Question: I'd like to know when I can feed my foal a supplement. He is 2 months old. If he's fed a supplement, will he grow too fast? After weaning, doesn't he need something for muscle and bone building?
Answer: The issue of feeding foals can be a complex one. Different breeds have different nutritional requirements, and the forage/grass situation on your farm can have a significant effect on what to supplement with. To prevent bone problems in most breeds of horses, it is important to avoid feeds that are excessively high in protein and to avoid sweet feeds and feeds high in sugar and starch. Breeds of horses that are easy keepers such as Morgans, ponies or Quarter Horses (without too much Thoroughbred blood in them) need feeds with 12 percent protein, occasionally as high as 14 percent, but I find very few need that much. There are many low starch feeds on the market, so check with your local supplier.
Thoroughbreds and horses with faster metabolism that require more feed still do not need sugars in their feed, but may be fine with a 14 percent protein feed. There is no need to go higher than this except in very special circumstances.
Foals do not need to look fat, just a nice bit of rib showing when you look at them. They should have nice muscling over their back, if the spine is sticking way up they may be too thin. Foals that get fat are prone to bone and joint problems. And foals that are fat, just like fat children, will be more likely to stay fat in later life and be prone to complications like laminitis.
The amount of grass and good hay you have available will determine the amount of grain needed. If you have plenty of grass, just a little grain added to the diet will be enough. Minerals are one of the most important supplements to consider when you have a growing foal. Free choice minerals provided to both the mother and foal are important. A few companies make a mineral supplement without added salt (such as Rush Creek Minerals) and let you feed salt separately. Horses do better with this type of choice, and growing foals are no exception. Foals will eat more minerals as they go through a growth spurt, and then may stop eating minerals for awhile until they grow again. Adult horses will also vary their intake through the year.
If the foal is healthy, there is no need to add tons of supplements. A basic vitamin and mineral supplement from a high quality company is all that is needed, especially for foals who need only a little bit of grain. The free choice minerals will give them the extra mineral they need, so you do not have to give high-powered foal supplements. Companies such as VitaFlex and Advanced Biological Concepts make excellent quality supplements, and there are many more.
Foals that are having problems may need additional supplements but that is for another day. Keep your program simple and do not overfeed your foal.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.
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