By Roger Bourdon
Its so exciting isn’t it having a new foal around. I just love them, they are so gorgeous to look at and so vulnerable, that I find them completely adorable! OK, so that’s enough of my sensitive side, lets get on with some content.
First off lets say that the foal has been born healthy – it’s the care of the foal and therefore its mother, in its first few weeks that I’m going to cover here (I may later cover the period immediately after the birth and how you check that the baby is healthy, but I will have to do some more research for that).
Just like any new baby, they will need some extra care if they are to start life fit and healthy. Now is the time to really show that you care, and it starts straight off, in fact about 10 hours after the birth. This is when you need to start teaching the foal to be handled or teaching ‘restraint’ as some people call it. Don’t confuse this with ‘imprinting’. This comes later and after the foal and mare have done their natural imprinting.
Restraint means the foal must stand still, be rubbed all over, and have its feet pick up, held, touched and cleaned. Do not let the foal decide when you are done with his feet. Not teaching a foal to have his feet handled is the first sign of neglect, and all you are doing is making life hard for both you and the foal. This doesn’t have to be a big deal, and with such a cute creature it should be a pleasure so persevere with it and all things pertaining to getting the foal socialized and familiar with humans and their surroundings. You can even plan on having the feet rasped lightly about every five days—pay your horse shower to do it, or learn to do it yourself, but get it done…not caring for a foal’s feet is on-going neglect. While you are working on the foal’s feet, the foal is going to try to get away…this is when you teach restraint.
The next thing I’d like to point out is that keeping a foal in a box stall or small pen for hours, days and weeks is not the right thing to do. As soon as the foal can get up and down easily—just a few hours after birth—he and mom should be in the biggest area you can find where they can and will exercise and move around freely. Get them out where they run and play and use those new muscles, tendons and bones, as that’s what will start the foal off developing well.
After they’ve been out all day you can bring them into the barn or stable for the night. This is where you continue restraint training. The mare and foal should be haltered and led to the barn. That doesn’t mean allowing the foal to run along all over the place, it means the foal learns to be lead properly and respect the handler. Within five days if the foal is haltered and taken out in the morning and haltered and led back at night, he’ll be a perfect little soldier, marching along beside you.
Now keep it up, the trimming of the feet, the restraint training, the leading properly—that’s a show of love and caring and protection. This foal isn’t going to suffer the fear, battles and abuses that so many foals will endure when someone decides they “have to learn it all now” so you are doing them a great kindness.
Next we’ll look at feeding the foal.
For the first three months the mare’s milk is usually enough to provide the foal with the best growth rate but it then declines to a level that does not provide what the foal needs. The extra nutrients required by the foal to continue their optimum growth rate from three months to weaning (which is normally four to six months) can be provided by creep feeding. Creep feeding also helps prevent developmental orthopedic disease or DOD by providing a balanced diet. You should begin creep feeding a foal around one month old. Until three weeks of age the digestive system of the foal doesn’t have enough enzymes in sufficient quantity to digest the sugars and starches that are present in horse feed. So until this time the foal should only be given a milk-based diet.
However there are some who would say that they should be exposed to hay or pasture straight off, so that they can get used to it. If they are turned out in a field during the day then the foal will undoubtedly graze a little but he’ll still rely on mum’s milk. I personally think that they should have access to grass or hay right from the start as it gets them used to it and reduces the stress they get when being weaned. But a word of warning. Don’t overfeed a foal – don’t give pellets or concentrated feeds. Your foal should be on the thin side, and not overfed and fat. A fat foal can get joint problems in later life.
Creep feeding foals helps them to cope better with the weaning stress. These foals will also turn out to be larger and heavier at the same age than foals that are not creep-fed. The foals will have a lower risk of getting DOD and contracted tendons. This process of creep feeding foals also makes it easier on the mare.
For the first three months of a foal’s life you should feed one pound of creep feed per month of age if the mare is producing a normal amount of milk for the foal. The amount of feed should then be increased to one to one and a half percent of body weight until weaning. The amount of feed should be adjusted according to the desired growth rate and quality of the available hay. The foal should be given enough hay to eat one percent of their body weight each day.
Take a look at the feed you are giving the foal and check its contents. The proper nutrition for a growing foal is twenty-six percent protein and ten percent fat with a high-quality milk protein and balanced levels of any required nutrients.
At one month old you should start feeding pellets and gradually increase the amount until the foal is eating about two pounds each day. Until the foal is weaned you should decrease the amount of milk replacer. Continue feeding pellets at two pounds each day after weaning and add a feed that is specifically formulated for the growing horse. When you add in the new feed you also need to start reducing the amount of pellets you feed so as not to overfeed the foal. The total amount of feed you give the foal should be equal to one percent to 1.75 percent of their body weight after weaning is complete. Hay should be given to the foal at one percent of their body weight.
Roger Bourdon has written a number of books dedicated to horseback riding, horses and the health of horses. His site http://www.anyhorsebackriding.com is dedicated to lovers of horses. It contains plenty of free information in newsletters, articles and contains loads of resources all about horses. Products such as books and DVD’s are also available for purchase
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