Many horse owners wait until their foal is weaned before mapping out a diet plan that meets its growing nutritional requirements. This is a critical mistake and one that can have detrimental effects on a young horse.
Weanlings are young horses that have been separated from their mothers but are less than a year old. This is a critical time in a young horse’s life and failing to provide the correct nutrients can lead to life-long issues.
The time between when a foal is weaned until its first birthday, it consumes 3% of its body weight in dry matter each day. This means its nutritional needs are higher than they will ever be. During this time there are key nutritional components necessary to sustain a weanling’s health:
Weanlings need energy to support their growth and development. Too much energy consumption will lead to overly rapid growth. Too little leads to slowed growth. The result in both cases can lead to developmental orthopedic issues.
High-quality protein is essential to muscle, ligament and tissue development. That means adequate daily protein intake is critical. Most horses need about 675 grams of protein a day by the time they are 6 months old. When protein in a young horse’s diet is not properly regulated, it can lead to growth issues.
Minerals are essential for bone development in weanlings. It is important to neither over nor under supplement young horses, however, as this can lead to orthopedic diseases. It is a good idea to work with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to ensure mineral needs are being properly met.
It is important to look at each horse individually and not adopt cookie-cutter diet plans. Every weanling is different and must be monitored and fed appropriately. It also is important to remember that weaning is stressful for a young horse and often leads to a decrease in food intake and slower growth. A high-quality diet of hay and grain is essential during this time. It is best to begin to introduce hay and grain before a horse is completely weaned to aid in the transition.
While nutrition is essential to the health of a weanling, so is exercise. Allowing for a good number of turnout opportunities has been shown to regulate bone and muscle growth in young horses.
Finally, be sure to track all aspects of growth and development in weanlings to prevent problems. This includes daily weight gain, wither height and hip height. Monitoring these measurements will allow for changes in diet that can help maintain a level plane of growth.