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Feeding Older Foals: Aim for Gradual, Even GrowthBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 12, 2015

Young horses should be accustomed to eating grain by the time they are weaned. Foals that spend some time in stalls with their dams are likely to encounter grain and hay, and thus learn to consume these feedstuffs sooner than foals that are kept solely on pasture.

Another way to introduce grain is by creep feeding (providing feed in a feed bin or enclosure that admits foals but excludes mature horses). This is a method of providing a source of fortified feed to nursing foals. Foals offered creep feed have higher average daily gains, although foals on good-quality pasture may eat only about 60% of the creep feed offered to them.

Clarissa Brown-Douglas, Ph.D., equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research, said that creep feeding is advantageous for some circumstances such as a situation where the foal manager is unsure of the dam’s milk production or where the dam is excluding the foal from her feed bin. Creep feeding is also helpful if a higher growth rate is desired. The practice allows pre-weaning adaptation to a post-weaning nutritional program, and foals accustomed to eating grain generally have lower levels of weaning stress.

A feed product used for creep feeding should be designed to meet the needs of young, growing horses. It should have a nutrient-dense composition, according to Brown-Douglas, with a low glycemic index and a crude protein level of 16 to 20%. The protein source should be of high quality such as soybean meal, whey, or milk protein. The necessary protein level is dependent on the type of forage offered. A feed with a slightly lower protein level can be provided if the foal is eating alfalfa (lucerne) hay, and a higher protein level is needed if the forage is a low-quality grass hay. Calcium level should always be higher than phosphorus, with calcium at 0.8 to 1.0% and phosphorus at 0.6 to 0.8%.

If the foal is fed in a stall, the feeder must be placed out of the mare’s reach. With a pasture feeder, managers should watch herd behavior and be sure every foal has access and sufficient time to eat.  

Growth patterns in foals and young horses should follow a steady, smooth plane in order to minimize skeletal defects as the foal matures. Managers should weigh and measure young horses on a regular basis and adjust feeding as necessary to avoid growth that is too rapid or too slow.