From six weeks of age onwards, the foal becomes increasingly independent of its mother, and management of the foal at this stage must reflect this.
Turnout is essential to help muscle coordination and development, fitness, digestive and circulatory system function, and independence. It is best if mares and foals are turned out together in groups. This will help the foal’s social awareness and appreciation of hierarchy and is also an ideal starting point for gradual weaning systems.
Handling of the foal should continue to develop and reinforce the firm basis laid down in early life. Halter breaking should be well established (Figure 8.1). Leading lessons should develop this and well before weaning the foal should be happy to be led without resistance both behind and away from its mother. This can only be achieved by continuous and patient training, using short, frequent lessons. The foal should also be accustomed to travelling in company and then alone.
The older foal continues to develop its independence, spending time away from its mother, playing and interacting with other foals. This is invaluable in developing social awareness and in preparation for survival on its own with other horses.
From about two to three months of age onwards forage and hard feed (often creep feed) become an increasingly important component of the foal’s diet. From this stage onwards the mare’s milk quality declines, encouraging the foal to seek nutrients elsewhere. The quality of creep feed fed must be carefully assessed to ensure that it provides all the nutrients required for optimum growth and development. It must be remembered that optimum growth is required not maximum growth.
The period of fastest growth is three to six months when, as a rough guide, a foal destined to make 15–16hh (150–160cm), 400–500kg in weight may gain 1kg to 2kg/day. Growth rate then slows between six and twelve months to 0.5kg/day. By one year of age the foal should not weigh more than 80% ideally (60–70%) of its expected mature weight (320–400kg) and will have reached around 90% of its mature height. From twelve months of age growth rate slows further and so weight is gained more slowly until mature size is achieved around four to five years of age. The foal does not only increase in weight and size but there is a variation in which structures grow when. The first structures to grow and mature are the bones, followed by muscle and finally fat until growth is complete at mature size. The diet must, therefore, reflect these changing growth patterns, so although all components of the diet are essential (protein, energy and minerals) there are times when certain nutrients are particularly important, for example in the youngest animals (the first three months) nutrients for bone growth are of prime importance (calcium and phosphorus), followed in slightly older animals (around six months) with a particular requirement for nutrients for muscle growth (protein), followed finally by a higher requirement for nutrients for fat deposition (carbohydrates or energy in the diet).
Careful rationing and a matching of feed to requirements is necessary in order to maintain development and also to avoid excessive weight gain which puts strain on muscles, tendons, joints, the circulatory system etc. This is especially important at this stage, while these structures are still developing, as undue stress can cause permanent deformity. As with younger foals, the need for quality protein, calcium and phosphorus is high. Creep feeds normally contain 20% protein, 2.9Mcal/kg energy, 0.8% calcium and 0.6% phosphorus. The quality of protein, as well as the quantity, is particularly important in growing foals, as protein, together with calcium and phosphorus is essential for bone growth and development.
The adequate supply of essential amino acids such as lysine (those which the body cannot make itself) is extremely important to youngstock. Even if the total protein content of the diet is correct, the horse may still suffer from protein deficiency due to the lack of an essential amino acid. Lysine is often deficient in youngster’s diets. At three months the foal requires 15g lysine/day, though fresh green forage may have adequate levels of lysine, they are often very variable and, therefore, concentrate feeds with a high lysine content 0.6–0.7% should be fed. As the foal gets older its total intake of forage and concentrates increases and by four months of age, even though its total daily requirements will still be increasing, the concentration of nutrients within the whole diet can be reduced. Concentrate feeds for older foals normally have a lower protein concentration (16%) than creep feeds even though the total protein requirement for a moderately growing youngster at six months (750g/day) is greater than at four months (720g/day).
At two months of age 0.5kg of creep feed per day is adequate, by three months foals should be consuming 0.3–0.5kg/100kg bodyweight/day (about 1kg/day). It is important that the mare cannot eat the creep feed as this may discourage the foal from eating and in addition creep feed has a higher protein concentration (20%) than the mare requires (11%). Specially designed creep feeders are available which allow the foal to feed undisturbed by the mare. The amount of feed per foal should be monitored and if foals are run out in a group it is best if possible for them to be fed individually. This may prove difficult but will ensure that each foal is fed according to its need and adjusted to its weight gain. Free access to creep feed allows greedy foals to gorge themselves at the expense of smaller less dominant individuals. Free access to fresh grass or forage is essential and access toa mineral supplement is good practice.
Older foals are susceptible to all the worms which infest adult horses:
large and small strongyles, bots, tapeworm, lungworm and pinworm but they will not have yet developed resistance to ascarids. Worming older foals should, therefore, not only follow the same principles used when worming adult animals but should also include wormers active against ascarids. A regular worming regime should be established from three months of age and from then on all youngsters should be wormed with other animals on the stud as part of a regular worming programme and a clean grazing policy followed.
Until four to five months of age the best protection against the more
common diseases, such as tetanus and influenza, is provided by
colostrum. After this, vaccination should be started. Immunisation against strangles or rabies may be considered in the older foal depending on disease prevalence.
Teeth and feet care
Foot problems can be identified and possible correction considered
within the foal’s first year of life. In addition to regular trimming and
handling, this can ensure that minor faults and problems can be identified before training begins. Overzealous care of a young foal’s feet, should be avoided as it can make existing problems worse. Indeed, many problems will correct themselves given time. Corrective trimming should only be done by a trained and experienced farrier or veterinary surgeon. Deformities, such as an incorrect hoof, pastern angle toes out or in, excessively long toes or club foot can all be helped by corrective trimming.
By six weeks the foal’s first and second incisors should have erupted. The wolf teeth then follow at five to six months, followed by the third deciduous incisors at six to nine months. Attention to teeth beyond familiarisation with opening the mouth to allow the teeth to be viewed should not be required at this stage.