Nutrition Right from the StartApril 2015

Story by: Jackie Bellamy

“Increasing the plane of nutrition should start at conception rather than waiting for the last trimester” emphasized renowned equine nutritionist Don Kapper. Sharing his wealth of knowledge in equine nutrition and management in a recent visit to Canada, Kapper spoke on how to feed the broodmare and the newborn foal right up to weaning.

Nutrition begins with the Broodmare

mare with foalNutrition is a vital component in your horse’s health triangle, where genetics, management and nutrition are all equal. Before the foal even hits the ground it is important that the broodmare has received optimal prenatal nutrition, explains Kapper. Replenishing the mares body reserves earlier rather than later will lend greater ability for her to take care of the baby in utero and when it comes time for nursing. It would be remiss to talk about the nutritional needs of a growing horse without first addressing the needs of the broodmare.

What the mare consumes will greatly affect her milk production, her own health and the well-being of her newborn foal. There is a genetic and management component explains Kapper. The mare’s genetics decide how much milk she can produce as well as the quality. The management and nutrition component comprises of making sure we are putting the nutrition, i.e. calories, protein and minerals, into the mare that she is passing on to the foal in her milk.

• If we fail to feed enough calories the mare will lose weight.

• A lack of protein in the diet will show up as loss of muscle, visible first by a diminishing top line.

• Without the appropriate amount of minerals, the mare’s bone and liver stores could be compromised.

Feeding the mare a balanced diet is crucial for her own health and that of her offspring. Maintaining the mare’s body condition score between 5.5 and 6.5 and an “A” topline score throughout the pregnancy is recommended management.

Colostrum (first milk) is full of protein (75%) and the antibodies the foal needs to quickly acquire and is produced for the first 12 – 24 hours. It is recommended that as soon as the foal is up on its sternum (preferably within the first half-hour after birth) the mare should be milked so the foal can receive 2 – 4 ounces of colostrum from a baby nipple before the foal stands. This allows them to gain immunity from the whole protein antibodies which is absorbed by their open small intestine and diminishes the chance of scours. Scours can be serious, especially to a newborn, as it causes dehydration. Consumption of colostrum before the foal starts wandering around licking foreign objects, which could contain bacteria or viruses, is beneficial in closing the small openings in intestine and boosting immunity.

A 100 pound foal should receive 250 ml (approximately one cup) of colostrum each hour for the first six hours after birth. Every breeder should have an adequate stock of colostrum (1500 ml) stored in their freezer (can be stored for up to 5 years), or access to a colostrum bank, just in case. You can collect colostrum for saving, the same time the foal is nursing during the first 12 hours.

Feed According to Need

Keeping track of a foal’s rate of growth is an important part of managing its diet. The average foal should weigh between 10 – 12% of the mare’s body weight at birth and will double their birth weight in the first 30 days. Not many horse owners have a scale to measure how fast the foal is growing, but monthly monitoring of their age and size becomes critical to feeding according to their growth rate. Feeding less nutrients than required can result in skeletal and soft tissue problems while overfeeding calories can increase the trauma on the sensitive growth plates causing inflammation to occur, i.e. physitis. Physitis can also occur when inadequate minerals are fed and/or when protein (amino acids) are fed below requirement. Physitis can retard closure allowing multiple things to go wrong at this age. Kapper says, “We do not recommend trying to speed up or slow down a young horse’s growth rate.” Just provide the nutrients according to their individual need, that is determined by its age and size i.e. rate of growth.


If Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD) or limb abnormalities are apparent, immediate action should be taken calling in the vet. These conditions do not go away on their own and are indicative of an underlying problem. The mare’s diet should be checked and milk analyzed. Analyzing the milk is easy, inexpensive and can be the key in getting to the bottom of developmental problems in foals. The nutrients in the milk need to match what is recommended to support optimal growth rate. Checking mineral and nutrient density in the milk is suggested at seven days after foaling and then again during week four, eight and twelve. For example: low protein levels or low calcium or phosphorus can result in decreased bone density and have a negative impact on tendon and ligament strength. A deficiency in copper can result in contracted tendons.

When the DOD is nutrition induced - balancing the diet in foals under 30 days old can yield a positive response in ten to fourteen days. For weanlings positive results can be seen in 30 – 45 days and yearlings in 60 – 90 days. This is based on the rate of tissue turn-over being faster in the younger horses. If a DOD is diagnosed, you will need to work closely with your veterinarian, farrier and nutritionist. Kapper cautions against practices such as starving the mare to prevent rapid growth. It will only result in decreasing your mares’ body reserves that will reduce the quality and quantity of her milk. Decreasing these essential nutrients and not addressing the real cause of the problem will only lead to more developmental issues in this years’ foal, as well as next years. He also stressed the importance of prenatal nutrition the ‘entire’ pregnancy. Kapper states, “During the past 30 years of research and monitoring growth related problems, when farms have over 25% of their foal crop affected with DOD, we have reduced the incidence on those farms by over 80%. The two management changes we made were: 1) prenatal nutrition fed the ‘entire’ pregnancy and 2) monitoring growth rate and the nutrients (amino acids, minerals and vitamins) fed to meet their requirements based on their growth rate.

