Tag Archives: foals

  • Equine Carbohydrate Disorders, Part 1: Definitions and Relationship to Equine Diseases

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
    Equine disorders related to carbohydrate consumption have received much attention by owners and researchers alike, as of late. This has resulted in almost a mistrust or fear of feeding horses carbohydrates.  But in reality, almost all of the horse’s calories come from carbohydrates – there is no way to avoid them in the horse’s diet. What one must do is understand all of the forms in which CHO (carbohydrates) are found, identify horses at risk for CHO disorders and select the appropriate feeds to keep them healthy.
    To begin, carbodydrates are simply molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen and water. Monosaccharides are single units of sugars which vary slightly in their structure.  Common monosccahrides in the horse’s diet consist of glucose, galactose, fructose, mannose, arbinose and xylose. While these monosaccharides are not normally found in their single form in plants, they are joined together to make  longer polysaccharides. However, monosaccharides are produced through  enzymatic digestion by the horse.  Disaccahrides, then, are just two sugar units linked together. Common disaccharides include lactose (found in mare’s milk and is formed by glucose and galactose linked together) and maltose (two glucose units linked together).
    Figure 1. Glucose and galactose. The two structures only differ by the location of the hydroxyl group on the left side of the structure.
    Oligosaccharides are longer chains of a variety of monosaccharides linked together, typically between three and ten sugar units.  The primary oligosaccharides in the horse's diet are stachyose, raffinose and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS).  FOS have received attention in animal nutrition as a way to supply pre-biotics to the animal. Pre-biotics are often oligosaccharides which are resistant to digestion in the foregut of the horse but are digested by bacteria in the hindgut. These supply a source of nutrition which supports the growth of beneficial bacteria and perhaps reduces the population of disease causing – or "pathogenic" – bacteria. In fact they are looked at as an alternative to feeding antibiotics in livestock. FOS are believed to alter the pH of the colon to a more favorable environment for the most productive bacteria. Mannose specific oligosaccharides are also thought to reduce the adherence of pathogenic bacteria to the epithelium of the gut wall. In yearling horses, feeding FOS reduced fecal pH and increased the production of volatile fatty acids from the hind gut. FOS supplementation also decreased the incidence of diarrhea when fed to foals. It has also been shown to have a protective effect on the development of foal diarrhea when fed to their dams. However, it is not known if that was an indirect effect passed through the milk, or if the foals simply ingested some of their dams' feed containing the supplement. While feeding oligosaccharides does not appear to have an immune boosting effect that has been suggested in other species, it does appear to have beneficial effects on gut health in the equine. Horses receiving FOS and challenged with a large barley meal had less lactobacilli in their colon compared to controls. Thus FOS may help prevent GI disturbances due to diet changes or CHO overload.
    Fructooligosaccharides also belong to the category of carbohydrates labeled as fructans.  Fructans are polysaccharides which have multiple fructose units. Inulin is also classified  as a  fructan. Many horse owners have heard of fructans as a risk factor for pasture associated laminitis. A sudden increase in fructans in the diet can alter the microbial population in the hindgut which may then subsequently lead to the development of laminitis. Fructan concentrations in grasses vary with both season and time of day.  Fructans and other starch concentrations are highest in the spring, lowest in the summer and intermediate in the fall. During the day, the process of photosynthesis results in the highest concentrations of fructans in the afternoon with sometimes half or less in the morning or evening hours.
