Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
Now that we are aware of the potential problems of the skeletal system of the foal, we will address some management techniques that may aid in preventing their occurrence. These include dietary management of the mare and foal, exercise needs, controlling growth rate and even selection of appropriate breeding stock.
Size and growth rate
One of the commonalties amongst all developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD) includes the size and growth rate of the foal. Obviously the larger the foal, the more stress which will be placed on the limbs simply due to weight. Bigger and more rapidly growing foals have been repeatedly shown to be at more risk for DODs. Body size is inherently a genetic issue, while growth rate can be modulated by the owner. If you are breeding for larger foals, more caution should be taken with their diet to ensure a more moderate rate of growth. This includes avoiding sudden changes in rate of growth. One way to limit changes in growth rate is to avoid ad libitum feeding or to avoid stress placed on the foal. Stresses may include environmental (weather dependent) or social stress, such as weaning. One method to manage stress of weaning in foals is to creep feed foals prior to weaning to accustom them to consuming concentrates. Also, the manner in which the foal is weaned can reduce their stress. Babies weaned in isolation exhibit more stress behaviors than foals weaned with a pasture-mate. Try to keep their environment as close as possible to what they experienced prior to weaning.
The amount of exercise the foal receives can also influence the development of DOD. Excessive trauma to the joint through overwork can influence development of osteochondrosis (OC) as well as restriction of exercise. So what exercise program is correct for a foal? Foals in adequate pasture size typically spend their time sleeping, nursing, following their dam, and playing in short bursts of activity with other foals. Foals without peers may spend less time playing. Similarly if they are confined to too small of a space they exhibit less play behavior. In addition, if their environment is too small with no novel objects or activities, foals tend to be less active. At the furthest extreme would be foals and young horses confined to stalls without access to voluntary exercise. The best advice for proper bone development in the young foal is to provide adequate pasture space to allow them to run and play on their own. How do you know your pasture is big enough? Simple observation will tell you if your foals are playing. If the foals just stand around, or if you have a single foal with no playmates, they may not have the stimulus to run and play.
Many nutritional causes of DOD have been proposed with very few providing direct causative relationships in a research setting. However, that may be due to a lack of combining the correct causative factors in this multifactorial disease. Perhaps the foals used in the studies need to have a genetic predisposition for DOD, and then must be exposed to the right management conditions to initiate the disease process. However, the most commonly proposed theories include excess energy, mineral imbalances, and inadequate protein. One of the proposed theories in the development of DOD is feeding of excessive non-structural carbohydrates to growing horses. These feedstuffs (think traditional cereal grains like corn) cause a more rapid increase in blood glucose post feeding versus feeds containing more fiber. Higher levels of blood glucose increase insulin levels in the young horse, which may have a cascade of metabolic consequences down to the level of cartilage maturation. While it has been shown repeatedly that feeding high concentrate diets alters the glucose/insulin response and reduces insulin sensitivity, the direct causative relationship to DODs has not been established. The most important guideline appears to be to avoid unregulated feeding of concentrates. High protein diets have also fallen under the radar of causing DOD, but this has not been able to be shown in a research setting.
Mineral nutrition has probably seen the greatest attention related to DODs. To begin with the simplest, imbalances of deficiencies of calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) can clearly lead to abnormalities of bone development. (Please see the articles about calcium and phosphorous in my series, Minerals for Horses, for more details.) However, just because foals are fed adequate amounts of Ca and P in the correct ratios does not guarantee they will be free from abnormalities.
Another mineral which has received much attention is copper. One of the original studies which pointed to deficiencies of Cu causing OC in foals unfortunately also allowed deficient levels of Ca and P to be fed to the foals, thus making it difficult to point to only one cause. Later studies found highly contradictive results and have not offered any protective benefits to feeding supplemental copper. Taken all together, the most promising results of supplementing copper have been seen when providing copper to the dam in late gestation, or in supplementing copper to promote the repair of OC lesions.
Included in the list of “just bad luck”, trauma may also result in a DOD. Young horses have a great propensity to get themselves into trouble. They can get kicked by a pasture mate, run into a stationary object (believe me I’ve seen it), or even tumble head over heels for no great reason other than they are still learning their balance. While not much prevention can occur here, at least try to ensure that no overly aggressive horses are housed with young stock, and that dangerous obstacles are not in the pasture. For example, I’ve seen weanlings during a running fit run headlong into an automatic waterer, somersault over the top, and, luckily, continue on their way. If you raise foals, always expect some sort of trauma to arise. Just try to ensure their environment is as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, the genetics of your foal may be the single largest contributing factor to DOD. Many recent studies have found numerous markers across a number of chromosomes that have been linked to OC. While this sheds some interesting new light on the problem, it is also difficult to select against. Compared to a single point mutation like HYPP, horses cannot be identified as simple carriers of the gene for the disease. Screening for potential carriers of OC would be costly and ineffective. However, that does not mean the breeder has little recourse. If your mare has consistently produced foals with OC, one of two things may be true: one, your management program may be inadequate or, two, she may have a genetic likelihood to produce these types of foals. You can often hear rumblings in the horse community about certain stallions which also tend to throw a lot of foals with OC. Perhaps these are individuals we should select against. However, the amount of research currently being conducted on the genetic link to OC does provide some promise that we may be able to limit this disorder in the future.
Taken all together, the best plan for avoiding DOD may be, first, to select genetically healthy individuals to breed, and, second, foals should be managed with attention to diet and exercise until they are two years of age. Many causes of DOD may be unavoidable, but hopefully with proper care and management, one can produce a healthy normal adult.
Next month we begin talking about the usage of fat in the equine diet, and how it may be able to improve the health or performance of your horse.