New research shows that young horses do not need to be fed high calories or cereal-based supplement in order to grow well.
For years we have supplemented our foals diet starting at about 3 months of age all the way to weaning and beyond with a combination of beet pulp, soaked alfalfa cubes, minerals, and some commercial diet formulated for foals (we use Hoffman developer-as it has no added grain or starches- more on that later).
The idea was that beet pulp and alfalfa, being high in fibers, we were working with what nature intended for horses to eat but the added minerals and commercial diet supplements contributed some amino acid such as lysine and minerals such as selenium that are just not available in high enough amount in those feeds to support growing sport horses foals.
Our foals start to eat a bit of it when they steal some from their mother at first and at around 3 or 3.5 months of age they start to have their own portions. We gradually build up the amount as the foals grow, mature, and gain weight. ( As a bonus we find that we have had almost no cases of choke by making the ration a bit more sloppy and wet when some foals get greedy and want to eat too fast. 😉
Feed company constantly need to push new products, there is feed for just about every kind of equine out there now. The old adage of narrow your market and sell directly and specifically to them certainly applies here and they have been very successful.
While experts and nutritionists, not affiliated with feed company, constantly repeat that a mostly forage-based diet is best for most horses it is acknowledged by all that lactating mares and growing young horses might need more than just grass to fill their needs.
Foals grow incredibly quickly and while for those destined to a life free-roaming on the range, nature provides what is needed, for future performance athletes the bar is set somewhat higher.
The growing horse needs to develop solid bones, healthy cartilage, and not be deficient in the various vitamins and minerals that allow its nervous and muscle system from developing adequately ( Vitamin E and Selenium notably).
As a result, calorie and mineral-rich ratios have been on the market for years as it was believed that higher caloric content, as well as mineral and extra vitamins, were needed for growing foals that could not possibly eat enough grass and hay to reach the required levels to support their growth It was also a way to ensure that they reached a good weight and maximum height in order to fetch better prices at auction or ribbons in the show ring. Higher caloric content is mostly achieved by including cereals and fat. It gives the growing young foal that nice glow, good muscle development, and prevents the dreaded “hay belly”.
However, it has been proven over many studies that cereal-based diets with their high starch and carbohydrates have a high incidence of DOD (Developmental Orthopedic Diseases-OCD and the likes). The development of orthopedic diseases of many forms has been linked to high-glycemic-index supplements and feeds, not protein or straight calories as previously thought. High starch and sugar content in feed has also been linked to other metabolic issues later in life (obesity, metabolic syndrome, etc…). It is safe to say that horses are not particularly suited to consuming high levels of starches and sugars, foals are no different. So it would be a good idea to check the sugar and starch content of your horse feed as well as the list of ingredients.
New research published in October of 2020 concluded that feeding a supplemental diet high in fibers yielded the same results as a cereal-based diet without the negative effect of lower ph and higher lactate in the animal’s digestive system and bypassing any need for cereals and high starch ingredients.
Foals can digest fibers as early as 2.5 or 3 months (while they cannot digest cereals until about 4 months of age) and when fed supplemental creep feed entirely made of fibers (plus balanced minerals) the tested foal grew as well as the control group being fed foal ration containing cereals but showed less stomach acidity and lower lever of lactase in the hind guts.
So we will happily continue to feed foals the way we have for many years, it has served us well and we now understand a bit more why that might be.
Comparison of fiber only versus grain-based supplementation in growing foals:
Impact of glycemic index on the incidence of DOD:
C.J. Secombe, G.D. LesterThe role of diet in the prevention and management of several equine diseases, Animal Feed Science Technology, 173 (2012), pp. 86-101
Hoffman Developer fact sheet. (No I am not sponsored in any way by this company)