The Suckling

For the first 30 days –foals will average drinking seven to ten times per hour. This is unchanged whether it is straight from the mother or an orphan foal drinking out of a bucket. The frequency of this purely milk diet is key in reducing digestive upsets which can be caused by drinking too much, too fast, from being too hungry. The hungry foal may attempt to eat forage, bedding or the mares feed that they cannot digest yet. Orphan or rejected foals will be extremely hungry if left for 2 hours without milk and therefore require diligent monitoring and free choice feeding of milk. Little and often is the well-known rule to reduce the chances of diarrhea. Proper nutrition is also essential for thermoregulation and weight gain. Foals grow rapidly; doubling their birth weight in just 30 days.

First week to Three months old

Access to the mare’s cereal grain should be denied to reduce the chance of diarrhea. The foal is not yet equipped with the enzymes to digest the mare’s cereal grain mixture that is formulated to compliment forage, not mare’s milk. A milk-based foal feed should be introduced which complements the mare’s milk they are already receiving. The quantity of ‘Milk Based’ Starter & Creep pellets consumed per day will be directly related to: how much milk the mare is producing per day, the age of the foal and the size of the foal in relation to the mare. One pound of milk-based feed per day per month of age is an average.

It is important to consider factors that affect milk production of the mare:

• Maiden mares do not produce as much milk as mares that have had foals previously.

• When you cross breed a smaller mare to a larger stallion be prepared for accelerated growth (termed hybrid vigor).

• Mare’s normally produce enough milk for a foal to grow to her size, not beyond.

• At 4 – 6 weeks the mare’s milk production peaks and then dwindles.

Three - Four months old

Between three and four months of age the enzymes in the digestive system begin to change. The cecum undergoes further development and a weanling feed can be introduced. Kapper states, “It is very easy to get a pot-belly on a 4 – 6 month old foal due to stemmy hay because they are not very good at fermenting fiber yet.” It is recommended to feed the softest hay when they begin to digest forage.

Following Guidelines, Feed Tags and Testing not Guessing

National Research Council (NRC) has recommended minimum nutrients to feed for every horse’s status. It is important to consider the changes and variances in forage quality in order to remain above NRC levels. Anything below will result in a state of deficiency. Of course, exceeding the top end of an optimal range can also cause problems if excess of minerals interfere with absorption of nutrients or cause toxicity.

Be sure to read the purpose statement on the feed tags and feed according to their recommendations in order to fulfill nutrient requirements. When feeding mares and young horses, it is important to choose a feed that has been formulated to meet the needs of a growing or reproducing horse, as opposed to one that is specifically for mature, idle or maintenance needs. There will not be enough protein or minerals in the latter to support the growing horse. Performance feeds may be higher in calories but will not be balanced with the vitamins and minerals to support development of a strong skeletal structure in a growing horse. Always choose a feed that is tailored to the individual horses needs and feed according to the instructions. Kapper cautions, “Getting away with feeding less than recommended, means you have chosen the wrong feed.” Feeding less than the manufacturers recommended intake will result in nutritional deficiencies.

Finally, if you are not testing your hay – choosing a grain mixture and supplements are guesswork. Other than the first 3 to 4 months of life, ad-lib forage should be the bulk of your horse’s diet so it is important to feed good quality and know what is in it. This also applies to testing soil to determine nutrient levels in pasture. “Horses are designed to be continuous feeders,” explains Kapper. An 1100 pound horse will eat up to 18 hours a day consuming about 2 – 2.5 % of their body weight per day in dry forage. This will improve nutrient absorption and over-all health and well-being. Knowing the levels of nutrients in your forage is the starting point for balancing a horse’s diet.


foal in the sunIt is important to address nutrition right from the start in your horse’s health triangle along with genetics and management. A healthy broodmare is essential to produce a foal full of vigor and good health. Plan ahead to ensure access to extra colostrum, just in case you need it. Feed the right quantity of the right feed for the horse’s life stage to fulfill their dietary and growth needs. Testing the food source (mare’s milk, forage) is the most simple and effective way to make sure your horses are receiving the necessary level of recommended nutrients. Address any developmental abnormalities immediately, working with your healthcare team of veterinarian, farrier and nutritionist.


Don KapperDon Kapper is a highly experienced equine nutritionist and a member of the Cargill Equine Enterprise Team. Don graduated from Ohio State University and achieved his credentials as a Professional Animal Scientist from the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists in 1996 and has been a sought-after speaker for equine meetings in both the U.S. and Canada. He was a member of the “Performance Electrolyte Research” team at the University of Guelph and wrote the chapter on “Applied Nutrition” for the authoritative veterinary textbook: “Equine Internal Medicine”, 2nd edition. Don also co-developed the “Equine Nutrition” course for the Equine Science Certificate program for Equine Guelph and has been a popular guest speaker in several Equine Guelph online courses, including the Equine Growth and Development, Exercise Physiology and Advanced Equine Nutrition.