Foals Nursing and What They Eat

Jessica McDaniel
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Foal Nursing

Horses are "hetero-gastric"; meaning they have a mixed stomach and separate chambers to deal with food and water. When it comes to foals nursing and what they eat, foals usually nurse for 2-3 hours a day. After nursing, foals spend several hours eating forage in a separate part of the stomach.

Foals' digestive systems are very sensitive when young, so it's important to not feed them a large quantity of grain, especially early on. Grain could end up in their lungs, which can be fatal. It's best to feed them small amounts of grains such as oats, barley, and soybean or corn mashes. They also need high-quality alfalfa pellets, ad lib.

Grain is a supplement, not a diet. It isn't necessary to start foals on grain right away, because they will receive enough nutrients from their colostrum and milk.

Pellets such as SmartPellets, Pellet Pro, and/or Pro-BEx are usually the best choice for an everyday feed. They have the right nutrients in the right amounts.

Grains such as cracked corn, oats (or rice bran), and barley are usually only used as treats.

Foal Nursing: Mares and Rejected Foals

When a mare has her foal, she will usually only milk enough for her foal for those first few days. A newborn foal usually drinks about 4 fl oz (125 ml) of milk each feeding. At the same time, the mare’s milk is changing from colostrum to the normal milk for a growing foal. The milk is higher in fat and lower in protein then colostrum and is perfect for growing a foal in the first few weeks of life. It has not been worked on by the rumen bacteria and does not contain any cellulose. The foals tummy isn’t used to the bacteria yet as is still limited to liquids. The new milk is safe for the foal to drink as the mare’s colostrum is safe for the foal to drink.

As the foal grows, the mare’s milk changes composition and the foal should start eating the mare’s hay level with its legs and drinking only water. Once the foal is drinking the mare’s hay, it will start eating the mare’s hay, eventually leaving the mare’s milk. This usually takes those first couple weeks.

Foal Nursing: Concentrates or Forages

Foals nurse on their mammae (udder) by lapping the mother’s milk with their tongues. If the foal is nursing efficiently, the mother’s udder will retract to its pre-calving size.

Throughout the nursing period (8–10% of the foal’s life), the foal should get approximately 1.5% of its mother’s body weight each day (Equus Nutrition). If the foal is nursing efficiently with no competition from a sibling, then it’s getting enough to eat and be happy.

However, problems can arise if the mare doesn’t have sufficient milk or competition from a bottle-fed (or weaned) sibling is at play.

Bare Mares where Foals Are Not Nursed

Well-fed, well-conditioned foals not nursing.

Poor-Conditioned Foals Not Nursing

A foal can have problems nursing from the mare the following reasons:

If the foal is not getting enough milk from the mare it may be because:

When To Wean A Foal

Foals are taken from their mother shortly after birth. After birth, the foal will be raised by its mother until it’s old enough to be weaned, around 2 months.

Foal and mother will form a strong bond with the mother allowing the foal to nurse for about 30 minutes at a time during the rearing period. Usually the foal will nurse when the mother returns from grass. Foals are weaned in order to prevent any sicknesses or complications for the mother.

Foals often nurse in the middle of the night when the mother is away grazing. A common reason for this is due to the sows returning late back to the stables after grazing, and the foal is left nursing overnight, from a period of up to ten hours at a time.

Pregnant sows are left separate from the other sows until after the birth of their foal. This is to prevent the sows from fighting over the unborn foal.

This means that all the foal’s meals need to be provided by alternative means, either through the ground vehicles used by the stables or by the dung sinker.

Cattle milk is freely available in some areas of the world and this is used to feed foals and unvaccinated cattle.


A baby foal, which is typically only a few hours old, will usually nurse 10-12 times a day. The nurses may last for 15 minutes or as long as an hour, depending on how big the baby is. The baby typically falls asleep right after nursing, only to be woken up a few minutes later by its mother nuzzling it for the next feeding. This cycle is the same day after day for the first few months.

There are many factors that contribute to a foal's appetite. Some foals will nurse more often than others, and baby foals will need to eat more than adults for a longer time period. During the first 24 hours of life, the average nursing time is anywhere from 12-16 hours. This pattern is important to know because it helps with how the dam needs to be treated.

If your dam continues to show milk, you will need to allow her another 24 hours to resupply her milk to your foal as he nurses. Additionally, it may be necessary for you to stimulate the dam's udder to aid in milk production. A foal will continue to nurse for at least the first week of its life. However, as it gets older, nursing will decrease in frequency. This reduction is normal and won't signal a problem. At this point, the foal will consume the milk that is present in the dam's udder.