My mare is expecting a foal. How should I look after her and feed her?

Mare and foalQuestion: I need to know how to keep a healthy mare and foal and keep my mare in good condition while she is in foal and what the best bedding to have when she foals.

Answer from April Reeves: Let’s start with bedding. I prefer to use straw bedding at first. Keep it thick to give the mare and foal maximum comfort, especially since newborn foals tend to fall a lot while learning to stand. Straw smells natural to a horse, and watch that it’s not dusty or moldy. Keep the straw in the stall for about 3-5 days after the foal is born, then you can switch to shavings.

I do not use shavings during foal delivery or just after. I find they can get into the nasal passages of young foals, and can create infection around the naval area. They can also get caught up inside a mare’s vulva and cause infection. Watch that the shavings are not dusty, are not made from cedar, and are not sawdust.

Feeds – Hays
Hays have become challenging to purchase. I will go through the types of hays available and the differences between first, second and third cuts.

Grass hay is the most available and is the main forage for any horse. When choosing a good hay look for less stalk and more leaf – this is where the nutrients are. Look for seed heads and don’t be concerned that it is a nice green and smells sweet – this is an indication the hay may be rich in sugar. I prefer to feed first cut hay, as it is usually lower in sugars and starches. First cut can also be lower in protein, but I would rather take the lower sugar and starch hay and supplement with feeds that provide the protein. Horses do not need excessive amounts of protein unless they are worked heavily. 10% to 12% protein in hay is very adequate for a broodmare. I am cautious with second cut hays unless they are not as green, and I avoid any third cut hay that is green, sweet smelling and soft to the touch. Horses need fibre; it is vital for digestion, and fibre = energy. Without it, you are inviting impaction and colic. If you want to test hay for sugar content, just soak a flake in a tub of water for an hour. The level of brown color you get is the level of sugar released from soaking.

Fibre = Energy

Timothy hay would be a good hay to mix with your grass hay. Feed your mare one to two flakes per day additional. Timothy has up to 12% protein and is fairly low in sugars and starches.

Alfalfa hay is not to be fed to any horse as the only forage given. It is a legume with up to 25% protein. It is also dangerously low in fibre. Pure alfalfa diets for broodmares can cause laminitis in the mare and the foal, and the high protein levels are turned into highly toxic ammonia in the hindgut (that‚s the overwhelming smell you get in clean barns that feed only alfalfa). Alfalfa is also linked to arthritis and joint problems. One flake per day in addition to your other hays would supplement her protein intake. It’s all about balance!

I free feed all my horses, as horses free feed in the wild. I find they either gain weight if thin, or lose weight if heavy. Horses will nibble all day, but take in small amounts, instead of gorging every 4 hours or so. This will allow the developing foal to resist the ups and downs of blood sugars by having a consistent stream of nutrients. Horse’s small stomachs empty every 12 minutes (when almost full), so horses need feed on a constant basis. An empty stomach over too long a period gathers hydrochloric acid to levels that can induce pain and damage. I have used less hay over the years and have happier horses when riding as they are neither hungry nor too full.

For your broodmare, turn her out on grass for 2 – 4 hours per day, then give her free access to a good quality first or second cut hay, supplemented with one flake of alfalfa and timothy per day. If she is excessively fat right now, take out the alfalfa and pasture until she slims out a bit, but be careful not to thin her out too quickly or too far.

Grains
I’m not a big supporter of mixed grains, processed feeds such as pellets and certainly not sweet feeds. Most horses never work hard enough to warrant feeding high levels of grains and grain byproducts. Let’s take a look at a few basic feeds:

Pellets
Never have liked them, as they are often full of sugars and toxins. They usually contain cheap grains, where some should never enter a horse’s system, plus inexpensive oils and molasses. They are processed with heat and friction, often taking the oils to toxic levels.

Extruded Feeds
A better choice to pellets, as they are processed under lower levels of heat. They are better suited to hard working horses, thin, older and younger horses.

Oats
Highly digestible, these should be fed whole (not crushed) to working horses that need the energy.

