Most foals go to a special rearing stable for growing up after weaning. Here they usually spend about two to two-and-a-half years. But does a foal necessarily need to be reared? What does good rearing actually look like? And what are the alternatives?
Because we do not have much space everywhere in the Netherlands, you often find affordable foal rearing stables in the more rural provinces, or even abroad. As the owner of a young horse, you usually do not have a daily view on it. That makes choosing a good rearing location quite difficult. Important aspects to consider when making your choice are herd composition, feed policy and exercise.
Behaviour specialist opts for mixed herd
Dr Machteld van Dierendonck of the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University specialises in horse behaviour. In an interview with De Paardenkrant in 2021, she pointed out the importance of proper herd composition for foals and young horses. As far as rearing is concerned she, “Preferably rearing is done in a group with different age classes and an adult animal, that gives the best training mentally and physically and the least stress.” This allows young horses to learn the different roles. Towards an older horse, they are still subordinate, while when introducing younger foals, they are allowed to be more dominant again. Learning from other (older) horses also takes away a lot of stress and also ensures character development. An animal that has grown up in this way can then cope better with stress. As Van Dierendonck says: “You don’t let a kindergarten class figure it out on their own either, right? They have to learn from others and the environment.” Growing up involves not only stability and a good social environment, but also sufficient challenge as well as people as part of the environment. That way, a horse as an adult can also cope much better with, say, a competition or an outdoor ride. So that argues against throwing one year-old foal together and hardly looking after it any further, as still often happens in practice.
In all horses, from young to old, good-quality roughage is the basis of the diet. Long-stemmed, unpacked and herb-rich hay is the best option, preferably fed unrestrictedly. As young animals are growing, it is important that they get enough vitamins, minerals, amino acids and proteins. They can get some of these nutrients from fresh grass and hay. But then you need to know what is in there. A hay test can help. In addition, especially in winter and on poor soils, supplementing certain minerals and vitamins is often a good idea. Think especially of the mineral silicon, which is essential for growing horses. Silicon is needed to help your young horse produce collagen for cartilage, tendons, connective tissue and fascia and support bone formation. So a strong horse starts with enough silicon in the feed. Even if that only works a few times a week, supplementation is a good idea. Hydrolysed, liquid silicon is the best absorbable and most effective supplement. In winter, supplementing vitamin E is also sensible, including for muscle and fertility. Sometimes vitamin E is also found in special foal feed or rearing pellets, as well as the necessary magnesium, calcium, amino acids and proteins. Look carefully at the feed your young animal is getting and, if necessary, consult with the attendant at the rearing location about supplements for your young horse. With vitamin E, the form in which it is given is also very important for absorption. Magnesium can also be fed in liquid, easily absorbable form.
A young horse needs a lot of exercise. This is because the skeleton becomes strong through exercise. That is why you want your foal, yearling or twenter to be outside as much as possible. Preferably even in a challenging environment with, for example, some height differences and different surfaces. Occasionally walking on harder or more irregular terrain stimulates hoof formation, but also, for example, balance and body awareness in the young horse. A very flat and straight pasture does not offer these challenges, although it is still a much better option than just a paddock and many hours in the stable. Especially in the first year of a young horse’s life, exercise is important to prevent the conditions OC and OCD as much as possible. In OC, something goes wrong in bone formation from cartilage and the joints do not get the right shape. In OCD, even loose pieces of bone (chips) form in the joint. Both OC and OCD can cause pain and inflammation and make the horse less loadable or even lame. There is a genetic component to this problem, but you make it much less likely to develop if your young horse has enough minerals in its diet and can move around a lot.
Conclusion: should my foal be reared?
If you can meet the conditions of a fine and diverse herd, good feed and sufficient exercise at your current location, there is no reason to send a foal to rearing. Many people do choose to do so, for example because the horses get more hours outside in the rearing yard, or because it is a lot cheaper. If you choose to go to a rearing centre, go and have a look first and find out what the procedure is. For a better horse education, choose herds of different ages. And also arrange for your horse to get the supplements you want, if that proves necessary.
Bonus tip: farrier
Finally, a tip: also make sure that hoof management at the rearing location is good. That means a good farrier, who comes regularly. This is to prevent abnormal leg positions and, for example, the development of bucking hooves as much as possible and to be able to intervene in time. With a young horse, a lot can still be done, but when your horse is three, it is too late for many corrections.