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"Feeding the Mare and Foal"

Feeding any horse is a tricky balance of art and science, but for the pregnant or lactating mare, or the growing foal, feeding plays a vital role in health, wellbeing and performance.


Horses have evolved to graze almost continuously on fibrous grasses and this natural method of feeding is now considered to be the most beneficial way of feeding all horses.  Although different horses have varying requirements – such as the competition horse versus the retired veteran,  a base diet of long stem fibre provides an excellent basic diet for horses which can then be supplemented with concentrate rations to provide any extra nutrients or energy.  


There is a real art to breeding horses and diet plays a vital role, so it is important to understand some basic nutritional requirements of breeding stock and how good nutrition can help to produce healthy, well-grown foals.  




Whatever food is given, it should always be of the best quality.  Good quality concentrates and forage may be slightly more expensive but the nutritional value is far higher and they contain more useful digestible energy, meaning less is required.  Quality is particularly important when it comes to hay as poor quality hay may be dusty and mouldy as well as low in nutritional value, leaving the horse deficient and possibly open to respiratory disorders.  You only get out what you put in when it comes to breeding horses, so a healthy mare fed good quality feed tailored to suit her requirements is more likely to produce a healthy, well-grown foal.  




Before the mare is even sent to stud it is important that she is in good condition; an unhealthy mare is less likely to conceive, or if she does, is more at risk of  producing a weak and sickly foal.  Pregnancy is hard work for the mare and she therefore needs to be fit and carrying the correct amount of weight before conception.  A well balanced feed introduced at this stage will help to ensure the mare receives all the necessary vitamins and minerals for successful reproduction.  


Early pregnancy


Once the mare is in foal it is important to resist the temptation to feed for two.  Until approximately three months before the foal is due the mare’s nutritional requirements will remain the same.  As with any horse, a mare in the early stages of pregnancy should be fed according to her weight, condition and workload, ensuring you take into account any exercise she does.  


Late gestation


During the last three months of the pregnancy the foetus will rapidly increase in size and the mare’s nutritional requirements will increase.  At this stage a stud feed may be introduced to meet these increased nutritional requirements, but care must be taken with ponies and native breeds that are naturally good doers.  The mare’s condition should still be regularly monitored so that she is not allowed to become too fat, but she must not look poor and drained: remember a mare will give anything she needs to ensure her foal grows and survives, even to the detriment of her own health.  




A lactating mare’s energy requirements can almost double as she is producing milk for her growing foal.  At peak lactation rate, which normally occurs six to eight weeks after foaling, the mare can be producing between 3 and 5 per cent of her bodyweight in milk per day, which places a huge demand on the mare.  


A lactating mare requires enough energy and protein to maintain her own body condition and produce milk, but not so much that she becomes fat – studies have shown that obesity in mares can have a negative effect on foal growth rates.  In order to maintain optimal bodyweight it will be necessary to feed up to three per cent of bodyweight in a mixture of forage and concentrates.  A well-balanced stud mix should provide almost all of the energy requirements alongside good quality forage.  With foals traditionally born in the spring it is also important to take into account the quality and quantity of grazing available and adjust the mare’s diet to suit.  


The final stage


The final key stage of nutrition for the broodmare is from the fourth month of lactation to weaning of the foal at approximately six months of age.  At this stage the foal should be getting most of its nutrition from the mare’s milk and from grazing on good pasture, however additional supplementation in the form of creep feeding may be required.  Care must be taken that the foal is not overfed in these crucial early months, as this can lead to rapid growth which enhances the possibility of the foal developing metabolic bone disease and putting too much pressure on the joints.  


At the fourth month the mare’s feed can start to be reduced as her protein and energy requirements are reduced.  As the foal approaches weaning it should be relying far less on the mare’s milk and so reducing the mare’s energy intake should help the milk to dry up and encourage the foal to eat the alternative feed more readily.  




