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Feeding Young Horses: Aim for Smooth, Steady GrowthBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff

• October 16, 2014

Feeding young horsesThe growth rate of foals and weanlings is a function of the age of the animal, his genetic potential for growth, his previous growth history, and the nutrients available at that point in time. For example, a Thoroughbred foal with the genetic potential to weigh 1000 lb (450 kg) at 14 months of age may get there by several different routes. The most efficient program, and the one least likely to cause development problems, is the program that results in a smooth, steady growth curve. However, in real life this smooth curve does not represent the way most foals grow, although it certainly is an excellent goal for which to strive.
The key to minimizing the variability in the animals is to provide an optimal quantity of nutrients for each phase of the growth cycle.
A number of factors influence the growth rates of foals. Availability of adequate nutrients is important to maximizing, or at least optimizing, growth. The required nutrients change as the animal grows and the growth rate changes. The transition from suckling to weanling is a problem for some foals and they will sometimes only maintain themselves or will actually lose weight during this transition. Others will experience various health problems that will slow their development at some point during their growth phase. The key to minimizing the variability in the animals is to provide an optimal quantity of nutrients for each phase of the growth cycle. This requires that each animal be individually fed a concentrate balanced to be fed with the selected forage.
Feeding young Thoroughbred horses
The daily energy requirements of the foal can only be satisfied by providing the foal with a diet of suitable energy density that will allow the animal to consume enough energy to meet his needs. Yearlings restricted to forage will usually be able to consume enough energy to provide for the maintenance needs of the animal and support some growth. However, seldom will the animal be able to consume enough energy to support a growth rate compatible with the animal’s genetic potential. The concentrate (grain ration) therefore becomes a key component in providing adequate energy. With a typical grain concentrate providing 1.4 Mcal/lb (3.08 Mcal/kg) and a forage providing 0.82 Mcal/lb (1.80 Mcal/kg), as fed, the ratio of concentrate to forage can be used to optimize energy intake while controlling the energy density of the diet to minimize digestive problems. Horses should consume at least 1.0% of their BW in forage daily to maintain good digestive function. Some variation around this ideal ratio is acceptable and may even be expected, but care should be exercised not to let it vary too heavily toward the concentrate. As with all feeding programs, the plan for each horse should take into account the expected variation that exists between animals.
Another consideration is the addition of fat to increase the energy density of the concentrate. The addition of 5% fat to the concentrate will increase the energy density of the concentrate by about 10%. This means that the animal can meet his energy needs with less concentrate. This type of program decreases the concentrate amount and subsequently the feed intake of the animal, and decreases blood insulin concentrations which may be advantageous in helping minimize bone development problems.