Foals Nursing and What They Eat

Last Updated on November 22, 2021

Who doesn’t love cute baby horses? Foals are beloved by people almost as much as human babies! It’s hard to resist their adorable faces, small feet, and cute short tails.  Like other infants, foal nursing need specialized care in order to stay healthy.

This includes their eating regiments.  Some mare/foal relationships go very smoothly, and the foal can nurse naturally until it is time for the foal to be weaned.  Sometimes a mare rejects a foal, and the foal has to either be weaned onto an artificial food or bonded with a nurse mare. 

And other times, owners and breeders elect to have their foals weaned onto artificial foods right away.  It’s all up to personal preference and what is right for each unique circumstance. In this article, I’ll be discussing foals and what they eat, with a focus on nursing.

Foal Nursing

Foals nursing from their mothers is the most natural diet for these baby horses.  Traditionally, the mare will give birth, and the foal will be standing and eating within a few hours.  Just like cows, mares have udders from which the foal can nurse.

And nurse they will! Foals weighing about 110 pounds can consume about 15 liters of milk a day.  Foals typically nurse no more than every 10 minutes for their first week or so, and then progressively go down to about once every hour throughout their first month.

Foal Nursing

Though a horse’s udders don’t inflate like those of a cow, mares can still provide milk for their foals for about six to nine months after the foal is born. 

 As a foal grows older, it will naturally supplement its mother’s milk with types of forage such as hay and grass, depending on what is available to it.

Foal Nursing: Mares and Rejected Foals

When dealing with horses, and especially baby horses, it is rare that all goes according to plan.  Sadly, not all mares instinctively know how to raise foals, and it’s common for mares to reject foals.  It is even more common if it is the mare’s first foal.

When a mare rejects a foal, she simply will not let it nurse.  She will ignore it, not realizing it needs her to eat. When this happens, horse owners must consider their options and decide what is right for their situation.

One popular option is the use of a nurse mare.  Nurse mares can be mares that have lost pregnancies, mares that are still producing milk but have been weaned from their foals, or really any other circumstance where a mare may still be producing milk, yet not tied down to another foal.

In these cases, the foal is introduced to the nurse mare, and if the nurse mare is receptive to the foal’s presence and allows him to nurse, then arrangements are made for the nurse mare to remain with the foal until he needs to be weaned.

From there, the process is the same as it would have been with the foal’s natural mother; the foal will solely nurse for the first few weeks of its life, and then it will begin experimenting with forages such as hay and grass, in addition to nursing.

Foal Nursing: Concentrates or Forages

Studies have shown that foals who are exposed to forages such as grass and hay early on in their lives are easier to wean from their mothers.  The mare’s milk does provide all the necessary nutrients for a foal to grow strong and healthy until weaning.

But, weaning can be a difficult and stressful process.  The more a foal is exposed to forage like hay and grass, the easier the process will be.  

Some horse owners are reluctant to let their foals outside for turnout because foals are learning and are also prone to hurt themselves in the process.  This is most certainly a personal and circumstantial decision, but turnout is a great way for foals to gain access to grass as a forage.

As stated, another way for foals to get exposure to forage is through munching on hay.  Exposure to hay can be both inside a stall or outside in a pasture. Nearly all horses eat either hay or grass, and it doesn’t hurt to get them started young.

Be careful though- neither hay nor grass are, by themselves, healthy to make up a foal’s entire diet.  The nutrients in a mare’s milk are essential for a foal’s healthy growth and building of an immune system.

When To Wean A Foal

But, exposure to other foods will help with the weaning process down the road.  Weaning is the process of separating a foal from its mother, in order to break the attachment and the nursing process, and it can be extremely difficult for horses and people involved.

Some say foals can be weaned starting at three months old, but it is more common for foals to be weaned at six or even nine months old.  Throughout the weaning process, foals are introduced to new food sources.

Depending on the horse, owner, barn, location, and situation, these food sources can vary.  In North America, it is most common for foals to be introduced to a pelleted grain feed, which they will stay on, in varying types and brands, for the bulk of their lives.

When To Wean A Foal

In Europe, it is more common for horses to eat oats or a “sweet feed,” which is a mixed feed that can contain oats, grain, corn, and more.  Again, it is all dependent on the decision of the owner/breeder and others involved in bringing along each individual foal.

But, when a foal is weaned, it is essential that it be introduced to other food options, since its main food source, the mare, has been taken away.


I hope this article has helped you better understand foals and what they eat! Taking care of a foal can be much more complicated than taking care of a mature horse, and it is important to understand their needs and habits before one is placed into your care.

If this article was helpful, please share it, and share with us your experiences in caring for and feeding foals and their mothers!


How soon can a foal eat grain?

Foals need grain to keep up their energy, so it can be introduced to a nursing foal at about 6 weeks of age. Just how soon after being weaned should the foal start eating grain? Foals, like people, vary in their individual digestive systems. Foals that are growing rapidly can be fed grain earlier than foal that are not needing the extra energy.
If you feel your foal is still too young to try grain-based feed, there are several good hay options to ensure your foal has enough fiber to keep up with their growth. Foal need a diet high in fiber, so alfalfa hay is a great option.

Can foals eat oats?

Foals can eat oats, but they should be fed a small amount in the beginning. Oats contain a high amount of protein, which is not usually given to a young foal because it can be difficult on their digestive system, causing flatulence and colic.
Foals under one year old are better suited for oat hay, or grass hay as they contain less protein than the grain itself. Foals over one year old can have oat hay or oat grass, and oats in a small amount. Foals can be fed oats up to five months of age if they are over one year old. Foals should not eat more than 2 pounds of food per day and oats should only make up 10% of the foal's total diet.

Can foals eat bread?

Foals can eat bread, but it should only be in very small amounts. Foal owners should not feed their foals more than 1 ounce of bread per day. Breads should never be a major part of a foal's diet due to lack of nutrition and the effect on the digestive system. Foals should eat a diet high in fiber and low in starch. Their digestive systems are not mature, and digesting bread can be very difficult. Symptoms such as gas, bloating and straining can appear.

What milk replacement can you give a foal?

Foals are usually fed mare's milk until they are weaned but it's possible to purchase milk replacement specifically formulated for foal feeding. Foals should be fed at least 4 quarts of milk per day, depending on their size and growth rate.
Foal milk replacements come in two forms, liquid or powder. They are available in either a piglet or calf starter formula for young foals. Foal milk replacement should be fed until the foal is at least 6 months old to ensure adequate growth and development. Milk replacements should be fed cooled or lukewarm, not cold. Foals that are sick or need extra nutrition may require more than 4 quarts per day.

What can I feed my mare to produce more milk?

The mare's diet should consist of 18-20% protein and 16% fiber to ensure enough nutrients are getting into her milk. The mare's diet should also include minerals that are important for lactation, especially copper, calcium and phosphorus. A mare with a proper diet will produce milk with more proteins, less water and more fat. This ensures the foal is receiving nutrients necessary for healthy growth. However, mares diet alone is often not enough to ensure a mare produces more milk.
There are several good mare feeds you can put her on to increase milk production including: Nutrena's Mare Gold, Ralco's mare pak, or Purina's mare mak. These mare feeds are good for mares of all breeding classes and work well on mares that need a little extra nutrition. Giving supplements or special feeds to mares can increase milk production but may not be necessary depending on the mare's health, age, and condition.