What Foals Eat When: The First Days, Weeks, MonthsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · December 18, 2017
“The foal appears to make feeding the second priority after breathing,” is a common quote among veterinarians and equine nutritionists. Indeed, a foal is driven to stand within an hour of birth and nurse within two hours.
“A foal’s most important meal is that first milk, colostrum, that is packed with infection-fighting, life-saving antibodies and other goodies like protein, energy, and vitamins,” confirms Clarissa Brown-Douglas, Ph.D., nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (Australia).
But what comes after that first suckle? How do you know your foal is nursing enough (or too much) and growing appropriately? When should “real feed” be introduced?
First Days and Weeks
- The mare’s colostrum will be replaced by milk within about 24–36 hours. Generally, a foal weighing 110 lb (50 kg) will consume approximately 15 liters of milk daily.
- In the first few days of life, a foal can nurse as frequently as every 10 minutes, but that usually decreases to once per hour within the first month.
- A healthy mare’s milk provides all of the energy and nutrients a foal needs to support rapid, but steady, growth.
- Foals often nibble at grass or the mare’s rations, and they can even be seen eating the feces of adult horses. Both behaviors are normal.
The Next Few Months
- Foals learn to eat hay and concentrates. If foals are on pasture, it might take them longer than if they spend part of every day in a stall observing the dam. This might involve creep feeding.
“Creep feeding allows pre-weaning adaptation to a post-weaning nutritional program as well as other benefits. It involves providing a nutrient-dense product designed to meet the demands of a young, growing horse. The feed is not suitable for adults and is therefore placed in a bin or enclosure that only the foal can access,” explains Brown-Douglas.
Again, ensuring a steady rate of growth to maximize skeletal health is imperative during this period. This is easily achieved by regular weighing of the growing foal, using electronic scales if available or a weight tape around the horse’s belly.
“Monitoring body weight every 30 days or so will allow breeders to determine if a steady growth rate is being achieved. Many breeders find the use of growth-tracking software, such as Gro-Trac™ helpful in managing the growth of their young stock,” suggests Brown-Douglas.
Weaning (4–6 Months)
Many foals are weaned during this period, although timing of weaning is variable. The large intestines of foals have been developing over the past few months and now contain the appropriate microorganisms needed to ferment forage. Weaning can be stressful. Growth slumps during this period are not uncommon, making nutritional supplements targeted for growing foals desirable, such as Nano-E. Additional tips and strategies for uneventful weaning are available here.