[Gallery of incredible cuteness at the end of this article.]
Tis the season for baby pictures everywhere- horse babies of course- and once they hit the ground it's important to decide how you are going to feed them during the critical young years! There are many components to growing strong, healthy, well-adapted young horses; maximizing movement, providing plenty of socialization, taking care of parasites, and feeding to their growth category.
What do I mean by feeding to their growth category, you may ask? When making nutrition recommendations for horses under the age of 5 years, I first categorize each youngster into one of three growth tracks; slow growth track, moderate growth track, and fast growth track. It's important to make a conscious decision which growth track is appropriate in order to maximize future performance, prevent joint problems, and boost their immune system to prevent disease. Let's discuss these three growth tracks so that you can decide into which category your foal falls.
Category #1: THE FAST TRACK
The fast growth track category is for young horses being produced for intensive, early careers such as Futurity quarter horses, racing thoroughbreds, and future/young event horses. If early performance is in the cards for your young horse, than it's extra important to supply the fuel and nutrients, not only for faster growth, but also to support their immune system during travel and stress, to protect their digestive system against inflammation, to provide the building blocks for bone, tendon and muscle development, and to nourish the brain for early training. It's a tall order! So, these young guns need more; more calories, more vitamins and minerals, and more attention to detail.
Most mare & foal feeds, for all intensive purposes, are designed for fast track growth. The nutritionists behind these formulas have balanced energy, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals to compliment modern horse genetics and their growth potential. Mare & foal feeds can be started before weaning and fed until the horse starts work under saddle. As we all intuitively recognize, there are inherent risks to growing young horses in this way with the additional stress and strain. I have three suggestions to mitigate those risks; 1) read the feeding directions carefully and feed to recommended levels, 2) track your young horse's weight monthly so that you know when and how much to adjust the feed, and 3) consult with a nutritionists if punching the numbers is intimidating.
It takes extra good horse management to grow these babies safely. But when done well and done right, feeding for fast track growth can produce amazing results- seeing a talented young horse reach their peak potential for which they were bred is a special thing!
Category #2: THE MODERATE TRACK
Most horse owners reading this article are breeding mares and raising foals at home for their own pleasure. Chances are that you are not raising foals for the fast track, but rather to be started lightly in their 3 or 4 year old years and then to start serious training after growth plates have closed. You prioritize joint, metabolic, and behavioral health over efficiency of production and you're willing to wait. If you identify with this description, I would put your baby horse in the moderate track group. *I'll explain later why you should NOT be in the slow track group.