    Other CHO include longer chains of sugar units and are known as polysaccharides. Most commonly we think of starches and fibers as the common polysaccharides in the equine diet. Starch occurs in either linear form known as amylose or branched form, amylopectin.  It is composed of only glucose linked by bonds that can be enzymatically digested by the horse. In contrast, cellulose is also a straight chain of glucose but is linked by a different type of bond , a beta bond, which must be broken by microbes. Fermentation of this fiber fraction results in formation of volatile fatty acids which are metabolized by the horse to produce energy. Pectin and hemicelluloses are also common polysaccharides found in the equine diet.
    Figure 2. Amylose is a chain of glucose units linked by alpha bond.
    Figure 3. Cellulose is a similar chain of glucose units, but linked by beta bonds instead, making it indigestible by mammals.
    Those CHO linked with alpha bonds can be digested in the foregut, allowing the monosaccharides to be absorbed intact. In contrast, cellulose, hemicelluloses, pectin, raffinose and stachyose, which contain beta bonds, will all need to undergo microbial fermentation to provide energy to the horse.   Hemicellulose, compared to cellulose, is a mixture of arabinose, xylose, glucose , mannose and galactose. Pectin is made up of beta linked galacturonic acid, arabinose and galactose. Pectin and hemi-cellolose are more rapidly fermented than cellulose and increase the digestibility of the feed if present in a greater proportion.
    Now that we know what different types of carbohydrates exist in the horse’s diet, let’s look more closely at some differences that occur in forages. Typically, forages should always make up the bulk of the horse’s diet. They are made up of structural CHO which make up the cell wall as well as some indigestible lignin.  The plant cell wall is made of cellulose, hemicelluloses and pectin. Forages also have non-structural CHO or NSC in the cell content, though certainly not as much as concentrates. The NSC is a mixture of monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, etc.) and disaccharides as well as starch and fructans.
    If we compare common forages, cool season grasses are made up of primarily cellulose, then hemi-celluose and the fairly small amounts of pectin. Cool season grasses include Kentucky Bluegrass, orchard grass, fescues and ryegrass.  Legumes, which are typically high in digestible energy are relatively higher in pectin. Legumes would include alfalfa, clover, lespedeza and peanuts. Warm season grasses grow and mature more rapidly and have much more cell wall/kg DM and thus much more fiber. Warm season grasses include Bermuda grass, switchgrasses, and bluestem. Therefore warm season grasses at a later stage of maturity may be ideal for horses with carbohydrate sensitivities. In general, there is a higher proportion of cell content in a younger, or more immature plant. This makes grasses or hays harvested at an earlier stage more digestible.
    Interestingly, the storage form of CHO in legumes and warm season grasses is primarily starch, while cool season grasses prefer to store energy in the form of fructans with much less starch. There is also a limit to how much starch the chloroplasts of warm season grasses and legumes can contain, yet there is no limit to fructan accumulation. Fructan also accumulates more to the base of the plant and more so in the stem than in the leaf. Cool temperatures and droughts (which typically don’t go together) may also increase the fructan production by the plant. Anything that promotes photosynthesis but retards growth ends up increasing NSC (lots of light with cool temperatures).   Therefore, be especially careful to observe growing conditions, especially if the horses are consuming cool season grasses and have carbohydrate sensitivities.

