Postnatal Care of Your Foal

The new foal

Helping with the birth of a new foal can be an exciting, frightening, and awe-inspiring experience. Being prepared and knowing what to expect will help you remain calm and collected, which in turn will help both the mare and the new foal.

Most horse handlers prefer to wean foals at five to seven months.

If you are present during the birth of your foal, you may need to remove the birth sack (amnion) from the foal's head.

The first step after delivery is to make sure the foal is breathing. If the foal does not begin breathing on its own, tickle its nostril with a piece of straw or grass or blow into the foal's mouth to stimulate the respiratory reflex.

Once you know the foal is breathing, it's best to leave the foaling area and observe the mare and foal from a distance.

Some foals require vigorous rubbing or even lifting them and dropping them from about one foot off the ground to shock the foal slightly and initiate the breathing response. A normal, healthy foal generally lifts its head and neck and rolls onto its chest within a few seconds of delivery.

As it moves away from the mare, especially if the mare has not yet stood up, this usually breaks the umbilical cord. You should wait for either the mare or foal to break the cord because it is thought that the foal continues to receive blood from the placenta after birth. Cutting the cord before this blood transfer may result in circulatory problems in the foal. Letting the cord break naturally is best for both mare and foal.

Once the umbilical cord breaks, the stump should be dipped in a mild 1 to 2 percent iodine solution. The iodine dries the stump and prevents bacteria from traveling up the stump and entering the foal's body. Continue to examine the naval stump for several days after birth to make sure it remains dry and doesn't become infected.

In some cases, urine may drip from the stump indicating that the fetal urine passage from the bladder has not closed. If this happens, the foal will need to be treated by a veterinarian.

What to expect with your new-born foal:

  • Begins breathing within seconds,
  • Lifts head within 5 minutes
  • Attempts to get up within 10 minutes
  • Stands up usually within 30 minutes
  • Defecates meconium within 30 minutes
  • Vocalizes within 45 minutes
  • Suckles for the first time within one hour
  • Walks or runs within 90 minutes
  • Takes its first nap within 2 hours

Of course, these time-lines are based on the average new foal, so yours may do some things more quickly or wait longer before doing some items on the list.

The first few hours of the foal's life can be critical for both the foal and the mare. After the foal is born, the mare will often lie quietly perhaps licking the foal and nickering to it. When the mare does begin to get up, it is important to make sure she doesn't step on the foal.

New foal learning to stand

New foal learning to stand

If your newborn foal does not stand within two hours, a veterinarian consultation is in order. New window.

It usually takes some time for the foal to discover its feet and legs, and attempt to stand. If the foal does not stand within two hours, consult with your veterinarian about possible reasons for the lack of activity. It is best to let your foal begin standing and walking on its own. If you try to help it too much, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons may not be ready, and injuries may occur.

Once the new foal is able to stand, it will begin looking for the mare's udder so it can nurse. After some fumbling about and with some help from the mare, most foals will begin to nurse. This is of critical importance since the foal receives the anti-body-rich colostrum that helps protect it from disease.

If the foal doesn't begin nursing within three hours, it should be checked to find out why it is not nursing. Also, it is important to check the mare to make certain that her teats are open, the nipples are not inverted, and are in working order.

Once the foal shows interest in nursing, your may need to help guide it to the mare's udder. You may also hand milk a few drops of colostrum from the mare and coat your fingers and the mare's teats with it. Get the foal to suck your fingers and gradually move your finger beside the mare's teat, then slowly pull your finger out of the foal's mouth and help it switch to the teat.

If the mare's udder is sensitive or swollen, it may take some work on your part to help restrain the mare so she will let the foal nurse. If the mare doesn't accept the foal and allow it to nurse, you will need help from your veterinarian to tranquilize the mare.

Remember to use extreme caution whenever working with the foal and mare. Mares can become very protective and aggressive if they think you are a threat to their foal.

During the first weeks of life, the mare's milk will provide all the nutrition the foal needs for sustenance. For the mare to provide the best nutrition, the mare needs almost double the amount of feed she required during pregnancy with adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, and plenty of water, not only for her own health but for the health of the foal.

During this early time period, the foal's nursing habits should be observed carefully. If the foal is suckling for more than 30 minutes, it may mean that it is not getting enough milk. In this case, supplemental feed or milk replacer may be necessary for healthy development.

