Feeding the Weanling Requires Careful Consideration

Few topics in equine nutrition stir more controversy than feeding the weanling. Many factors add to the confusion of providing nutrition at this critical stage of growth. For example, weanlings may have different commercial endpoints. Some will be shown in halter futurities where maximum growth and condition are required at a young age. Other weanlings will be prepared for sale, again requiring a “well-grown” individual. Still other weanlings will be kept on the farm to be used as replacement horses or future performance horses. These horses often have less pressure on them to look their best at a young age.

Another point of confusion rests with the breed of horse being fed. The phrase “you can’t feed an Arabian like a Thoroughbred” highlights the impact of differing genetics on growth rate and ultimately on the amount of feed the weanling is given. The influence of genetics on nutrition is well understood in other farm animals where it is common to have a different feeding program based on the genetics of the animal. In horses, the genetic diversity within a breed is often as influential a factor as the genetics between breeds. Quarter Horse weanlings bred for halter classes have a far greater capacity for muscle growth and development than weanlings bred for performance classes.

Simply looking at the physical differences between halter horses and reining horses should point out the genetic differences and thus the need for different feeding programs. Finally, “good old difference of opinion” is a factor in feeding young horses. Some people like to feed grain to babies; others feel that feeding grain to young horses is the root of all evil. Although feeding weanlings is confusing, the fact remains that nutrition mistakes (overfeeding or underfeeding) made early in life can lead to structural problems that limit performance potential.

Creep Feeding – Preparation for Weaning

One of the more complex management decisions that the breeder has to make is whether or not to creep feed foals. Creep feed is feed (usually grain) that is available to the foal, but not to the mare. Creep feeding has achieved somewhat of a negative connotation with many horse owners. The term “supplemental feed” is a more accurate term indicating that foals have access to a controlled amount of nutrients in addition to mare’s milk. The reasoning behind supplemental feeding of the foal is twofold. First is the issue of providing nutrients that may not be in adequate supply in the combination of mare’s milk and forage (pasture/hay). The National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses published in 1989 does not give specific feeding recommendations for the suckling foal other than to say that supplemental feed prior to weaning may be desirable in foals nursing mares that are poor milkers. Recent research, both in the United Statesand Japan, has indicated that foals require supplemental feed to achieve growth rates desired by today’s horse owners. These studies revealed that foals not only require supplemental energy, but also supplemental protein and minerals.

Breed differences and forage consumption will indicate the amount of supplemental energy necessary for a suckling foal to reach industry standards for growth. In some cases, foals may derive enough calories from milk and forage to achieve adequate growth. This foal does not require any additional calories but would require mineral fortification. This represents a common scenario with warmblood foals. They get plenty of calories from milk and pasture and typically do not require supplemental grain to assist in body weight gain. However, feeding these foals a low intake (one pound per foal per day), low-calorie source of vitamins and minerals would ensure they are properly fortified with nutrients critical for sound growth without making them obese.

A Thoroughbred foal given the same access to pasture and mare’s milk may not be able to achieve industry standards for growth. So how does a horseman tell if his foal needs four pounds of well fortified grain concentrate or just one pound of a concentrated protein, vitamin and mineral supplement? The answer lies in body condition. If foals are well conditioned and are gaining an acceptable amount of weight to achieve their commercial endpoint on milk and pasture, choose the low-intake supplement. On the other hand, if the foal requires extra calories to keep pace with industry standards, feed the higher-volume, higher-calorie grain concentrate. An easy way to track foal weight gains is to utilize an equine weight tape or scale. Both will allow you to check the weight of your foal against normal growth rates for foals of that age and breed. Normal growth curves can be obtained from the National Research Council or the nutritionists at Kentucky Equine Research.

The second reason for feeding foals prior to weaning is to teach them to eat the feeds they will be expected to consume once they are weaned. Introduction of grain and hay will help prevent a post-weaning slump in growth. Post-weaning growth depression is often followed by surges in growth once the weanling learns to eat. This deceleration followed by rapid growth is thought to be a prime opportunity for the foals to get developmental orthopedic disease (DOD). DOD is a term used to describe a number of related diseases affecting the maturation of cartilage into bone in young horses. Clinical manifestations of this disease include physitis (commonly but incorrectly called epiphysitis), osteochondrosis, osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), cervical malformation (wobbles), contracted tendons and angular limb deformities. Serious cases of DOD are economically devastating, eventually leaving valuable weanlings essentially worthless due to crippling lameness.

Example Weanling Diets

The philosophy behind feeding weanlings rests largely with expectations for individual horses. These expectations can be divided into three broad categories: futurity weanlings, weanlings to be sold as weanlings, and weanlings to be kept. The following discussion will highlight the potential differences in the feeding programs for each type of weanling.

Futurity Weanlings

A futurity weanling is usually between four and ten months of age. These weanlings are of light horse breeding (Quarter Horses, Paints, and Appaloosas, for example) and are shown at halter. Many weanlings are shown in futurity classes as it is the first opportunity to get young horses seen and promote stallions. Evaluation of weanlings is based on conformation, size and way of going. Therefore, it is an advantage for weanlings to be large-framed and stout. To achieve maximum growth and condition, weanlings are often fed large amounts of grain. It does little good to tell handlers raising futurity horses that they are feeding a young horse too much concentrate. If handlers do not maximize growth and condition early, they will not win a prize at the futurity. Balancing maximum growth, maturity and condition with sound skeletal development is the challenge of feeding futurity weanlings.

