The studies have been done, the jury is in, and the verdict is unanimous: if you want your foals to achieve their optimum growth, with the least risk of developmental orthopedic disorders like contracted tendons and physitis, plan to “creep feed” them. A creep feed is a concentrated ration designed specifically for foals, with a heaping helping of the minerals, protein, and digestible energy they need to build strong, correct bones and muscle.
(The name comes from the common practice of offering such feeds in a feeder surrounded by a barrier to keep out greedy broodmares; the foals can “creep” under the barrier to dine uninterrupted.) Creep feeds help fill the gap when mare’s milk no longer provides all the nutrients a growing foal needs.
That’s not to diminish the role of milk in the foal’s diet; in the early weeks of his life, it’s an essential, because it’s the only food a baby’s digestive system is equipped to process. But being prey animals, horses are adapted for quick self-sufficiency–so as early as three weeks of age, a foal’s digestive tract can begin to utilize starches, and within three to four months, the ability to digest fiber comes on-line. While creep feeding is by no means an essential, studies, including a doctoral thesis by Cindy McCall at Texas A&M University, have demonstrated that creep-fed foals have certain advantages:
- Grow at a faster rate, so they are often larger and heavier than foals of a similar age who are not creep-fed;
- Cope better with weaning stresses;
- Are less affected by weight loss during weaning because they have “some to spare;”
- Have less trouble adapting to their new lives as weanlings because they are already accustomed to solid feed;
Are at lower risk for developmental orthopedic disorders (DOD) than non-creep-fed foals because foals