Bye bye sun and lush grass, hello rain and cold. The winter has caught up with us. That requires some serious getting used to, for humans as well as animals. For my foal too, who is facing his first winter challenge. How does this transition take place? And what are the things we breeders must consider? What is key in our foal´s first winter?
There´s a change in our menus from exotic summer salads on a sunny patio to hot winter meals like Brussels sprouts and chicory eaten around the hearth. Our eating patterns follow the seasons. It´s the same for horses and foals. But what is the dish of the day for our foals now that we bring them in from the green fields to the stable? And what are the requirements for winter stabling?
Asking around, dyed-in-the-wool breeders and feed manufacturers seem to agree that hay forms the basis of the foal diet. The hay supply must be readily accessible. Hay on demand so to speak, which is supplemented with a special foal mix. Here opinions start to differ when we zoom in on amounts, which apparently vary between 1 to 3 kilos a day. For the sake of the young intestines everybody strongly favours dry fodder. Haylage, unless of exceptionally good quality, is no favourite because of high acidity levels and the risk of constipation. In addition to a constant supply of hay and measured feeds of foal mix all breeders totally agree: just as important as food is exercise!
Nick Adriaensen is the breeder of ‘de Middelstede’ and that conjures up names of international horses like Guy Williams´ Torinto and Jos Verlooy´s Domino. Along with being a breeder Nick is also a rider and agent of Lannoo-Martens so he is involved in all aspects: ‘when foals come in from the field the basis of their menu is hay and as far as I´m concerned they can eat as much hay as they like. Everything always depends on the quality. Soft, dry hay is the basis. I supplement the hay with foal cubes which every horse feed manufacturer has on offer. When foals switch from mare´s milk to solid food it´s recommended to ease the transition by adding milk powder, although this is not always necessary since it´s also present in foal mixes. Over the winter period maize and sugar beet can be fed too. Basically, maize mixes should only be fed in a dry state and feeding soggy or wet maize must be avoided at all cost. Otherwise there´s the danger of fermentation which causes acidity levels in the food to rise and increases the risk of constipation in the gut and you approach the danger zone of colic. It is therefore key to avoid wet feeds (maize) as much as possible. Foals need a varied menu just like people do. At least as important is giving your foal sufficient exercise. The less movement he gets the bigger the chances of constipation. Over winter many foals are stabled in spaces that are too small, which is disastrous. Even in winter foals must be able to get sufficient exercise.
Ciske, Udarco and Armani Z all sport the family name Van Overis and were born in Peer in Gerald Lenaerts´ yard, a professional breeder with proven references at five-star level. What dishes of the day does he serve in the winter? ‘I choose Breeding Start, a foal mix, with daily rations of 3 kilos. That is a deliberate strategy because I want to avoid a setback after weaning. You see that a lot in foals who make the transition from mare´s milk to solid food. In my experience a setback often leads to stunted growth which will be revealed by X-rays later on. Stunted growth can jeopardise the development of bone so that´s why I like to feed a lot extra. I don´t give milk powder because it´s already incorporated in their daily rations of Breeding Start. On top of that I feed a lot of hay of the best quality which the foals can eat as much as they like and can stomach. Which is not too much really, with their still tiny guts. In my perception overfeeding foals is hardly possible. They grow so fast that all food is rapidly burnt up. When they are fresh in from the field I don´t feed them haylage as it´s dangerous for the intestines. Soggy food always poses a risk because of the acidification. So I may feed crushed maize but not chopped maize.’ But Gerald also knows that proper exercise is as important as good food so he has invested accordingly: ‘The run-in sheds connect to a large area made of rough concrete. Paddocks cannot be kept in good condition over the winter period so we offer the foals free-range access on a rough concrete surface to stop them from slipping. We have deliberately placed the feeding troughs at the far end of the free-range area so that the foals have to go outside if they want to eat. That way they keep moving during the winter months. Herding them into a small stable is the worst thing ever for foals.’
Harrie Theeuwes is the breeder we know from ‘111’ with names like Think Twice 111 Z, last year´s World Champion. Harrie is also the breeder of Chippendale Z and Winningmood. Now how did these guys grow up? ‘I feed them foal cubes at an early stage. While the mare is feeding the foal gets curious and happily nibbles away. Weather permitting, the foals are turned out day and night when they´re four weeks old. But not in pouring rain or blazing sunlight. Then I bring them in but as soon as the weather improves they go back outside. In the winter period the foals stay in run-in sheds with hay fed ad lib, supplemented with a kilo of foal compound mix mornings and evenings and now and then some sugar beet and a mineral lick.’