Twelve hours after foaling, the mare should be dewormed with ivermectin or a product recommended by your veterinarian. Where threadworms are a problem, the foal should be treated at three weeks and begin receiving regular deworming as suggested by your veterinarian.

If your veterinarian recommends it, vaccination against rhinopneumonitis and influenza can begin shortly after birth.

Horse owner inspecting the newborn foal

Horse owner inspecting the newborn foal

Foal contact with people is thought by many to help the development of the human-horse bond. New window.

During the first few hours of the foal's life, some handlers recommend that the foal be socialized by imprinting useful resistance-free behaviors that will help make the foal easier to handle and train later on. These rather simple exercises consist of touching and rubbing the foal so it becomes used to being touched and handled by humans.

The mare and the foal should not be separated during these exercises. Resistance-free exercises include pressing down on the foal's withers and stroking the girth to get the foal used to actions and processes that will occur repeatedly later on.

Rubbing the ears and head, examining the teeth and mouth, and taking the foal's rectal temperature should be done gradually and gently with the acceptance of the mother. These activities should be pleasant for both the handler and the foal.

The foal should begin to pass meconium stools within the first 12 hours after birth. This greenish-brown to black material accumulates in the foal's intestinal tract prior to birth. By the fourth day, it will be replaced by the yellow feces of the normal foal.

Should the foal not pass the meconium or have problems with its elimination, it may become painfully impacted. Your veterinarian's recommendations should be followed. A prepackaged Fleet phosphate enema or a soap water enema may be recommended.

In some cases, the veterinarian will elect to give a dose of mineral oil or a laxative such as milk of magnesia.

New foal checklist

Here is a list of post-foaling management practices that will help ensure the health of your foal and mare:

  1. Make sure the foal is breathing
  2. Put iodine solution on the foal's umbilical stump
  3. Make sure the foal receives colostrum soon after birth
  4. Make sure the foal is protected against tetanus either through the colostrum or a tetanus antitoxin injection if your vet recommends it
  5. Make sure the foal passes meconium and treat constipation or diarrhea promptly
  6. Check the umbilical stump for several days for presence of urine
  7. Check that the foal's eyelids and lashes are turned outward
  8. Follow your veterinarian's advice if any limb deformities or hernias are present
  9. Make sure your mare expels the afterbirth and check it for completeness
  10. Check the mare for several days after foaling for any signs of reproductive tract infections or injuries

What's next with your foal?

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Mare and foal exercising

The development of coordination and strength is an important aspect of early foal life. Allow the foal and mare to exercise outdoors as much as possible. New window.

Exercise is important for both the new foal and the mare. They may be turned out as early as the first or second day after foaling takes place. Exercise should be increased gradually as weather permits. The mare and foal should be kept separated from other horses until the foal is three to four weeks old.

Some foals show interest in feed as early as 10 to 14 days of age. As the youngster nibbles and learns to eat solid food, its digestive system adapts to the dietary changes. This may bring on coprophagy (eating of feces) along with 'foal heat diarrhea' as intestinal microflora changes. Research shows this to be a natural development occurring around days 6 to 14 and the foal usually quickly outgrows the diarrhea which is self-limited.

When the foal has diarrhea, it is important to keep the foal dry and clean around its tail and perineum. Zinc oxide may be applied to prevent scalding. If the diarrhea persists, some veterinarians recommend giving small doses of Pepto-Bismol (20 ml per 100 lbs weight) by syringe or tablespoon. Always check with your veterinarian before giving any medication or if the diarrhea worsens.

As the foal grows, its needs change, and by 8 to 10 weeks of age, mare's milk may not be sufficient to meet the foal's nutritional needs. At this point, high-quality grains and forage should be added to the foal's diet. The feed should be properly balanced for vitamins and minerals since deficits or excesses, or imbalances of needed minerals and vitamins can lead to skeletal problems.

