Feeding Foals (All Stages & Requirements Explained)

In our article on adult horse diet, we discussed every aspect of an adult horse’s nutritional intake. But feeding foals is a lot different than adult horses.

From getting the foal to the ground to start with the feeding process, every single moment is much important for the development and musculo-skeletal health of the newborn.

Now, what do foals eat?

The primary source of nutrition for a newborn horse is mare milk. If the foal is an orphan or if the mare isn’t producing enough milk, then you should consider buying a milk replacer. 1-3 weeks after birth, the foal will automatically start nibbling on some hay. 

If you are fretting over the new addition to your stable and worried about foal feeding, then worry no more.

We’ll explain everything to you.

Let’s dig in!

Everything You Need To Know About Foal Diet

If you think that helping the mare to deliver the foal was the only thing you needed to look after and that mother nature will take care of all the rest, then you could not be wrong enough.

Not your fault, though! This is a common misconception among a lot of horse owners. However, the reality is far from it.

For the optimum health conditions of the baby horse, you need to vigilantly care and feed the foal for at least the first 6 months — that is until it starts weaning.

Not only that but managing the nutritional needs of the mare during the last three months of the pregnancy is also essential in maintaining good health for the newborn.

Want to know more about the breeding nature of horses? Here’s an in-depth article on the breeding behavior of horses.

Nutritional Phases Of A Newborn Horse

Now, coming to the foal diet — a newborn horse actually goes through three main nutritional phases:

  • Nursing
  • Creep Feeding
  • Weaning

All of these phases are extremely important, considering most of the body systems and athletic capabilities depend on nutrition and diet provided to the foal during its first year.

In this time, tissues and organs of the foal start adjusting to the diet provided in correspondence to its nutritional requirements also.

Additionally, tissue turnover and reproduction rate are also enhanced and it is only at this time that we can get the maximum positive output of an appropriate foal diet.

The First 7 Days: Nursing

Foals are much different from human babies in that most of their development takes place before birth.

Within the first hour only, they will be able to stand and in the next one, feeding like their life depends on it (and yes, it does!)

Now, what to do if the mare isn’t producing enough milk or if the horse is an orphan? Buy a milk replacer as soon as you can because your foal would be unable to develop normally without mare milk.

We suggest trying Foal-Lac as it comes recommended by a lot of vets.

Here is the deal about foal feeding in the early days:

Usually, the foal nurses on mare milk for at least 3-4 times each hour. However, within the first month, the feeding frequency will be reduced to only once an hour. If you find your foal feeding for extended periods, like half an hour of each hour, it’s possible that the dam is suffering from lack of milk production.

In this case, ensure the proper diet of the mare and supplement the newborn with milk pellets.

Here is the milk production math:

  • During the first 2 months of lactation, the mare produces 2.3-3.8 kg of milk per 220 lbs (100kg) of body weight daily.
  • In the late lactation phase, only 2 kg of milk per 220 lbs of body weight is produced on a per day basis.

You will find a foal of 110 lbs consuming 15 liters of milk in a day. This can help you estimate how much your foal should be feeding on a daily basis.

As an equestrian or a horse owner, it is an utmost duty for you to make sure that the production, quantity, and quality of the mare milk are sufficient for the youngling.

Wondering how a mare and its foal communicate? Here’s an article on how horses communicate with one another.

Colostrum: The Most Important Meal For a Foal

An important part of feeding foals is colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk that starts producing and secreting just before the mare starts foaling and continues for the next 24 hours after the foaling is done.

This milk is high in antibodies (immunoglobulins), which are large protein molecules immunizing newborns from pathogens and infections.

The most intriguing factor regarding colostrum is that it can only be consumed within the first day, as the foal’s intestinal lining is receptive to antibodies for only the first 18 hours.

After that, not only does the intestine stop allowing the absorption of antibodies, but the concentration of antibodies also starts decreasing.

In fact, according to research, within only 4-8 hours of giving birth, the antibodies can be reduced by 15% in the colostrum.

This clearly proves the need to get the foal sucking on mare milk in the initial hours of birth for a disease-free and better health condition.

What Are The Nutrient Contents Of Colostrum?

In addition to the antibodies, colostrum is also rich in other nutritional components like vitamins, proteins, calcium, and phosphorus to fulfill a foal’s energy requirements.

Moreover, colostrum also acts as a laxative, facilitating bowel movements to excrete the meconium which, if not done right, can cause colicky and difficulty in breathing.

How To Improve The Quality Of Mare Milk?

The quality of colostrum in specific and mare milk, in general, can be improved by following these steps:

  • Attend to the mare’s feeding needs appropriately in the last trimester.
  • Vitamin E, corn oil, and probiotics can be added to the mare diet.
  • Use Brix refractometer to check colostrum quality.
  • If the reading is low, supplement the foal with extra colostrum.

Looking for good tips on grooming horses? Take a look at this article on taking care of horses.

2 Weeks To 3 Months: Creep Feeding Foals

Do you find the idea of your beloved foal nibbling on the dam’s feces weird?

Well, even if you do, let me tell you that it is completely normal and natural.

Within a few days of birth, foals can be seen getting its fill from the dam’s food and feces. This not only helps when the mare milk is insufficient but also establishes the normal gut flora for easy digestion of regular solid feed.

This extra feeding along with the milk consumption is called creep feeding. Normally, creep feeding is not nutritionally essential until after the 8th week.

This is the time when production and nutritional content of milk start reducing and mare milk is not adequate in fulfilling the energy requirements of the foal.

This will not only provide the foal with pre-weaning growth, but also prepares it for regular eating during the weaning phase.

