Most foals are weaned at about 4 to 6 months, just when their nutritional needs begin to outpace their mothers’ milk supply. Designed to provide all of a foal’s nutritional needs at birth, a mare’s milk yield naturally starts to decline after the first month or two. By the time the foal is 4 months old, he must supplement his nursing with other food sources, such as forage (hay and pasture) and grain. Accustoming him to these nonmilk sources well before weaning time not only will help him maintain consistent growth throughout the transition, it will also help to avoid the “kid-in-the-candy-store” syndrome. In this situation, weanlings with no previous exposure to grain overeat, either because of the novelty of it or to compensate for previously inadequate nutrition.
Your foal will taste-test grass and hay as early as a few days old. But because the microorganism populations in newborns’ hindguts need several months to develop fully, he will have trouble digesting this forage initially. As he matures, his forage intake will increase and play a larger part in his diet. It’s important to continue encouraging his appetite for forage as he approaches weaning time. (A 4-month-old weanling should eat enough daily forage to equal between 0.5 and 1 percent of his body weight.) Think of him as a fussy toddler who won’t eat his vegetables unless they’re really tasty. Turn him out on a productive pasture or entice him with good-quality, palatable hay (fresh and clean, early-cut).
A growing foal requires high levels of protein, calcium and other minerals. After weaning, most horse owners provide some of this nutrition in the form of a concentrate balanced specifically for young horses. If you plan to feed your weanling grain, introduce him to it when he’s about 1 or 2 months old, starting with just a handful at a time and increasing the amount incrementally.
One good way to introduce nursing foals to grain is with a creep feeder: a four-sided, single-railed enclosure built either in the corner of the fence line or standing alone in the center of the pasture (the latter is preferable for group feeding, as it allows escape on all four sides). While mature horses are too big to duck under the rails, foals can come and go as they please. Young foals usually will take a few bites at a time and then return to their dams. This feeding method thus reduces the risks of digestive problems, such as colic and ulcers, brought on by large meals.
If you have only one foal, make the creep feeder sides about 8 feet long, set at your mare’s chest height. For each additional foal, add another 2 feet in length to each side. Space individual, shallow plastic, rubber or wood pans or troughs far apart and observe the group dynamics carefully to be sure that no foal is hogging the trough. Remember to remove excess feed daily to prevent spoilage.
If you don’t use a creep feeder, offer your foal small meals when his dam is being fed. He can eat out of her feeder—in which case, be sure the feed meets his nutritional needs, which are higher than the mare’s in some respects. (Many commercial dealers offer “mare-and-foal” concentrates, which work well in these circumstances.) If the mare doesn’t share well, feed your foal separately, either in an adjoining stall or just outside her stall (if it opens into a safe enclosure). Or mount a foal feeder, which has openings too narrow for an adult horse’s muzzle to access, for him on the wall of her stall.
After weaning, it’s easiest to regulate your foal’s grain ration by feeding him individually. However, if it’s more convenient to continue feeding him in a group, monitor his grain intake carefully. Without the option of his mother’s milk, he may be tempted to eat more grain than he needs. On the flip side, he may eat too little grain if other foals bully him away from it.