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Guest writers

Clair Thunes
Summit Equine Nutrition

Clair Thunes

As an equine nutritionist Dr. Thunes has worked with a wide range of horses from lactating mares to competitive dressage horses, and with a variety of physiological problems including insulin resistance and muscle myopathies, and she is happy to work in conjunction with your veterinarian. Dr. Thunes believes in finding the right balance between the horse\'s diet and needs and the client\'s resources. She works with both individual horses or an entire barn and enjoys working with owners to find the optimal feeding solutions. Services provided include diet evaluation and formulation, hay analysis interpretation, custom supplement formulation and farm visits. Dr. Thunes also offers phone and email consultations. Dr. Thunes can be contacted at 916-248-8987.

Articles by Clair Thunes:




Charles Wilhelm
Ultimate Foundation Trainings

Charles Wilhelm

Charles Wilhelm is internationally known as America’s most respected horse trainer and is the creator of Ultimate Foundation Training, an equine training technique that combines the best of traditional, classical and natural horsemanship into a methodology that is applicable to every riding discipline.

His training facility located in Castro Valley, CA, offers extensive hands-on learning programs for every level of horsemanship, from novice through trainer.  His programs truly reflect his motto “Success Through Knowledge”.

Articles by Charles Wilhelm:

Introduction to De-Spooking and Sacking Out

Training Month IV - Continuing Linework & First Bath

Training Month I - A Good Mind & Haltering

Training Month II - Leading & Picking Up Feet

Training Month III - Basic Linework

The Role of Equipment in Horse Training



by Clair Thunes

Weaning may be one of the most singularly stressful events in a horse's life. However through careful management the stress involved with this important transition can be reduced. Besides the loss of physical contact with its mother, the biggest changes facing the weanling foal, and a potentially large source of stress, are diet and change in routine.

Any way in which you can reduce the stress experienced by the foal the better. Establish your post weaning routine prior to weaning. This means introduce anything new that your foal might experience in the days after weaning before weaning begins. An often overlooked area of stress for foals is handling. For foals who have had the luxury of being out at pasture with a large group of mares, one of the main stressors may be the increased level of human interaction that weaning brings. Therefore it is advisable that foals be acclimated to handling well before weaning starts. While circumstances tend to dictate how foals are weaned, there is research showing reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in foals that were "fence" weaned. This is where mares and foals are separated by a fence. The fence should allow them to make contact but not nurse.

Foals at birth rely completely on their mother's milk for all nutritional needs. Her milk in the first months is very nutrient dense and at the peak of lactation, around 2 months, she will be producing approximately 3% of her body weight per day as milk. Gradually as the foal's digestive tract matures and the hindgut becomes populated with microbes picked up from the surrounding environment, the foal is able to digest small amounts of high quality forage and other feeds. The growth rate of the foal in these first few months is based on genetic potential and caloric intake but averages anywhere in the region of 2-3lbs per day. At around 4 months of age the nutrient content of the mare’s milk changes and it becomes less nutrient dense. As a result the foal’s rate of growth decreases. At this age the foal will be able to eat a greater amount of quality forage. However for foals being produced for sale as weanlings into markets that demand large foals carrying condition, it may be necessary at this time to introduce a fortified grain feed formulated specifically for growth.

The biggest nutritional concern surrounding weaning is that during, and shortly after weaning, the foal's growth rate may decrease due to reduced feed intake which ultimately rebounds once the foal has adjusted to its new lifestyle. Large fluctuations in growth rate have been associated with increased incidents of developmental orthopedic conditions. Therefore whether you are striving for a slow, moderate, or rapid (not recommended) rate of growth in your foal it is advised that this growth rate be steadily maintained through the weaning transition.

