011

There are two groups of horses that are assessed and therefore valued to a large extent on their conformation and presentation—the halter horse and the sales weanling or yearling. "Fat is a pretty color" is an age-old adage, and some sales and halter horses are simply overfed, becoming too fat. In the modern sales and show arena, being fat is simply not enough. To be successful in preparing sales horses and halter horses, the fitter must be able to differentiate fat from fit.

It may come as a surprise that one would consider the young show horse and the Thoroughbred sales weanling and yearling in the same context. But let's face it, the horse sale is a horse show and many times horses are worth more on sale day than they will be the rest of their lives. Prepping these horses involves a combination of optimal nutrition, state-of-the-art health management, specific exercise, and superior genetics, tempered with hard work and attention to detail.

Preparing a weanling for show or sale is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. A clear understanding of the nutrient requirements of the horse and the critical balance between feed intake and exercise are necessary as they impact condition and soundness.

The weanling feeding program should be based on a balanced ration using palatable, easily assimilated nutrient sources that meet the weanling's requirements for protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins. Often people fall into the trap of feeding all-grain feeds to weanlings that may encourage fattening but do little to ensure optimal growth and bone development. High protein does not cause bone problems in young, growing horses. In fact, more cases of acquired flexural deformities and developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) are caused by improper mineral balance and overfeeding energy than from any other nutritional cause.

The amount of feed that an individual foal or weanling can tolerate is extremely dependent upon the individual, and it is crucial to adjust individual feeding levels based on individual performance (growth rate and degree of fatness). It is common to feed a weanling intended for a futurity or a sale a minimum of one pound (0.45 kilogram) of feed per month of age right up until the time of the event.

In general, a 15-16 % protein concentrate should be to these horses in addition to a fat supplement and good-quality clover or alfalfa (lucerne) hay that was harvested in early stages of maturity. A high-quality, high-energy hay is needed for these horses as this maximizes the utilization of fibrous feeds in meeting the energy requirements and decreases the amount of starch these weanlings process. Also, in using a high-quality, early-cut hay, the unflattering appearance of gut-fill that is often associated with a mature hay of high lignin content (hay belly) can be avoided. Often hay intake is restricted just prior to the show or sale to reduce a pot-bellied appearance.

In selecting the appropriate concentrate for weanlings, it is important that the total nutrient profile of the feed be considered, not just the protein content. All too often, due to formulation errors on the part of the feed manufacturer or misuse of a feed (primarily cutting a prepared feed with oats) by the consumer, the nutrient/calorie ratio of concentrates fed to weanlings is unbalanced. Horse owners should be educated to the fact that the nutrient profile of a feed designed for a specific class of horses is critical and that by tinkering with a feed this balance of nutrients is destroyed. Similarly, feeds formulated for older horses do not get the job done with respect to macro- and micromineral intake when fed at appropriate levels to meet the young horse's energy requirements.

For one thing, a weanling does not eat as much as an adult horse, so you need to have higher concentrations of critical nutrients. Feeds containing heat-processed barley and corn are useful because the energy in the grain is much better digested and assimilated after steam-flaking, micronizing, or extrusion. A feed used for weanling sales or show prep should contain added fat from oil, stabilized rice bran, or sunflower seeds. This fat is a concentrated source of energy and helps minimize grain intake, as well as putting a shine on the coat. 

Beyond the feed bin, the real art involved in fitting weanlings is the exercise and grooming they receive. Judicious use of free longeing, time on a mechanical walker, and hand-walking can be very useful tools depending on the individual. Foals run, romp, and play nearly from birth, and to think that a careful program of forced exercise is detrimental and risky is folly. Daily grooming, rinsing with warm water, braiding or banding manes, and conditioning tails are all necessary for weanlings if optimum condition is to be achieved.

With respect to turnout, there are several factors to be considered and somewhat of a difference between what works for the sales weanling and what works for the show weanling. In general, turnout for futurity weanlings works to a limited extent. If hard feed intake is limited and weanlings are turned out on good pasture, they tend to get a little belly on them; on the other hand, if weanlings are turned out for a little time on good pasture or in barren paddocks, this time out can be effective in encouraging exercise.  One must let the individual serve as a guide in this respect. Some halter futurity weanlings will tolerate pasture turnout and some will not. For sales weanlings, this appears to be a little less critical as it is more acceptable for sales weanlings to carry both a little hair and a little belly.

Sales and show weanlings should be blanketed (rugged) as soon as night temperatures drop to below 50o F (10o C) degrees. In many cases the blanket helps make the hair lie down, as much as to make the hair remain short. One downside of blanketing is that the weanling is often turned out after the sale with no winter coat to withstand the winter chills. It seems that hair growth and shedding for the weanling are somewhat heritable as is hair quality in general. The use of artificial lights may be of value in some programs. Day length should remain a constant 15 hours through the use of lights if they are to be used. One negative aspect of the use of lights for weanlings is that they appear to become refractory to the lights over time (in other words, you can only fool Mother Nature for so long). Some weanlings kept under lights are somewhat challenging to fit as yearlings the next spring.

Feeding at least one-half cup (125 ml) of oil daily or a minimum of one pound (500 g) of stabilized rice bran (or a higher fat supplement), and a biotin, zinc, and methionine coat conditioner for a month before the sale will also really help the coat. As much as two-thirds of a pound (300 g) of added fat per day has been fed in some instances when it was critical that more energy be provided without increasing starch (grain) intake. If horses are gradually adjusted to fat intake, a great deal of energy may be fed to the weanling in the form of fat. If a weanling has physitis or other DOD, it is preferable to feed a high-fat rather than a high-grain diet, but these young horses still need supplementary protein, minerals, and vitamins, which is usually fed in the form of a low-intake balancer pellet

The last thought for the weanling deals with weaning time. In general, five months of age seems to be the most ideal time to wean, all things considered. However, it is best to let the individual weanling tell you when to wean. If a weanling is top-heavy and too fat or starts to get upright in the pasterns or show severe physitis, there are good reasons for weaning as early as three months of age, primarily so nutrient intake can be controlled. A general rule of thumb is to wean a foal at least 45 days before a sale or futurity. If that is too early for late foals, wean five days before a show. Forty-five days gives adequate time to get the weanling over the post-weaning slump and into good shape, and five days before a show does not give the weanling time to fall apart.

See Feeding and Fitting Young Horses for Show and Sale, Part Two: Fitting Tools.

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