Anyone buying a foal at one of the many foal auctions this summer will have to make a plan. Where will this foal grow up? Do you have accommodation at home, will it be stabled or be out day and night in the field? If you have no facilities of your own, there are specialised horse rearers, such as Antoon Dekkers from Winterswijk-Miste in the Netherlands, where since 2003 foals are reared up to 3-yr-olds. He is busy all year round, seven days a week, caring for and monitoring the young horses.
What do you consider important at this stage of rearing?
‘’The health of the foals comes absolutely foremost to me. And my standards are high. Then, of course, the foals should grow tall and keep fit. We give the foals everything they need, the right feed and a safe environment. I select the foals into groups that ensure the best harmony. By observing them a lot I pick them out. I try to find the right palls for each one. I never place new foals into a group just like that. I first have two foals get used to each other and then later let them join the others. You will see they often stick together.’’
What happens between weaning and delivery?
‘’Some breeders like to wean their foals already after 3.5 month, but you really should not do that. The period with the dam is crucial for the development of a foal and in the last month a lot is happening between foal and dam. I do not accept any foals if they are only 4.5 months old. They have to be at least 5.5 month and in good condition and health. That is the responsibility of the breeder and I can work it from there. Make sure that the hooves are regularly trimmed for the right conformation, some people do not take this very seriously. You need not deworm them. I prefer to do that myself, so that all the foals and young horses will fit into my own deworming schedule. I deworm them all at the same time with the same pasta. I use manure samples to see how they are doing after deworming.’’
What do you feed foals and young horses in the summer and winter periods?
‘’In winter the amount of feed pellets is adjusted to age and condition. The foals get a lot of pellets then. As they are getting older the amount of feed pellets is gradually reduced, so that they are not too fresh in the stable and the group can stay calm. Silage is always amply available. So they can eat all day long, which seriously reduces the chances of colic and they do not get bored. The group stables get new straw every day and the horses eat some of that, as well. Youngsters are out in the field day and night from end of April to end of October. Well, depending on the weather, of course. Fields with not enough grass are fatal. You do not want them to eat too much sand. Plenty of space is important, too, I believe, they have to be able to move a lot. I have some fields close by, but most of the youngsters will be sent grazing in Friesland for the summer. There are less flies there and is plenty of space.’’
Group-housing requires strict management for deworming and vaccinations. What does your schedule look like?
‘’Before the horses are sent into the field, they are dewormed. If that is not enough, they get dewormed again while in the field. Therefore, also field management should be good. I only send horses to the field that are clean and cut. The field should not lack in grass because of drought or over-grazing, for the chances are that the horses will eat manure and so develop worms again. As far as vaccinations are concerned: when the foals arrive, they are twice inoculated against strangles and every half year against rhino and influenza. I believe that it is important that they develop their own resistance, so that is why I do not vaccinate against strangles more often. All these vaccinations may be costly, but they do seriously reduce the risk of contagion. Don’t forget, they are other people’s horses. I often discuss vaccinations with my colleagues and ask how they do it, you can always learn. That is how the issue stays transparent.’’
Did you change your manner of rearing over the years?
‘’I now have groups of ten, twelve and fourteen horses, selected by age. The groups are therefore not too big, so that I can monitor them more easily and have them at ease. I used to have larger groups, but I changed that. Another change is that I have adapted my vaccination schedule over the years. At first, I vaccinated all the horses against strangles and influenza at the same time, but in the past years I have them first vaccinated against strangles and sometime later against influenza, so they get less alien substances in one go. I have recently also been doing more manure testing.’’
Why do you favour group rearing?
‘’It is important to keep foals in a group for their socialization. In addition, the horses develop better resistance in a group, because they can be contaminated by each other. Same as in kids’ nurseries. A picking order only develops in a group. The foals rear each other.’’
Do you have any advice for breeders and owners who want to rear their horses themselves?
“Always make sure that our horse has a mate. In case of stress, they will bunch together. Horses are like magnets. I always make sure that my groups consist of even numbers. An uneven number of foals in a group will not work out well, because they will always be one who is the odd one out.”
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