How Do Horses Feed Their Young?

If you are wondering how do horses feed their young, then hopefully everything you want to know is for you here in our guide on foals and how they eat. Foals are amazing creatures from the minute they are born. Within a few short hours after birth, foals are able, albeit a little wobbly, to gallop with their mothers.

A Little Bit About Foals

Foals are born after eleven months of gestation. When they are born, they come out front feet first, followed by the head, shoulders, and the rest of the body. All foals are born with ‘slippers’ on their feet.

These slippers are soft tissue that protects the mother’s birth canal from the foal’s hooves. As soon as this tissue comes in contact with the air, it begins to disintegrate. By the time the foal is 24-hours old, the slippers are completely gone.

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Horse Breastfeeding

While it is easy to call how a horse feeds its young breastfeeding, this technically isn’t correct. A female horse does not have breasts, though some of the names for the anatomy are similar to humans. All mares have mammary glands located high up between their hind legs.

The location protects this sensitive area from the sun and injury. In a mare that has never had a foal, the teats are small. When a mare has had a foal, this area and the teats are larger, sometimes making it easy to see that the horse has given birth before.

All mares have two teats, each with two or three openings, depending on how many mammary lobes each teat has. During pregnancy, the mare’s body gets ready for milk production. This does not happen until late in gestation, again nature’s way of protecting the area.

Different hormones stimulate the stages of milk production so that if everything goes as it should, the mare has enough milk when the foal is born.

What Do Baby Horses Eat

Baby horses eat milk by suckling on their mother’s teats. In the first few weeks of life, the foal will suckle more frequently. A healthy foal will drink from its mother as often as every ten minutes and up to 15 liters a day.

The milk contains everything a foal needs to grow quickly during the first few weeks. After the first week, the gaps between eating will widen, and by one month it is about one hour between feeds.

what do baby horses eat

The First Milk

It is extremely important that a foal drinks from its mother as quickly as possible after it is born. It is the most important meal of a horse’s life. The name of the first milk is colostrum.

When a foal is born is has no immunity or functioning immune system, making it very vulnerable. For the first few hours of life, the digestive tract is open, specifically, so it can absorb the colostrum. Colostrum is different from regular milk.

Colostrum contains all the nutrients and immunity from the mother that the foal needs to start life. There is only a small window when the foal’s intestines can absorb colostrum. As more time passes after birth, the digestive tract begins to close, and absorption is no longer possible.

Also, the first liter of colostrum is the most potent with immunoglobulins. After six hours, this potency decreases, and as such, the quality of the colostrum goes down.

Good quality colostrum is thick, sticky, and yellow in color. If it is thin and runny, it is a sign that the quality is poor. To ensure a foal has the best chance of good colostrum, it needs to drink from its mother within a couple of hours.

If this does not happen, then the situation becomes urgent and needs veterinary intervention. These foals will usually need a plasma transfusion so that they get the necessary immunity. Do not take a wait, and see approach when it comes to the first milk.

All foals should have an IgG test at around 24-hours old. This test will check to make sure the levels of IgG are high enough, which confirms the foal got enough quality colostrum. If they are too low, the vet will administer plasma.

Do Foals Only Eat Milk

For the first few days, a foal will only drink milk. After a few days or a week or two, the foal will start to show interest in grass, hay, water, and its mother’s grain. Early on, they will not eat much of this.

You will also see foals eating their mother’s manure. This is perfectly normal and not a bad thing. In fact, it a good thing, as it helps the foal populate its intestines with the necessary microorganisms that allow it to freely eat, and digest food without the necessity of milk.

By the time a baby horse is six months old, it will combine eating grass, hay, and grain with drinking from its mother. At six months of age, the foal can safely survive without milk. This is the most common age to start weaning. 

Do Horses Nurse

Horses do nurse from their mother by suckling on her teats. The teats are located at the bottom of her udder, which fills substantially when the mare is nursing. Making milk is very hard on a mare’s body. You will often notice that she loses weight.

It is important that a mare has access to good grass when nursing. Many also need grain designed for lactating mares and access to hay. This extra feed will help the mare produce enough quality milk and prevent too much weight loss.

Feeding Foals from Birth to Weaning is an interesting video presented by an equine nutritionist that details all about feeding a foal.

How Long Do Horses Feed Their Young

If the foal is not weaned from its mother at six months old, it will continue to nurse. The mother will keep allowing this for some time. However, it will become less frequent.

How long the mother allows this will depend on the mare. Some mares get sick of it and start to kick the foal off sooner than others. In the wild, the mare will stop her yearling nursing when she has a new foal to feed.

Conclusion

So how do horses feed their young? Horses feed their young by nursing them. They produce milk that gives them all the nutrients the foal needs to grow strong. Mares will allow their foals, especially in the first weeks, to drink as often as they want.

Some mares will even encourage their foal to nurse with some gentle nudges. They will also stretch their back legs out so the foal can access the teats more easily.

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