Take care of the following four points when creep feeding your foal:

  • Not all foals need creep feeding. If you think your foal is faring well on the dam’s milk, forage, and concentrates, then there’s absolutely no need for extra nutrition.
  • Don’t start creep feeding before 90 days of age. It is around this time that the mare’s milk starts to wane.
  • Foals should be provided creep feed amounting to only 1 lb (0.45 kg) per 100 lbs of body weight a day.
  • Creep feed should contain approximately 14-16% crude protein, 0.7-0.9% calcium, 0.5-0.6% phosphorus, 50-90 ppm (parts per million) copper, and 120-240 ppm zinc.

4-7 Months: Weaning Foals

By 4 months of age, the foal is grown beyond the mare milk’s capability to fulfill nutritional requirements.

Although this phase can be very taxing and stressful for foals, the pre-weaning phase helps them to prepare their body for solid food consumption already.

For weaning, take care of the following points:

  • Concentrates should be around 1-1.5% of the foal’s body weight.
  • The concentrate formulation should contain 14-16% crude protein, 0.8% calcium, 0.5% phosphorus, 50-80 ppm copper, and 100-200 ppm zinc.

Orphan Foal Diet

No matter how harsh it may sound, but orphan foals are much difficult to handle.

Not only do they require a lot more caring than a regular foal but they are much higher maintenance, considering they will need your attention almost every hour in their early days.

Furthermore, it’s also thought that orphan foals will remain stunted and weak even after a lot of care. However, this might not be the case if you take absolute care of all of its nutritional needs and monitor its growth properly.

The most important point for foal feeding orphans is to feed it colostrum, keeping in mind that it can only be absorbed within the first 18 hours of the birth.

It’s best to store some frozen colostrum in advance and feed it to the newborn after thawing it with the help of warm water.

How To Store Colostrum for Horses?

In general, foals can only consume 4-6 ounces of colostrum. However, some mares can secrete a lot more than needed for their newborns, especially during the very first meals.

In such cases or when a mare has lost her youngling, it’s always better to store the extra colostrum in case of an emergency situation.

Here is the deal about storing colostrum, though:

During the first 15 hours of the birth, mares can be hand-milked to get 5-8.5 ounces of colostrum right after the foal is done feeding. You can then store it in colostrum banks.

It’s necessary to store colostrum in sterile and clean plastic bags and freeze it immediately to be able to use it within a year.

Feeding Guidelines For Orphaned Foals

Before getting to the specifics, we should be clear about three points that must be taken care of at all times.

Make sure to:

  • Always discard the leftover milk in the container, especially if it is present for more than 4 hours under hot weather.
  • Allow all-time access to freshwater.
  • A Milk replacer should be provided in a shallow bucket. We recommend Foal-Lac as they come highly recommended by vets

Now coming to the feeding pattern.

Note: All of the guidelines are for an average horse of 110 lbs (50 kg) feeding 2-2.5% of body weight in kg.

Feeding of an orphan foal should be taken care of as follows:

For First 7 Days

  • 3-4 cups of milk replacer should be provided every 2 hours.

For Day 8 To Week 3

  • 4-5 cups of milk replacer should be provided every 3 hours.
  • A half flake of leafy alfalfa, half cup of grain, and 1 cup of milk pellets should be fed to the foal daily.

For Week 3 To Week 6

  • 5-6 cups of milk replacer should be provided every 4 hours.
  • A half flake of leafy alfalfa, a half flake of grass, 1 cup of grain, and 2 cups of milk pellets should be fed to the foal daily.

For Week 6 To Month 3

  • 5-6 cups of milk replacer should be provided every 4 hours.
  • 4-6 cups of milk pellets, 2-3 cups of grain, and free choice of hay should be fed to the foal daily.

Beyond 3 Months

Now, this is the time when a foal starts weaning.

Do the following, after 3 months:

  • Wean the foal off milk replacer.
  • Free choice of hay, grain, and milk pellets should be fed to the foal daily.

Foal Feeding FAQ

There are lots of questions pouring in from our readers. So to address them, we created this FAQ Section.

Do Horses Feed Their Babies Milk?

Yes. Just like all the mammals, mares secrete milk during their lactation period.

This mare milk is fed to foals during the first few months of their life to fulfill their nutritional requirements.

It is essential for foals to consume colostrum during the first 16-24 hours for a disease-free life.

How Do You Take Care Of a Newborn Horse?

Here are the main points you should keep in mind when caring for newborn horses:

  • First of all, make sure the foal is breathing normally. Clear the airway by cleaning its mouth and nostrils, if need be.
  • Clean the umbilical stump with iodine after it has been separated from the mare naturally.
  • Ensure the timely provision of colostrum.
  • Arrange a veterinarian for a full foal check-up.
  • Make sure that the newborn is not suffering from constipation or diarrhea.
  • Plan all of the vaccination and deworming routines timely and regularly.
  • Keep your foal familiar to you by providing care by hand.

How Much Milk Does a Newborn Foal Need?

At day 1, a foal can consume mare milk amounting to 10% of its body weight.

This can be increased to 25% of the bodyweight gradually till the weaning phase commences.

For instance, a foal of 100 lbs of body weight will need 25 lbs of milk for proper skeletal growth.

At What Age Do Foals Start Eating Hay?

A foal can start nibbling on hay anytime from 1 to 3 weeks.

This may include creep feeding, which is the deliberate feeding of grains and hay by foals for extra nutrition and energy.

The reason for this can be the lack of milk production by the dam or deficiency in nutritional components in the mare’s milk.

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