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Weanling and growth spurts

From: Johanna

Hello, I have to say I love your newsletter, it's great! My background is that of a groom and show barn manager, I worked under the son of a retired cavalry officer, so it was a great experience. I got away from horses for nearly 17 years and I recently adopted a 6 monh old weanling, a rescue foal from a great organization.

He is half Cheval du Canada and half Standardbred. He has been fighting, and winning, a battle with pneumonia from shipping all the way from Canada, and because he was a little underweight, he came down with pneumonia. While recovering, he has been eating beetpulp and orchard grass hay, with a smattering of oats, about two handfuls.

He has grown a couple of inches. He now has one back leg that knuckles over a little because a bone growth spurt, according to my vet, that his tendons don't match. We are cutting back his food, and adding some LMF-Super Supplement G and MSM to his diet instead. I am also giving him vitamin C to boost his immune.

Right now he lives with some other foals and some horses, so he's still being a baby. Ironically, he's a super sane fellow and if he were 3 years older, I could start showing him tack and big horse "stuff." For now, we stand, groom, pick up feet and get used to kids playing, tarps flapping, chickens squawking, and all sorts of things.

Can you shed some light on growth spurts? The vet said we have to be mindful of loose cartilage and joint issues when he is bigger. I can not wrap his leg as we are in a we climate and I can't treat him like a stabled horse, nor can I be with him every day. One back leg "clicks" in the fetlock when I pick it up, and the one that knuckles over is starting to straighten out, much to my relief.

I will follow up again with my vet, but my experience with growth spurts like this is nil, and it's a little scary.

Any light you can shed would be appreciated, I can not seem to find any information in this arena. Thank you! Johanna

Hi Johanna! Thank you - I'm so glad to know that you're enjoying HORSE-SENSE.

Foals can be frustrating, because they DO have growth spurts. The ideal for any youngster would be a steady, slow growth rate that would allow the horse to reach its mature size over a period of years. You can achieve this, within reason - but even the best-managed foals will still have small growth spurts from time to time.

Some growth spurts are actually reactions to earlier poor management. Normally, foals are provided with increasing amounts of suitable feed whilst still nursing, and thus a weanling would be eating a suitable ration BEFORE being weaned, and the transition would be smooth. But in some cases, foals are weaned abruptly without previously being accustomed to eating anything but bits of the mare's hay and grain ration, and when this happens, the sudden change in feed can discourage the foal from eating well. This will typically slow the foal's weight gain and sometimes stop it altogether for a time. When the foal finally adjusts to its new diet, it may experience a "growth spurt" and grow extremely rapidly; this will put it at risk of developing DOD. This is why a really poor, thin, undernourished foal should not be fed huge amounts of rich hay and concentrates to "help it catch up"; instead, it needs careful management and constant attention so that it can gain weight more slowly and thus more safely. The foal that, once rescued, gains weight or height very suddenly is NOT cause for rejoicing - it's cause for concern.

Similar growth spurts can result when a foal is recovering from an illness - that may be what's happened in your foal's case.

You've taken on a challenge here - feeding a weanling can be complicated, and you're lucky to have a good vet to help you out. Foals need to have their nutritional needs met - for maintenance AND for growth. What they don't need is to be overfed. Too much feed promotes quick growth, but not necessarily healthy growth. Bones that grow too quickly are likely to be less than good quality, and when a foal grows too quickly, its tendons and muscles often simply can't keep up with the rate of bone development, and that's when you see distorted legs.

Talk to your veterinarian about the specific needs of a foal his age, and about the way in which the ration you are feeding meets those needs. As long as you can meet his nutritional needs and keep him exercising and grazing (or eating forage) around the clock - which is a simple matter if he's turned out with others - he should be fine.

I wish I could tell you an exact formula for your horse. But what you feed will depend to some extent on what is available to you, which supplements are most appropriate for horses living in your area and eating local hays and grains. Your vet will be able to help you here; so will your county extension agent.

Unfortunately there's no single formula that applies to all weanlings. It's safe to say that if you want your horse to grow up sound and have a long careeer, it's NOT a good idea to feed for maximum early growth. The overfed weanling may reach his full height at one year - the properly fed yearling may take three years or longer to reach the same height, but he'll reach it, and he'll have better bone. The diet your foal is on now may seem a little drastic to you, but your vet is thinking ahead to maturity and long-term soundness. Some weanlings need to be brought along at a slower growth rate, quite deliberately, as a way to allow their bones and muscles to develop in a reasonably coordinated way.

Each animal is different, and it's going to be up to you and your vet to observe and manage this particular foal. What matters most is that the feed be well-balanced. Most weanlings will eat between three-quarters of a pound and one pound of hay per 100 pounds of body weight, and between one and a half and two pounds of grain mix per 100 pounds of body weight. Depending on the individual weanling's needs at any time, the amount of hay may be more, the amount of grain may be less, but what matters most is the overall nutritional balance. In practical terms, what this means is that you can't feed a weanling adult rations, even if the amounts are suitably scaled-down.

