Cherokee Animal Clinic
P O Box 416
665 Johnson Street
Rusk, TX 75785
Clinic Hours:
Monday - Friday 7:30 am - 5:30 pm

By Christian Rammerstorfer PHD, PAS - Oregon State University

To a large extent, today's equine industry dictates the methods owners and trainers employ in managing horses. Early growth and development are important factors in halter futurity contenders and foals that will enter race training as yearlings. Most realize that significant early development is crucial to the marketing potential of these young horses.

A horse's mature size and weight is genetically predetermined and will be reached at some point when the horse reaches a certain age - given that nutrition is adequate. However, the amount of time it takes to get to that mature weight and size varies, depending to a great extent on the nutritional status of the growing horse.

Four Growth Patterns

A decision regarding your foal's growth rate has to be made early on. Basically, the concept of four growth patterns is widely accepted by the industry. Slow, Moderate, Optimal, and Fast rate of growth can all be achieved:

Feedstuffs to Achieve Growth Rates

Benefits of Creep Feeding

Although brood mares can produce large amount of milk, the nutritional value of the milk declines from birth of the foal until weaning. Therefore, nursing foals shown an interest in eating soon after birth and will try to consume small amounts of feed from the mare's trough. Breeders can take advantage of this early growth potential by feeding a balanced foal formulated feed where the foal could gain up to 2.5-3 pounds daily. It is recommended they be fed in a fashion that won't allow the mares' access since the feeding requirements for foals and mares differ.

Feeding The Weanling

In most cases, the performance of weanlings is better if they have been creep fed as foals. The weaned foal that will weigh 1100 pounds at maturity is expected to gain 1.5-2 pounds daily at 6 mnths of age. Total daily intake of hay and concentrate will usually range from 2%-3% of the horse's body weight.

At weaning, many young horses are placed in confinement to facilitate a fitting program of some type. Young horses that are stalled and given forced excerise need the correct nutrient balance to minimize joint disorders and allow for the increased skeltal remodeling that occurs in response to loading caused by exercise. Because these young horses must lay down bone in support of both growth and exercise, an inadequate nutrient supply can produce weak, fibrous bone rather than strong, dense bone.

An exclusive diet of oats and alfalfa hay or good quality grass hay continues to be popular with many horse men and women. While both are excellent feedstuffs, a 70:30 oats-to-hay ratio provides only 86% of the lysine and 81% of the calcium needed by a weanling. A 50:50 ratio still does not reach the recommended levels of lysine.

This does not mean that oats and alfalfa hay should not be fed as part of the daily diet, but that the diet is unbalanced and supplemental nutrients are needed to help prevent swollen physes, joints and other skeletal problems. In one study, horses fed only oats and alfalfa were compared to horses fed a balanced concentrate along with alfalfa. Horses eating only oats and alfalfa got fatter, while those eating the balanced concentrate gained more height.

Which Roughage is Right?

Young horses can be developed equally well with either grass or legume roughage. The type and quality of hay or grazing available will influence the nutrient concentration need in the concentrate mix.

High quality alfalfa is more digestible than grass hay, but good quality grass hay is more digestible than average quality alfalfa. The added "bloom" that some horse owners recognize when feeding alfalfa is due to the additional energy in alfalfa compared with many grass hays. This same appearance can be achieved when grass hay is being fed along with a high quality fat supplemented feed.

Promote Soundness

Epiphysitis, Osteochondrosis and some expressions of "contracted tendons" may result from nutrient imbalances in young horses. Also from those receiving excessive forced exercise in deep footing. Intense, hard work should be introduced gradually to encourage proper bone remodeling. Sudden changes in stress will cause the skeletal system to remodel bone and it takes time to develop the needed strength. Your conditioning program should provide adequate free exercise if at all possible.

An effective conditioning program alternates intense work with free exercise and less intense work on a weekly basis to provide time for bone remodeling to occur. It is critical to keep in mind that the skeletal system must develop first, followed by the developement of the musculature. Development of the skeletal system is best stimulated by very short work periods on firm footing, followed by free exercise on softer footing; however, excessive forced or free exercise on firm footing may cause trauma to the juvenile skeleton.

Raising young horses that are sound and competitive in today's horse industry requires a carefully planned feeding and management program. Some horses inherit a propensity for skeletal defects and such problems may appear when these horses are fed for fast, early development. In many cases, however, skeletal disorders are the result of nutrient imbalances which precipitate abnormal bone metabolism. When such are combined with confinement and excessive forced exercise in deep footing, skeletal problems may occur. There is no reason to expect that rapid early growth itself will cause skeletal disease and lameness if horses are free of genetic defects. Horse owners who are willing to invest in premium quality commercial horse feeds will be more successful growing young horses at a moderate or rapid rate and ensuring they are sound at maturity.

Contact our office to set up a feeding and vaccination program for your equine family!

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