Stay away from:
Sweet feeds – full of sugars (molasses) that convert into fats in the liver. Humans don’t do well on a sugar diet, and neither do horses.

Corn (high starch, low fibre, high glycemic index, poor digestibility)

Barley (in whole form)

Rice bran – high fibre, low nutritional value, slows down transit times

Soybeans (in whole form, not a natural food for horses, mostly GMO)

Linseed – a byproduct of flaxseed, can have toxic properties and is processed. Feed flaxseed instead.

Oils – stay away from ALL oils – there is no nutritional value, they slow down the transit (digestion) times, causing fermentation leading to colics, and horses have no real ability to digest them as horses are super-vegans and do not have a gallbladder (creates bile to break down oils).

There is a great video series about “Why Horses and Oils Don’t Mix” on Horseman’s U.com/videos/Great Trainers and Clinicians/Marijke van de Water.

Other feeds to consider using:
Flax – wonderful little seed. Grind (in coffee grinder) before giving to your mare. Store the flax in a cool dark place. Feed about 2 tbsp/day. Has enormous amounts of nutrients, vitamins, digestible fats. Considered a natural product for horses, as they will find them in the wild.

Beet Pulp – may not be the best one for a broodmare, but possibly a good food for her after the foal is weaned. It is full of fibre (fibre = energy) high in calcium, but needs to be soaked for 2 hours before feeding. Do not leave it soaking for over 6 hours.

Wheat bran – one cup per day, has high levels of folic acid, minerals, B vitamins, selenium, potassium. It is a feed that should not be a staple, but fed in addition to, as it has little energy value. A good mix with beet pulp.

Supplements
If your mare has additional needs (thin, undernourished) then I would consult a vet before using supplements.

If your mare looks healthy, has a shiny coat, and good weight, I would not consider any grains until the last 3 months, and start her very slowly, so the unborn foal does not take on excessive amounts of proteins and nutrients too quickly. Your mare will get all the nutrients she needs from pasture, good hays and regular vet checks. When you do begin feeding grains, try to feed twice a day, 12 hours apart.

Make sure she always has access to clean cool water.

Keep your mare moving. Don’t lock her up or confine her unnecessarily. Don’t overfeed her with sweet and rich feeds.

Riding
I have always worked my mares up to the day they foal. In the last 3 months they are ridden 5 days a week, for about 20 minutes, lightly. They enjoy a short walk down the road or trail. Broodmares need to keep moving and light exercise will help keep muscles strong for foaling. What they don‚t need are heavy saddles and riders. Keep the weight light as broodmares are already under strain from the weight of the foal. Adding heavy riders can damage her spine, making foaling difficult or dangerous.

The Foal
Just a few things to know about foals:

About one week to two weeks old, foals develop diarrhea. This is a natural reaction to their bodies undergoing the changes from the womb nutrition to the mare’s milk. It lasts for a few days only. If it continues after 5 days, consult a vet. You may see your foal eating manure at this time also. They are looking for digestive bacteria and other nutrients.

Foals react to fast changes in the mare’s diet, such as putting them out in pasture after 3 months of abstinence. Make all your changes very gradual.

I hope this information helps you for your future foal. It’s an exciting time. Babies are so much fun, and if you keep the foal and eventually train and work with it, you will have a bonding like no other. I have had several foals from birth to death, and one in particular, a Polish Arabian stallion, was my best horse yet. There was a level of bonding there that you could not replicate by purchasing a mature stallion.

If you are looking for a superb book on feeding and nutrition, go to Riva’s Remedies, Marijke van de Water, at rivasremedies.com. Marijke has just published an exceptional book, “Healing Horses Their Way” that is a must for every horse owner. It is not your typical generic nutrition book: it covers almost every ailment, how to feed for those problems, and how to avoid them in the first place, plus a comprehensive listing of herbs and natural remedies. Marijke is a highly recognized and sought-after clinician in North America, whose work is becoming popular and valuable in both English and Western breeders and riders.

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