  • Minimizing the Stress of Weaning

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    The fall season is here and with it often comes the time for weaning our foals. Many successful weaning strategies exist but it is important for the manager to choose the optimal one for their facilities and management style. These decisions are important and can affect the growth, well being and even the future behavior of your foal.
    When is it appropriate to wean?
    Foals can be weaned at any age provided their proper nutrition and socialization skills are ensured. Foals whose dam’s may die at birth are obviously “weaned” from their dam at an extremely young age. While it is preferable to find a willing nurse mare, and it is even possible to induce lactation in a non-pregnant mare, many owners choose to put the foal on a liquid diet of formula designed to match the mare’s own milk.  Specialized milk replacer, goat’s milk and supplemented cow’s milk can all be used successfully.  Prior to doing so, it is important to ensure that the foal has received adequate amounts of high quality colostrum, as the proteins found in the milk replacer may block the later absorption of immunoglobins from colostrum. Colostrum content quickly decreases in post-partum mares and should have been harvested within the first three hours post parturition of the donor mare.
    Orphaned foals must be fed frequently , initially from a bottle, but can then be taught to drink from a pail, similar to calves. Initially the foal should be fed at 5-10% of its body weight in the first day, and then increase to 20-25% of its body weight by day 10. Solid feeds can be introduced early, as the foal would typically begin to ingest feed in imitation of its dam after only one week of being born. Milk replacer pellets are available, and can help supplement the foals’ initial liquid diet.   Foals can be weaned from this liquid diet by 10-12 weeks of age. Most importantly, some sort of companion should be found for the foal. Often orphan foals develop undesirable behaviors as they have no guidance from a mature horse as to what constitutes appropriate social behavior. Typically, orphaned foals view humans as their peers, which may result in some rather inappropriate rough play!
    With the exception of extremely early loss of the dam for a variety of reasons (death, injury, sales, etc.) most managers choose to wean foals between three and six months of age. In the feral state, foals typically are self weaned by 35 weeks of age or between eight and nine months. At five months all foals spend 50-70% of their day consuming solid feed, compared to about 2% of the day suckling. Mare’s milk production also begins to drop off by three months of age, at which time foals are consuming a high percentage of natural feeds through grazing, hay or concentrates.  It is advantageous to introduce the foal to the feeds it will be consuming post-weaning to ensure an easier and more stress-free transition. This will also help prevent fluctuations in growth rates that may place the foal at risk for developing developmental disorders.
    After insuring that the proper diet is being fed (see previously related articles concerning protein, energy and minerals for growth), the management system used is important to consider. Foals weaned in isolation (such as confined in a box stall) show more incidences of stereotypies (such as weaving, cribbing and wood chewing) and are more vigilant (less time standing relaxed) than foals weaned in pairs. Foals weaned in stalls also show more abnormal behaviors such as stall licking, kicking, rearing and pawing than weanlings weaned in a paddock. Even horses stabled for the first time as two year olds exhibited much less aberrant behavior and were more relaxed when stalled in pairs versus singularly.
    Therefore the ideal management system would wean the foals with a counter-part, rather than in isolation. For example, at our facility we wean the foals by removing the dams, with foals remaining in the same pasture and with the same herd mates with which they have been raised. This results in very little stress (at least as exhibited by vocalizations and seeking of their dam) which is frequently resolved within two days post weaning.   Even in this system we wean in pairs, whether or not this actually relieves stress for the weanling. If raising only one foal, it is advisable to seek out an older quiet pasture mate, or even to find another youngster to raise with it. Many horse owners find themselves in a similar situation and may be willing to board another weanling or send theirs as a companion.
    Alternative strategies include gradual weaning, in which the mare and foal are separated, but are allowed all behaviors except nursing. Typically this is done over a fence that the foal simply cannot nurse through. After one week, the mare is removed completely. Foals weaned in this manner, exhibit less stress and have lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) than foals which are weaned abruptly. However, these foals are no different than abruptly-weaned foals after two weeks. The advantages to this system may simply be a lessened possibility for injury or disease.
    Weaning stress may also make the foal more susceptible to diseases. Because of this, be sure that the foal is in good health prior to weaning (we typically have vaccinated the foal and ensured a high immune status prior to weaning) and there are no undo stressors. For instance, plan the time of weaning for when the climate is not too adverse (either too hot or too cold/wet).   Because the mare and foal may show high stress and try to re-unite, check that the facilities used for weaning are extremely safe. Expect that maiden or younger mares may exhibit a longer period of time in which they still call for or seek out their foals. Halter breaking is not advisable right at the time of weaning either, as the foal is already stressed and more reactive. Ideally foals are handled from birth, which can lessen the stress of procedures often introduced at this time (vaccinations, deworming, farrier care, etc).
    Care of the mare is simple, with usually a decrease in ration quality or quantity from that received as a lactating mare. Although her udder will fill initially, it is important to not milk the mare, as this will only further stimulate lactation. The udder should become soft within a week of weaning.   She can then be returned to her pre-foal life, whether that is as a riding horse, a gestating mare, or simply a mare of leisure.

    By thinking through the weaning system and the safety and nutritional needs of both mare and foal, the stress of “growing up” for the foal can be greatly minimized.

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