The mental and physical health of a foal is strongly linked to the nature and nurturing of its dam. Their robustness is coupled with more than just the genetic makeup of the mare. A broodmare on a well-balanced diet in a healthy living environment is more likely to produce a well-balanced and healthy foal that will grow into a healthy weanling, yearling, two-year-old and eventually sound adult horse.
A well-cared-for broodmare pays forward, producing a splendid foal. The nourishment a foal receives during gestation is of equal value to the nourishment it receives after birth.
Although there are many essential elements in caring for broodmares, nutrition is a mainstay. The mare must call upon the resources of her own body to build a young horse. Since vastly different things happen in the mare’s body at different stages of the production cycle, it is perceived that her nutritional needs at each stage need to change. Even though this is justifiable it is important to remember that broodmares need good nutritionallthe time.
The adjustments to any nutritional program during the various stages of reproduction are merely fine tuning to an overall good nutritional program 365 days of the year. Free-choice minerals, free-choice water and free-choice, good-quality nutrient-dense hay/pasture are necessary.
Mineral availability, whether in the feed source or offered free choice, is as relevant to the long-term soundness of the broodmare as are a feed’s energy and protein levels – perhaps more so over several pregnancies. The mare uses her body as a storehouse of resources which she calls upon during reproduction, from conception to weaning. She continually replenishes this storehouse from her diet whenever she has the opportunity.
In nature, horses are grazing animals and during the spring the quality and quantity of available forage increases, and along with this, there is a gradually increasing nutritional plane available to the horse. This is one of several ways that the mare’s body “recognizes” it is time to reproduce and in a year’s time this abundant grazing will once again be at its best when the mare is lactating with a young foal at her side.
Mares reproduce with the seasons to capitalize on the energy and mineral density readily found in the natural world.
Once the mare has conceived, the fetus goes through a period of differentiation, becoming more complex daily. By the beginning of the eighth month, it starts to grow rapidly, doubling in size during the third trimester of pregnancy. Quality nutrition can meet many of the needs of the late-gestational mare, but she will also call on her own body’s energy and mineral reserves. This is the reason good nutrition mattersall the time. Mineral reserves in the bones act as sinks which the mare mobilizes for the framework of fetal development and growth.
Nutrient and energy requirements dramatically increase when lactat ion begins. A good mare can produce up to 30 pounds of milk per day. Weight loss during this time period is not uncommon and may even be a natural and healthy part of the reproductive cycle. After four months of lactation, the requirements for milk production gradually diminish as the foal begins to eat forage on its own terms.
Throughout her production cycle, moderate fleshing is the best body condition for a broodmare. Adding whole grains to a mare’s feed during gestation and lactation can be beneficial since they are nutrient dense, increasing both the energy and mineral profile of a mare’s diet. Their addition can also be advantageous during the breeding season to increase the nutritional plane and “flush” the mare. Quality pasture in the spring also serves this purpose.
Since the demands of reproduction are substantial, fillies bred before they are mature simply cannot eat enough to meet all the requirements for both growth and reproduction.
Other practices that benefit the broodmare are appropriate dental care, timely deworming, and hoof care. Movement and exercise are also key to a healthy outcome for both the mare and her foal.
Remember that horses, like all people, are individuals and experience varying needs from time to time that may require further attention.
Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian specializing in equine practice at Westlock, Alberta.