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Veterinarians ensure a healthy future
An overview of suckling and weaning in foals to foster a lifetime of nutrition.


Learned feeding behavior

With the foal and mare at pasture, foals are known to consume forage as early as day one, and by 1 week of age, they are eating solid food about 8 percent of the day. According to the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses 2007, by 3 weeks of age, foals spend almost 50 percent of the daylight hours eating solid feeds, pasture and creep grain.

Dams allow their foals to eat grain along with them, introducing foals to grain and other solid feeds at an early age. Foals confined with their dams will learn to eat solid food relatively soon and will begin to wean before six months, especially preferring grazing pasture vs. hay and grain.

The mare's nutrition

Is it necessary to supplement the prelactating mare so she can feed her foal with the proper concentration of nutrients within the milk, or is she able to mobilize that herself?

"If healthy, she is able to mobilize that herself," Paradis says. "But after the foal is born, there is huge demand on the mare to make milk, so if she's not getting sufficient calories, she's probably going to lose a lot of weight to her foal. You don't want to get a mare fat during pregnancy, but you also don't want her to be thin."

The average 1,100-pound mare will produce about 3 percent of her body weight in milk daily during the first months of lactation. The foal uses the energy from milk for both growth and exercise, about 175 kcal/kg/day, with an average weight gain of 2 to 4 pounds daily during the first month, almost doubling its weight within that period.

As a result, the mare needs to be on a ration to meet the NRC recommendations for energy intake and nutrient intake and ensure that her body condition score is appropriate for a healthy pregnant mare. "So you need to think about increasing her energy intake, particularly after the foal is born," says Paradis.

Transitioning to solid food

During the lactation phase, most owners will begin to give creep feed to foals to get them used to solid feed. Unless it's a food-aggressive mare, Paradis suggests letting the foal pick at whatever is presented to the mare. "If I wanted to feed the foal, per se, I would use a feed specifically for foals, or feed milk pellets, which you can mix in a sweet feed for the foal to transition to eating solid feed on its own as weaning approaches."

The foal can eat the dam's hay or eat with her at pasture. Pasture is excellent, not only for forage consumption, but also for developing motor skills as they're running around with others.

Most people wean foals between 4 to 6 months of age, and that's when the maltases in the large intestine are starting to function better. "So at that time, one might want to have a separate feeding tub for the foal," Paradis suggests.

Keeping tabs on nutrition

Monitoring the mother's bag and the foal's behavior can help you head off feeding problems early. (See the sidebar "Growing concerns"article below for additional factors to consider during foal development.) "If the foal is constantly at the mare, trying to get milk, and the udder is really flat, that probably means the mare is somewhat agalatic—she is not producing enough milk—and the foal is hungry," says Paradis. "You won't see appropriate foal weight gain in that situation. If the mare has a huge bag, one that is streaming and dripping all the time, it probably means that the foal is not nursing enough. And that is worth investigating."

Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.


1. Duncan P, Harvey PH, Wells SM. 1984. On lactation and associated behavior in a natural herd of horses. Anim Behav 1984;32:255-263.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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