foal feeding

Broodmare and foal feeding is more complex than you may think. Did you know you should start feeding foals even before they’ve been conceived? It may sound bizarre, but it’s true.

The idea that you can just breed a mare, turn her out in a field and then feed her up a bit before foaling is unwise to say the least. Many breeders feel that mares have a 60% to 75% influence on what their foals will become, both genetically and environmentally. Proper broodmare and foal feeding is important both before and after the birth, as nutrition plays a huge role in ensuring they both stay healthy.

Start before breeding
A mare needs to achieve optimal mineral nutrition at least 60 or preferably 120 days before breeding. Reproductive function takes a back seat to other organ systems, which means a mare might look good on the outside but still be under par reproductively.

If the forage (pasture or hay) is of high quality, very little grain is generally needed until just before foaling. Hay should be a grass or grass mix, with not more than about 10% alfalfa, and ideally should provide around 10% to 12% protein.

• Orchard grass, bluegrass, Timothy and Bermuda are excellent hay choices.

• Oat or barley hays are grain hays, not true grasses, and usually contain enough grain heads to make them quite acidic.

• Sudan contains prussic acid and is not a great choice for horses.

Feeding the pregnant mare
The last few months of pregnancy are particularly important, especially in terms of trace mineral nutrition, and specifically, adequate copper supplies.

• Copper, as well as balanced levels of zinc, need to be stored in the foal’s liver at birth for proper bone development to take place. Look for a supplement that can be balanced for the nutrient profile of your area. For example, much of the east coast has high iron levels in soil and water; this suppresses phosphorus, copper and zinc, so these minerals need to be provided at optimum levels.

• Selenium is needed to address any muscle problems. The middle regions of the country offer adequate selenium levels in feeds, while the east and west coasts tend to be selenium deficient. Some areas in the plains states have nearly toxic selenium levels, so again, taking your area’s nutrient profile into consideration is very important.

• Mares foaling early in the spring before grass is growing, or those not on pasture, will also need supplementation with vitamins A, D and E. Lush spring grass provides all these vitamins as well as omega-3 fatty acids.

• Vitamin C supplementation is a wise option because it assists with blood vessel integrity in the placenta and uterine artery, boosts the immune system, and provides joint support for the developing foal.

• A broad-spectrum vitamin/mineral supplement should contain a full profile of chelated minerals for maximum absorption. Chelated minerals are bound to amino acids and have a low molecular weight, which means they are more efficiently used by the body. Minerals in oxide form are the least available and also the cheapest. Carbonates are somewhat more bioavailable, sulfates are better yet, but chelated minerals are “state-of-the-art”. Look at the actual ingredients, not just the analysis. Minerals that show up on the label but are not being absorbed are a waste of money.

After foaling
Within a few hours of foaling, a good probiotic or prebiotic is in order for both mother and baby. Starting a few days after foaling, gradually increase the mare’s grain as she produces more milk, up to about the two-month level when milk production begins to taper off a bit and she may not require a further increase in grain. Mares are quite individual in grain requirements. Some heavy milkers require more grain, while easy keepers don’t need as much. If it appears that more than five or six pounds of grain are needed, I like to instead use a fat/protein supplement from a whole food source such as whole extruded full fat soybeans, or even some black oil sunflower seeds, rather than more grain.

Keep up the quality vitamin/mineral supplement. Mares produce milk that very closely approximates the mineral levels in their diet, so this is how foals get their minerals initially, as well as from tissue stores accumulated during pregnancy. A free choice supplement of calcium and phosphorus is also a wise choice during pregnancy and lactation. The ratio of these minerals will depend on the mineral profile of the hay; aim for a 1.5:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus in the total diet.

The growing baby
Some people like to creep feed their foals. I personally find they do so well on mares fed in this way that I simply give them their own bucket while the mares are eating. The foal will begin to mimic Mom, nibble some of her grain and learn to eat that way. A simple mix of oats, corn, and barley, fed with a quality vitamin/mineral supplement, works just fine. One half pound or up to one pound of grain a day per month of age is a good rule of thumb for foals; divide it into at least two feedings to prevent the blood sugar spikes and dips that can affect bone development.

Note that this is just a guideline for foal feeding. Miniatures would get far less than one pound per month of age, while big Thoroughbreds might need a little more. Warmbloods tolerate much less, and often do better with no grain at all – just a protein/fat supplement like the whole soybeans, and of course a vitamin/mineral supplement. Some easier-keeping breeds also do best on just a mere touch of grain.

Proper digestion and joint function
The hindgut of a young horse doesn’t develop enough to efficiently handle fiber until he is nearly two years old, so you need to support his digestion with a good daily probiotic or prebiotic. Foals fed a probiotic and appropriate concentrate ration along with their forage will never get that pot-bellied look. Free choice the hay, and make sure it’s a true quality grass hay that is fine-stemmed enough for baby mouths and teeth. A pound or so of leafy alfalfa per day is permissible. The previously-mentioned hay pellets can also be used if your hay is of lower quality and too coarse for the baby to utilize well. If you consistently feed the same hay, a hay analysis is a good idea.

If you see any sign of joint problems, back off on the calories a bit to slow the growth rate. Avoid sudden increases in grain, as this can trigger epiphysitis and OCD. Many breeders also use vitamin C products for prophylactic joint support.

A common sense, mineral based foal feeding program, together with as much free exercise as possible, will produce a healthy athlete and companion with a sound foundation for a long and productive life.

Judy Sinner is a lifetime horsewoman, owner, breeder, trainer, and exhibitor. She has bred and raised Arabians and National Show Horses since the 1970s, and has produced two National Champions as we ll as many Regional and Class A winning horses . Affiliated with Dynamite Specialty Products for 25 years, she also served as Communications Director for the company for 17 years, and teaches holistic nutrition for all species in seminars and news letters. For more information: 1-800-677-0919 or