Emile Van Rossem is the breeder of the latest 7-year-old World Champion Koriano van Klapscheut, his dam Koriana who jumped five-stars under Eric Lamaze, and the winner of the stallion competition. Emile has forty years of experience under his belt. ‘We tend to keep the foals outdoors as long as possible, subject to the weather. When they´re still in the field I start feeding hay and I´m very particular about the quality. The foals are now indoors with access to an outdoor area. I believe exercise is all-important and even on fine winter days I turn them out. The yearlings won´t come in until the end of January. The only period we shut off the fields is February and March and starting April the 1st out they go again. The foals get hay on demand as well as a supplement of foal mix. Haylage is also on the menu but only in case it´s absolutely dry. Food that´s too rich isn´t good for their development either. The key thing is to keep the foals exercised over winter. Summarising, the best choice of menu would be hay of the best quality in combination with a foal mix. All other diets, and believe me I´ve tried them all, have left me with bad experiences.’
Tim Van Tricht is a farrier, his wife Jill Smits is a rider and together they have dubbed their stable name ‘Tiji’ by combining the first two letters of their Christian names. Their breeding can boast appealing references, like Garfield de Tiji (Quasimodo Z) who jumps five-star classes with Jérome Guery and Flinstone de Tiji, better known as Hello Guv’Nor with Scott Brash. The first winter is the most important says Tim, whose breeding is based on the use of common sense. ‘Nothing can beat Nature if you want strong foals! Our horses Garfield and Flinstone, who are currently jumping into the picture, didn´t spend more than three weeks indoors during the first three years of their lives. They stayed outdoors winter and summer. All they had was a shelter with straw bedding which provided a dry surface to stand and lie down. Exercise is vital because there´s nothing worse than keeping foals cooped up in stables all winter. Presently I have run-in sheds with paddocks but unfortunately no adjoining fields for them to use over winter. Early August the grass has lost most of its nutritional value and I start feeding hay. I use a feeding trough that´s only accessible for foals where they can eat as much as they like, but I don´t feed too many supplements. I´d rather have my foals look a bit lean than too fat because being fat isn´t good for bone development. But okay, my foals don´t go to foal championships so there´s no need for them to look like bodybuilders. With their future sport careers in mind you cannot get anything better than following the laws of Nature. All foals are brought in at the same time, irrespective of age, which makes it easier for them to get used to the new stable. If you bring them in according to age then chances are there will be fights to establish the hierarchy. In addition to ad lib hay I also provide sugar beet and a foal mix during the winter. You´re well-advised to avoid feeding wet haylage. That´s fodder for cows. Also essential is to adjust your feeding regime to prevailing conditions. Foals living outdoors during the winter need more nourishment than those living indoors. Another thing to remember is to have your foals de-wormed every two months. Other than that I just leave them be foals.’
A healthy (pregnant) mare is the best foundation for a good breeding programme. In spring and summer gestating mares need a meadow with rich grazing which supplies all the necessary nutrients. Towards the end of summer fields become bare and it´s good practice to start feeding fibre (hay or haylage). Dependant on the quality of the grazing and fibre it´s possible to supplement with a compound mix. Over winter grazing is completely substituted by hay and additional food rations of about three kilos a day per mare. Sugar beet or dry maize can be thrown into the rations because it provides energy with low protein. Later on in the winter when the foetus starts to grow fiercely it needs specific nutrients and the mare´s diet must be adjusted accordingly. In the last three months of pregnancy a consistent supply of hard feeds is highly recommended. In these last few months the foal averages a growth of around 11 kilos a month. So the mare develops an increased energy need which can be met by feeding an additional half kilo of hard feed each day. Every first-rate food manufacturer sells special mixes which are required to provide the foal with the specific essential amino acids for tissue growth as well as certain vitamins and minerals. Key here is copper which the foal needs to develop strong bones, but mare´s milk is deficient in copper. However, copper can readily be transported through the umbilical cord so it´s a good idea to make sure the foal gets a sufficient intake of copper before birth. Another thing to consider is stabling the mare up in the unit where she will stay once the foal is born. Then the mare´s body has the time to build up resistance to the possible presence of germs.
Exercise is important, even vitally so, and that means that foals also need to spend time outdoors in the winter. Foals who are permanently outdoors need a place where they can shelter, at the very least an area that stays dry. Horses are better-equipped to withstand the cold than the heat, but winter coats eventually lose their resistance when exposed to rain and snow. Foals are even more at risk because they don´t have the amount of body fat mature horses have. Reason enough for most breeders to bring their foals in during the winter. Often in run-in sheds, and in a best-case scenario, with the opportunity to use an outdoor area or paddock. Please be aware that horses/foals drink more water when on hay than when they´re out grazing. So a constant, generous supply of water is a must.
