|Creep feeding started early is a good way to ease the foal through weaning. As the
foal eats more creep feed he will nurse less and the mare's milk production will gradually
decline. The mare's peak milk production is when the foal is about three to six weeks old,
just as the foal is needing more nutrients, not less. Additionally, weaning won't be as
traumatic to the foal if he is already used to eating on his own.
If you start to
provide food for the foal when he is about a month old it will give him a chance to
consume additional calories while he is still nursing. However, just putting the food out
may not be enough as some mares won't allow their foals to share their food. Or, if they
are in a group, other mares may keep the foal from eating.
Creep feeding uses some type of barrier that allows the small foal access to the food,
but keeps the mare(s) from eating it. Some creep feeders are made out of portable panels
or fencing material, perhaps in a corner of the pasture. Other creep feeders are made out
of plastic containers with bars across the top, spaced wide enough for the foal's muzzle,
but too narrow for the mare. Whichever form you choose, it must be safe for the foal to
use, but strong enough to prevent the mare from breaking into it.
A creep feeder built in the pasture can be a temporary or permanent structure. Often
the mare is prevented from entering by a pole across the entrance that is high enough to
allow the foal to pass through, but too low for the mare to pass. Be sure to provide at
least two entrances so the foal isn't trapped inside by other foals or mares. The creep
can be built to provide shade and shelter for the foal, and protection from the elements
for the feed. It should also be placed near where the mare likes to spend some time,
perhaps near the waterer, so the foal will have a chance to use it often.
You may need to teach the foal how to use the creep, after all he's learned most
everything he knows by following his mother, but she won't be able to show him how to use
the creep feeder. You can push him into the creep feeder and handle him in there daily.
While he is in there you can check his vital signs (see Basic Vital
Signs). You will also want to check his weight with a scale or weight tape on a
regular basis to ensure you are providing the correct amount of food. Also be sure to vary
the entrance and exit so he learns there is more than one way in and out.
The feed you provide should be high quality. The foal's digestive system isn't
developed enough yet to handle too much fiber. A shot of DynaPro can help his digestion.
Put out only small amounts at a time to prevent overeating or spoilage - perhaps a
little alfalfa hay with some grain and free choice grass hay. The grain can be whole or
rolled oats, cracked or flaked corn, or rolled or whole barley. Start by offering no more
than about 1/2 percent of the foal's body weight. For example, for a foal that weighs
about 200 pounds you can put out about a half-pound of alfalfa and a half-pound of grain.
Feeding too much can cause developmental problems (for example epiphysitis - see Epiphysitis & Leg Problems). The foal is in trouble if he
gains weight faster than his growing leg bones can handle.
You also need to be careful of the phosphorus-calcium balance. Adding a little alfalfa
can counter the high phosphorus content in the grain. The alfalfa can be in the form of
hay or pellets (pellets may help prevent the hay belly seen on some foals). You should
have your feed analyzed by a private or university lab. Talk to your county extension
agent about local conditions and to recommend a lab.
The foal should also have trace minerals available free choice. An excellent product is
Dynamite Free Choice. It is available in two formulations - 1 to 1 for horses fed
primarily legume hay (e.g. alfalfa) and 2 to 1 for horses in calcium-deficient areas or
fed primarily grass hay. Both formulations contain chelated calcium, phosphorus, chelated
copper and zinc, Ester-C and sources of organic silica. Many breeders put out containers
of each formulation and allow the horses to determine which they need. See Dynamite Free Choice for more information.
Once the foal is eating regularly in the creep feeder and only nursing his mother on
occasion, you can start to wean him without causing much stress. This can be as early as
2-4 months of age. Low-stress weaning will be the subject of another article.