Growing horses need good water and forage, salt, and minerals. Growing foals have different needs from adult horses - for a foal, lysine is essential, the calcium-phosphorous ratio should be 1:1. You can meet most of these needs by offering alfalfa hay along with the grass; good alfalfa provides much more protein, calcium, and lysine than equally good grass hay. Lysine - essential for growth - can also be supplemented in the form of soybean meal.

Good-quality hay should make up a large part of your weanling's ration. Grain may be needed to supply energy and maintain the proper calcium/phosphorous balance (especially if you are feeding alfalfa, which is high in calcium), but again, what works for adult horses may not work for youngstock, and you may not be able to feed the same kind of grain that the adult horses on the property are eating. Weanlings are not always able to crush and digest grain properly, so instead of whole oats (for instance), your weanling might do better on crimped or rolled oats, or on a pelleted grain.

Your foal will need minerals - calcium, phosphorous, copper, and zinc are essential - but beware of being overly generous. Feed the amount your vet recommends, and no more. Enough - the right amount - is good; too much (two scoops instead of one, or a heaping scoop instead of a flat one) is not better, and sometimes it's much, much worse.

You seem to be working closely with your vet, which is wonderful. Keep doing that. Feeding a weanling is like loading a horse into a trailer - it really should be done right, and it's very easy to do it wrong, damage the animal, and cause major problems later in the horse's life. And like trailer-loading, weanling-feeding is something that everyone in your vicinity will feel qualified to debate with you! You'll be told always to feed - or never to feed - alfalfa, protein, minerals by the dose, free-choice minerals, etc., etc. You'll be told to run your weanling in a pen, to lock him in a stall, etc. Ignore all of the advice and keep working with your vet. If your vet contradicts anything I say here, ignore my advice and keep working with your vet. Some people will have information that is out of date, some will have information that they themselves have misunderstood, and that is simply wrong. Some foals will grow too quickly for their own good even if they are getting little or no grain, so don't automatically blame the concentrates. Protein was once thought to be the cause of bone disorders in foals, and restricting protein was believed to be the solution, but we now know that this is not the case. You need to make your decisions based on the most recent, most up-to-date, and most accurate information available, and you will be wise to rely on your vet.

Good-quality hay should make up most of your weanling's ration. Grain may be needed to supply energy and maintain the proper calcium/phosphorous balance (especially if you are feeding alfalfa, which is high in calcium), but you may not be able to feed the same kind of grain that the adult horses on the property are eating. Weanlings are not always able to crush and digest grain properly, so instead of whole oats (for instance), your weanling might do better on crimped or rolled oats, or on a pelleted grain. of ribs and start over-feeding, though - a slender weanling is likely to be healthier than a fat one.

Watch your youngster, keep consulting with your vet, and you'll get him through this critical growth period. Use your eyes and your hands to check your weanling's condition. If its ribs are very visible, or if visible ribs are combined with a pot-belly and/or a staring coat, something is wrong. If the ribs are just barely visible, that's fine. As long as your foal is cheerful, energetic, healthy, and your vet is satisfied with its weight, don't let anyone make you panic at the sight of ribs. Some people truly - and wrongly - believe that weanlings should be fat. Don't let your foal get fat. His body structures are still very immature, and it will damage him in the long term if those structures are asked to carry more weight than they can safely support.

Above all, let your weanling get as much exercise as possible - ideally, it should spend all its time out in a large field with other active youngsters. Exercise is important for correct development. Foals that are raised outdoors in herds, on good grazing, generally develop well because their bodies are functioning as they are designed to function: constantly on the move, and eating small amounts of feed around the clock. The closer your turnout and feeding methods can help your foal approximate this lifestyle, the better. Constant low-level exercise ("just moving around", which is what horses of all ages do in nature) will make a typical foal's sudden bursts of energy much less risky.

Foals that have been kept in stalls or tiny enclosures, however, are at risk from normal foal behaviour - when they are first allowed the freedom of a field, they can actually over-exert themselves and hurt their bones. If your foal, before you acquired him, was given limited opportunity and space for exercise, you'll need to be careful about his first few weeks of turnout. Even if it means putting him in a smaller paddock rather than a large field, be sure to put him out where the footing is best. If the choice is between a small grass paddock and a large drylot that is either baked or frozen hard, put the quality of footing FIRST, and let the foal play where there is more of a "cushion". Later, when his growth has normalized, he'll be able to play on hard ground without harming himself.

Now, about the percussion accompaniment to his movements! There may still be a few parts that click - fetlocks and stifles are common sources of clicking sounds - and the clicking may not go away for several years, but as long as the horse is moving well and comfortably, don't worry. Some of the clicking will disappear as the horse's growth evens out; some will disappear later in life when the horse's more mature body becomes more muscular.

Good luck!


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