Hay or silage?
Dry hay is the closest we can get to a horse´s natural diet. Haylage is produced because it has a longer storage life, but the grass in haylage starts fermenting which implies certain risks for foals.
Hay also has a better fibre structure so that the horse must chew longer which in turn boosts the production of saliva and helps digestion.
As a consequence of the fermentation process haylage has a higher level of acidity than hay. Increasing the acidity level in the equine digestive system can cause good bacteria to die off which has a negative impact on the intestinal wall. This also reduces the production of the vitamins B and K by the intestinal wall.
Hay however, is great to keep stable vices at bay because it keeps the horses busy. It´s also a source of vitamins (B-complex, D and E), carotene and minerals. Hay provides a good source of rough cellulose for horses too. It´s an ideal feed to combine with hard feeds.
Problems with hay can arise when the protein content is too high (due to high fertilisation), dampness because the packaging was faulty (turning a brownish colour, moulding) or when unclean (dust). Problems with dusty hay can be overcome by submerging it in water shortly before feeding.
The advantage of haylage over hay is that haylage is dust-free. Haylage however, gives a higher chance of moulding (when badly packaged) and a high protein content. The rough cellulose content of haylage is lower than in hay. Especially when feeding wet haylage this can cause problems.
Ensiled products are ready to be fed after about 30 days because by then lactic fermentation has come to an end.
Haylage can be the cause of botulism. This is a bacteria which feeds on the dead bodies of for instance moles, mice, birds which incidentally end up in the haylage.
Maize silage is very high in energy but very low in protein, minerals, micronutrients and vitamins. After a period of getting used to this type of food horses take to it rather well. Maize silage is a fattening product. The major issue with maize silage is the deficiency in carotene and vitamin D. Horses that are growing up and pregnant or lactating mares need to be fed balancers with the necessary vitamins and minerals.
The content of this type of food strongly depends on the time of harvesting and the extent of fertilisation. Haylage crops that were harvested too early or after too much fertilisation can be dangerous for horses.
Introducing foals to eating cubes should be done at an early stage. To ease the early intake of cubes the diameter of our foal pellets is a fraction smaller than our other cubes.
They come with a high lactose content to enhance tastiness (so that the taste is similar to mare´s milk).
Foals absolutely need good food during the first eighteen months of their lives. That starts with the mare´s milk and later must be replaced with a high-quality product.
It´s a good idea to introduce the foals to hard feeds when they are around two weeks old because the nutrient content of mare´s milk starts to wane after a couple of months.
Just begin by offering a handful and gradually build up the amount.
Make sure to start supplementing with hard feeds way ahead of the moment of weaning. The weaning stage is pretty stressful and if the foal is also faced with learning how to eat hard feeds at the same time this is a sure recipe for a setback.
Then the foal won´t eat enough and we usually try to remedy this by feeding extra later on. But it´s important to prevent such a dip. If the foal is already used to hard feeds then more often than not it will keep on eating during this stressful time. Which helps to avoid the weaning dip.
Also be aware that foals go through various growth spurts in their first eighteen months. It´s quite normal for them to grow slightly thinner (as compared to children in a growth spurt). So never start overfeeding the hard feed and always make sure the foal has sufficient access to exercise. The energy fed into the animals partly needs to be released again for otherwise you end up with an overkill of energy which triggers another growth spurt. This is undesirable because bone formation must take place evenly and gradually. When going through a growth spurt too many things must happen in a short time span and mistakes often occur.
Always ensure the foal gets enough exercise as this contributes to good blood circulation and healthy bone development.
HAVENS have made a deliberate decision not to produce a foal muesli mix as this could invite the foals to be selective and only eat the choicest bits of the cereals. That way they wouldn´t be guaranteed to ingest all nutrients. By compressing all raw materials into one pellet we know that the foal gets everything it needs.
HAVENS Opti-Grow has been developed specifically for foals and has a few advantages:
- It consists of high-quality proteins (from milk and soya)
- Amino acids (liquefied) as an extra additive for optimum ingestion
- High vitamin levels for building resistance
- It contains a Multi Calcium Complex for optimum transport of the main bone minerals, good bone formation and joint function
- High lactose content for tastiness
Just as with children, amounts may vary per individual foal but broadly speaking we advise around 1kilo of Opti Grow for horses per day.
Foal pellets are a compound mix to meet the specific needs of foals. In combination with good-quality fibre and plenty of exercise it contributes to the foal´s health.
At eighteen months old we advise switching to Draversbrok, our competition mix. The nutritional needs of young horses are very similar to the nutritional needs of sport (competition) horses who also need high energy – high vitamin content – and extra vitamins for healthy muscle development.