Regardless of the way in which you choose to wean your foal, one of the best ways to reduce the risk of changes in growth rate is to insure that the foal is eating the diet she will be fed after weaning well before the weaning process starts. All mares will require some form of dietary supplementation during lactation in order to support milk production. Mares should be fed to their body condition meaning that some mares will need significantly more calories than others. Whether ideal body condition is achieved by feeding several pounds of a growth type grain or mostly forage with one or two pounds of a ration balancer pellet or some other combination, most foals will begin to steel this feed from their mothers soon after birth. For this reason it is advisable to make sure that whatever the mare is being fed is also correctly balanced for the foal. Ideally if the mares feed is identical to that which will be fed to the foal after weaning no adjustment to new feeds will be necessary, helping to reduce stress. At whatever age you decide to wean (typically 4-6 months) the foal should be aggressively eating this diet prior to weaning in order to decrease the risk of reduced daily weight gain while the foal adjusts to a new diet.

You may be wondering how exactly you tell if your foal’s rate of gain is correct. The answer to this is to frequently weigh your foal before and after weaning. As it is unlikely that you will have access to a scale a weight tape may be used. While it may not be precise in giving you the foal’s actual weight, if used routinely (every 2 weeks) and in the same way each time, it will give you an idea of relative weight gain. Begin weighing your foal prior to weaning in order to build a picture of its growth trajectory and then continue to take measurements every 2 weeks to insure that the foal stays on a steady course. If the growth curve deviates from a smooth curve and appears to be dropping below what is expected, that is a signal to increase the amount of concentrate being fed. Conversely amounts of concentrate should be reduced if the rate of gain is too fast.

It is not uncommon for weanlings to develop snotty noses and mild respiratory illnesses that are likely the result of the negative effect of stress on their immune system, combined with the changing weather that occurs in the fall. Good nutrition will help support the immune system and reduce the impact of stress. A direct fed microbial (probiotic) that helps to support the development of the hindgut may improve feed utilization helping the foal to get the most out of his feed. Additionally, there is substantial research supporting the use of yeast to improve nutrient utilization both in mares and foals. I personally have had good success using yeast to support weanlings who have diarrhea as a result of inadequate forage digestion. The key to feeding weanlings is to feed quality feeds. An additional consideration for boosting foal immunity is the timing of foal vaccinations. Vaccinating prior to weaning may strengthen your foal’s immune system and it is recommended that you discuss with your veterinarian how to work this into your pre-weaning preparation.

Traditionally mares, foals and weanlings were fed relatively large amounts of oats and other grains. However research has indicated that feeding diets high in starch has several potential pitfalls. For the young horse there is the risk when meals are too large that undigested grain will reach the hindgut disrupting fermentation and resulting in diarrhea or potentially gas colic. Additionally we now know that there is a link between high starch feeds and increased risk of developmental orthopedic disease. Therefore there has been a shift towards feeding weanlings diets containing higher fat and fermentable fiber. Commercial feeds fed to growing horses should contain 14-16% protein to insure adequate protein and amino acids in the diet for growth. These are typically fed at approximately 1lb of feed for each month of age. For those who do not want to feed larger amounts of concentrate to their foals a high protein (28-32%) supplement that provides the necessary essential amino acids, balanced minerals and a source of vitamins fed in smaller amounts is recommended.

Actively planning for weaning, taking steps to minimize potential stress, insuring a high quality diet before weaning begins are all things you can do to help make the weaning transition as smooth as possible with the least amount of impact for your foal. A nutritionist can help you select the correct feeds and supplements and to put together a step-by-step plan for weaning and beyond. Working with a professional insures that the building blocks your foal needs to grow into a strong and vibrant individual are in place.

Here at Summit Equine Nutrition we have a program called Strong Start that has two phases. The first phase begins with feeding the mare through pregnancy and lactation and finishes with a weanling to yearling diet. This way you can be sure that your foal is getting all needed nutrients from conception through the first year. The second phase begins either at weaning or the end of the first year and developed for people who have purchased a weanling or yearling. This phase takes the foal through to its second birthday. Mares and foals are welcome to join the Strong Start program at any time. Summit Equine Nutrition also provides growth tracking to those interested in monitoring rate of gain and this is offered at a reduced rate to those enrolled in Strong Start. For more information about Strong Start and the benefits for your mares and foals please feel free to email me.

Clair Thunes, PhD.

Andalusian Dressage Partners
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