Weaning can be stressful for the mare and foal and needs careful management to ensure they stay healthy.  The foal will grow rapidly in its first year and this needs to be a steady growth so the foal’s diet may need to be adjusted if it is gaining weight too quickly.  As a guide most foals are born at 10 per cent of their adult weight and will reach 60 per cent of their adult weight by the time they are a year old.  They will also have attained 90 percent of their mature height and 95 per cent of their bone growth by this stage.  Forage should still make up the majority of the foal’s diet but it must also receive the right amounts of vitamins and minerals for good development.  For some foals a small concentrate feed of stud mix will provide all the nutrients it needs alongside forage and grazing.  


To help combat the stress of weaning, which can lead to scouring, it is recommended that a probiotic is added to the foal’s diet.  Probiotics help to stabilise the foal’s gut, ensuring it can efficiently digest its feed and reducing the risks of stress-related diarrhoea.  Probiotics also play a role in strengthening the immune system, protecting the foal as it is weaned.  


Dietary needs




Assuming that fibre forms the main component of the diet for all horses, whether breeding or not, the next area to consider is the type, quality and quantity of concentrate feeds given to the mare or youngstock.  Here ‘protein’ is the watchword and it is perhaps one of the most variable and challenging aspects of feeding foals, weanlings and yearlings.  


Protein requirements vary according to the horse, grazing and time of year, but as a basic guideline a non-breeding horse requires approximately 10 per cent protein, whereas pregnant mares and youngstock require in the region of  14-16 per cent protein diets.  However, the quality of the protein is just as important as the quality.  Ingredients such as soya bean, alfalfa and peas all contain high quality protein, that is the amino acid profile of the protein closely matched the horse’s own, making the protein much more useful to the horse.  Allen & Page’s Stud and Youngstock feeds both contain high quality protein, making them a good option for feeding pregnant mares and youngstock.  Another bonus of feeding a complete feed like these is that they are nutritionally balanced.  It can be hard to create a balanced diet from straights but specially formulated feeds are designed to meet all the requirements of the pregnant mare and growing youngster, encouraging steady growth and development.  




Over 80 per cent of a horse’s diet is composed of carbohydrate in some form.  It is required for muscular activity as well as the function of organ and tissue systems and horses get most of the required carbohydrate from digestion of plant fibres containing cellulose.  Steady levels of carbohydrate are required to avoid peaks in blood glucose that result from feeding carbohydrate rich feeds such as barley to youngstock.  




Studies have shown that broodmares fed diets supplemented with Omega 3 and 6 oils produced richer colostrum that may give their foals a headstart in life.  Both Allen & Page Stud & Youngstock Cubes and Mix contain a careful balance of both Omega 3 and 6 oils from linseed and soya oil for their health benefits.  


Calcium and phosphorous


These two elements are important for the strength of the skeleton.  All horses require a maintenance level of calcium of around 5g per 100kg bodyweight and of phosphorous around 2g per 100kg bodyweight, holding an ideal ratio of 2:1.  In the pregnant mare, calcium is required for the well-being of the foetus; in the lactating mare the calcium and phosphorous levels should be increased to about 10g of calcium and 5g of phosphorous, to make up for the loss of calcium in the milk.  


Vitamins, minerals and trace elements


These are needed in varying amounts for healthy growth and development and it is important that these are correctly balanced.  A proprietary stud mix will provide balanced levels of vitamins and minerals so further supplementation should not be required.  If owners suspect that the mare is lacking in an important element then a nutritionist should be consulted before a supplement is added.  




An adult horse’s body is composed of 65 to 75 per cent water and a foal’s is 75 to 80 percent water.  Clearly water is important for all animals; in horses, water is required to facilitate digestion, produce milk and to replace losses occurring through the lungs, skin, faeces and urine.  



For more information on feeding your mare and foal contact the Allen & Page Nutritional Helpline 01362 822902 or email [email protected]

An article for Horse Breeders Magazine

by Allen & Page

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