I love all kinds of horses, large and small, purebreds or half breeds, comical or stoical. But my highest passion is for foals – those perfect creatures who are so innocent in every way. Their whole lives are ahead of them, and the care they receive in the beginning dictates the kind of life they will have.
Raising babies into happy, healthy adults is an amazing experience. There’s nothing like lying in the sun with your sleeping foal or watching those crazy spurts of energy, often when you least expect it. However, you also have a responsibility to do whatever you can to prevent physical or emotional problems. By applying some basic foal care concepts, these issues can be eliminated and your foal can lead a long and healthy life.
1. Proper nutrition is a building block of health
Balanced nutrition is important for all horses but even more so for babies. To grow and develop properly, a foal needs the correct levels and ratios of calories, protein, fat, vitamin and minerals. Imbalances can cause joint and bone deformities, poor hoof quality, low immune reserves, resistance to parasites and even hypersensitivity to noise, touch and stress.
Ideally, proper nutrition starts with a balanced diet for Mom (to be covered in a future article). Equine nutrition has taken such great strides forward that the days of just adding more grain to her diet are gone. A mare’s nutritional needs change as her pregnancy progresses, after the foal is born, and throughout nursing. By getting this right, her baby is ahead of the game because of proper envitro development and a supply of nutritious milk.
Creep feeding is the next important step and can be started at a week or two of age. Offer a balanced, concentrated feed formulated for foals, and use a creep feeder which allows the foal to eat while keeping the mare out. This introduces the baby to “grown-up food” while supplementing his mother’s milk.
Supply equal amounts of free-choice grass-type hay such as Bermuda or Timothy, as well as alfalfa for a nice balance of calcium, lysine, and other nutrients. It’s important to give foals a concentrate as they cannot utilize all the nutrients in hay until they are at least a year old.
By the time the foal is weaned, usually around six months old, he should be on a full ration of concentrate along with free-choice hay and ground flax seed. Keep in mind that the quantities fed will change as he grows. After a year, consider replacing the concentrate with a small quantity of grain or rice bran, along with a supplement mix, while increasing the amount of grass hay and cutting back on the alfalfa to 25% of the overall hay ration. Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals by Eleanor Kellon, VMD, offers further details about a growing horse’s needs.
2. Provide room to move
Unlike human newborns, foals are designed to move very soon after birth. This movement is essential to proper development. Keeping a foal in a stall or small pen on soft footing with limited movement prevents his joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, lungs, heart, muscles and hooves from strengthening naturally.
“Foal feet are nearly cylinder-shaped at birth and require plenty of concussion on hard ground to open the hooves into a cone shape,” says natural hoof care educator Marjorie Smith. “Soft footing, especially bedding, lets the foot sink in without flexing at all. Many foals soon develop a very contracted foot with the base actually smaller than the coronet.”
Provide both mare and foal with space to move, preferably full time, to ensure proper development for body and mind.
3. Hoof care right from the start
“The worst thing we can do is get in the way of nature and hinder the natural process foals need to develop,” says natural hoof care professional Kenny Williams. “Unfortunately, with domestication comes limitations, and we must supply what nature cannot – hoof wear.” If the foal is not getting enough movement on firm and varied terrain, trimming must be done on a frequent basis. Some points to keep in mind:
• Foal feet grow faster than adult hooves. Even if the foal has moderate movement, frequent trims by an experienced natural trimmer are necessary.
• Introduce hoof handling right away. Imprinting at birth, introduced by Robert Miller, DVM, can be beneficial, but it’s not for everyone. Some prefer to wait a week before extensive interaction, but sooner is better than later. Make sessions short and fun, never a struggle. Patience is an absolute.
• Prevent any imbalances from the get-go. This keeps you ahead of the game and not playing catch-up or having to make drastic changes. Frequent trims a minimum of every four weeks are ideal. Better yet, take a couple of swipes with the rasp once a week (after some basic training by your hoof care professional), with full trims every four to five weeks.
4. Dental care – not just an adult requirement
It’s a very common belief that horses don’t need dental care until you start to ride them, but this is absolutely false and very dangerous. Prevention of imbalance and pain is paramount and foals should be examined by a dental professional before weaning and every six months until they reach five years of age.
Youngsters commonly have two dental issues. Sharp points, which cause damage to the soft tissues of the mouth, can develop very quickly because baby teeth are softer than permanent ones. Sometimes caps will not fall off normally and become retained. If left in place, this can hinder the eruption of the permanent tooth, causing pain and imbalance.
5. Groundwork + manners = good horse citizens
Teaching a foal ground skills and respect for humans can be really fun but also trying at times. Remember that foals are like sponges and soak up everything you do, both good and bad. The key is to be consistent and fair.
- Keep in mind that even though he’s cute, he’s a horse. Do not let him get away with things another horse would not tolerate.
- Watch how other horses teach the foal social skills and manners. They will first warn before reacting, then once the scuffle is over, it’s over. No grudges or anger.
- Create a personal bubble around yourself and do not let the foal come into that space unless you ask. It might be cute to have him push his butt into you for a scratch when he’s only 200 pounds, but it’s a very different story when he’s full size.
- If he gets nippy, rather than hitting, play the “bite me” game just as other horses would do. Make your hand into a pseudo mouth, nip him back on the muzzle until he takes a step away, then soften up. It’s very important that he takes an actual step, otherwise you don’t win the game.
- Keep training sessions short but frequent: five to ten minutes in the beginning, numerous times a day. Young horses have a very short attention span not unlike human children and get cranky if over stimulated.
- Introduce the foal to a variety of things and make it fun. For instance, we use baby pools and sprinklers to make water interesting rather than scary. Allow his curiosity to override his fear so he approaches the object. Allow him to back away if he gets scared, but don’t let him turn and run.
- Foals learn by watching you work with other horses. This can work for or against you. If the mare has an issue with having her feet trimmed, it’s best not to allow the foal to see a conflict during that time. On the other hand, a positive role model is very effective.
It is my hope that with the surge of interest in natural horse care, many more foals will experience the life they deserve and become balanced in body, mind and spirit.