Normally, weanlings that are going to be prepared for futurities are kept in the barn from the time they are weaned until the time they are shown. This makes meeting nutrient requirements easier in some respects because horsemen do not have to account for the variation in pasture nutrient quality. One important consideration with futurity horses is weaning time. Weaning time is affected by the month of birth, the milk production of the mare and the date of the futurity. Foals born early in the year can remain on the mare longer than foals born in April and May. This extra time foals can spend with mares is often an advantage because the foals will continue to grow in a relatively stress free environment. Foals that are born late run the risk of having to be weaned early. If foals are weaned too close to a futurity, it is likely that the weanling will appear pot-bellied due to a nearly unavoidable post-weaning slump. The diet for futurity weanlings must be extremely palatable since they are being asked to eat large volumes of feed.

The forage source should be a high quality mixed (alfalfa and grass) hay or a fine-stemmed alfalfa hay. Mixed hay is preferred because of the more ideal balance (ratio) of calcium to phosphorus. Hay should be offered to the weanling at a rate of approximately nine to ten pounds per day. The grain portion of a weanling diet is the primary vehicle for delivery of essential nutrients. Depending on the nutrient content of the hay, the grain will provide the majority of the energy (calories), protein, minerals and vitamins. Therefore, a grain concentrate designed for a weanling should be fortified with high quality protein, additional calories (from fat) and readily available minerals and vitamins. Generally, a grain concentrate appropriate for a weanling will contain at least 14% crude protein. If grass hay is being fed, the grain concentrate will contain between 16 and 18% crude protein. Many people are afraid to feed young horses too much protein for fear of causing bone problems. However, mild excesses in protein intake will not cause bone problems.

Instead, imbalances in mineral intake or extremely rapid growth triggered by excess energy intake are likely causes of bone anomalies. The easiest method to determine if the grain contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals is to read the feed tag and be sure the grain concentrate is intended for use in young, growing horses. Grain intakes common for weanlings being prepared for futurities would approach nine pounds per day. Finally, an additional source of dietary fat is a must to provide calories for weight gain and essential fatty acids for hair and skin health. Vegetable oil and/or high fat stabilized rice bran are good sources of fat for these young horses.

Many people incorrectly believe a halter horse need only be fat to be successful. In fact, modern futurity weanlings must display muscle tone. Exercise is the method of choice to achieve muscle tone. Many methods of providing forced exercise are available, including hand walking, longeing, ponying, and treadmills. Ponying is becoming increasingly popular with weanlings since the horses are not being asked to constantly turn as is the case with longeing. If the duration and intensity of exercise are too great for the individual weanling, injury and weight loss can occur. On the other hand, weanlings confined to stalls without adequate exercise will possess less bone and muscle mass than exercised weanlings. Any exercise program should be adjusted to the conformation and body condition of the individual horses. A single exercise program will not fit every weanling. Proper feeding and exercise are a large part of getting futurity babies to look the part. The other part of the program is health care and grooming. Weanlings must be wormed on a regular basis and have the necessary immunizations and grooming to look their best.

Sales Weanlings

A young horse destined to be sold as a weanling is much easier to feed compared with the futurity weanling. Weanlings that are being sold usually spend a portion of their day or night confined to stalls with the remainder of the time spent outside where they can graze and exercise.

The combined effect of more time grazing and playing in a pasture and less time in a stall translates into fewer digestive problems with greater muscle tone and bone mass. Because forage is a large portion of their diet, sales weanlings typically eat fewer pounds of grain in a given day than futurity weanlings. Most sales weanlings would not exceed six to seven pounds of grain per day. On the other hand, it is rare for a sales weanling not to require at least some grain. Even weanlings described as “easy keepers” would require some extra nutrients (calories, protein, vitamins and minerals) provided by the concentrate to make themselves presentable for auction. Dietary fat is typically included in the diets for these weanlings as a means of assisting with hair and skin quality.

Weanlings to be Retained

Weanlings not going to sales or shows are typically fed in a more conservative manner. These weanlings do not have to grow at a maximum rate or look their best at a young age. Instead, horsemen are trying to raise young horses that will be sound athletes. Generally the best way to assess the impact of the feeding program of these weanlings is through assessment of body condition. Weanlings should maintain a thrifty appearance in which the horse’s ribs cannot be seen but can be easily felt. Monitoring weight along with an accurate condition scoring system allow for the assessment of quality and quantity of growth.

The amount of grain necessary to maintain a thrifty appearance varies with the factors mentioned in the introduction of this article. Being able to feed weanlings as individuals and make necessary feeding adjustments is very important. “Easy-keeping” weanlings should be kept from becoming fat by being fed a low-intake, low-calorie source of essential protein, vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, weanlings that are large with much growth potential can consume normal amounts of fortified concentrate.

A general rule of thumb for feeding weanlings is one pound of fortified grain per 100 pounds of body weight, up to a maximum of six pounds per weanling per day. It is important to remember that foals from various light horse breeds will not weigh the same at a given age. Further, all young horses do not grow at the same rate or mature at the same time. Horses should be fed as individuals.