It's really important than a youngster has the correct feeding at the start of his life, as a lack of specific nutritional requirements can affect his health and well-being in the future. Here are five tips to giving your youngster the best nutritional start.
1 Achieve a balance
“One of the most critical aspects of feeding youngsters is to ensure they’re getting enough good quality protein, vitamins and minerals,” says Louise Jones of Dodson & Horrell. “Protein’s needed for growth, muscle and cell development, while vitamins and minerals such as copper and calcium are important for cartilage and bone.”
A youngster’s requirements for these trace elements in the diet are far higher than an adult horse’s, so Louise recommends you choose a specialist foal or youngstock mix – and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when it comes to quantity.
2 Avoiding the f-word
The second most important factor when it comes to feeding your young horse is to avoid letting him get fat. Research has shown that overweight youngsters are at greater risk of health problems later in life, and at risk of developmental problems in the short-term, so it’s a huge issue (if you’ll excuse the pun) for owners. “I always like youngstock to be on the leaner side as their joints are still developing,” says Louise.
But while most of us reach for a weightape to monitor our horses’ waistlines, they won’t give an accurate result for very young horses, so you’ll need to go down an alternative route in order to watch your youngster’s weight and make sure you’re feeding him the correct amount of youngstock feed.
A weighbridge is ideal, though not practical for many, so ask your vet for advice or contact one of the feed manufacturers’ helplines. Experts there may well refer to the guides given in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses (available from www.amazon.co.uk) but, as a general rule, a horse who’s likely to weigh 500kg fully grown will weigh 215kg at six months of age, and 320kg by his first birthday.
3 Start as you mean to go on
It’s common for a foal’s growth rate to drop after weaning – followed by a compensatory growth spurt, which may be damaging to his young joints – so experts recommend you get your youngster used to eating from a bowl prior to weaning to help avoid this.
“A foal or youngstock mix can be introduced at around three months of age, once the quality of the mare’s milk has started to decline,” says Louise. “It’s beneficial for their immune system, too, as the feed will contain vitamin E and other health-boosting nutrients.”
4 Choose quality forage
Foals will start to pick at forage from an early age, but try to stick to the softest, best quality hay as it’s easier on a young horse’s digestive system. While haylage can be fed to youngstock, it may be too calorific for good-doers. It’s also important to ensure any haylage has been properly fermented as young horses are prone to digestive problems.
5 How to Avoid high jinks
Beware of over-feeding your youngster when the time comes to back him, as any excess energy could prove a danger to health for both of you! A high-forage diet, combined with a vitamin and mineral balancer that’s suitable for young horses, will provide ample calories for the majority of horses and help avoid over-excitability.
“Our fibre feeds are a complete feed in a bag as they’re fully balanced,” says Anna Pyrah of The Pure Feed Company. “Ideal for horses being backed are the Pure Fibre Balance and Pure Easy feeds – both low in calories and starch.”