Since feeding a foal properly is a balancing act, here are some important guidelines to follow:

  • Provide free-choice high grade hay and forage
  • Supplement with high-quality properly-balanced grain concentrate
  • Weigh and adjust the feed quantity based on growth and fitness
  • General rule to follow is one percent or a foal's body weight per day or one pound of feed per month of age
  • Make sure feeds contain the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, energy and protein
  • Divide the daily ration into two or three feedings
  • Use a creep feeder to separate the foal from the mare so it can comfortably eat it's ration
  • Do not overfeed. Overweight foals are more prone to developmental orthopedic disease
  • Provide unlimited fresh, clean water and the opportunity for plenty of exercise

Weaning your foal

From suckling foal to weanling

From suckling foal to weanling

Most horse owners wean their foals at five to seven months of age. New window.

Beginning about the third month, the mare's milk supply will gradually diminish and a natural weaning process occurs. At this time, the mare's grain should be reduced or gradually eliminated to help limit milk production, and the foal's ration should be gradually increased over a two to three week period.

Most horse handlers prefer to wean foals at five to seven months, but they may be weaned as early as four months with not adverse effects. Prior to weaning, the foal should be in good health, on a vaccination and deworming program and eating one pound of creep ration for each month of age as well as consuming some hay or pasture. Unless all these conditions are present for at least two weeks, it is best not to wean the foal at that time, but instead wait until conditions are right.

Since abrupt separation of foal and mare can be distressing to the foal and the mare, it is best to leave the foal in the company of other mares and foals in familiar surroundings if possible. The mare is led into an adjacent pasture or paddock within sight and touch of the foal, but separated by a secure fence that won't injure the foal, but will prevent it from nursing.

Although weaning is complete in one week, the mare and foal should be kept separated for approximately six weeks to prevent the mare from coming back into milk.

Once the healthy foal is weaned, you are well on your way to enjoyable and productive times with your weanling which will soon become a yearling and on and on!

Foal health problems

Diarrhea

Although diarrhea is not common in newly born foals, it may indicate a serious illness if it occurs. A liquid, squirting type of diarrhea can result in dehydration and death of a newborn foal within a few hours. Immediately call your veterinarian if your new foal develops diarrhea.

Foals often have a mild form of diarrhea at one to two weeks of age. It occurs in conjunction with the mare's fertile heat that usually begins seven to nine days after foaling and is known as "foal heat scours." If the foal is alert and nursing regularly this diarrhea usually does not harm it, but if the foal stops nursing, becomes weak or dehydrated, consult your veterinarian immediately. Keep the foal's buttocks area clean to prevent scalding of the skin by washing it with mild soap and water and coating it with petroleum jelly.

Limb weaknesses

Some foals have limb weaknesses or angular deformities at birth. Crooked legs, knock knees, weak pasterns in which the back of the fetlock touches the ground, and knuckling over at the fetlock joint are some common problems. Many of these conditions gradually correct themselves as the foal grows, develops, and exercises. In any case, your veterinarian can assess the situation and recommend treatment.

Hernias

A hernia is a defect in the body wall that allows a part of the intestines to protrude under the skin. They usually occur in the naval and scrotal areas. Smaller hernias often correct themselves with time, but larger hernias may require surgical correction. Your veterinarian will be able to assess the situation and determine what needs to be done.

Entropion

Entropion is a condition where the foal's eyelids and lashes turn inward toward the eye rather than outward as normal. The inturned eyelids and lashes cause irritation and tearing of the eye. If your foal has entropion, gently roll the eyelid outward and consult your veterinarian for proper eye ointment and treatment that you can perform.

Neonatal isoerythrolysis (jaundice foal)

Incompatibility between blood groups of the mare and foal cause this type of jaundice. Antibodies to the foal's red blood cells are formed by the mare and secreted in her colostrum. When the foal nurses and absorbs these antibodies, its red blood cells are destroyed. Without prompt veterinary treatment the foal will become anemic and die. If you suspect neonatal isoerythrolysis, prevent the foal from consuming the mare's colostrum until you can get the veterinarian to test for the condition and make recommendations.

Orphan Foals

In some cases, the death of the mare, an inability of the mare to produce milk, or maternal rejection of the foal will result in an "orphan foal." With some care, orphan foals can be raised successfully.

Consider this

Although caring for a foal can be hard work, the joys of watching the physical growth along with the development of the "personality" of the growing foal can be very rewarding for the owner or caretaker.

About the author

EquiMed Staff shares a common goal of helping you improve your horse's health. The staff work together to develop unique web-focused content that answers the most common questions of horse owners. EquiMed staff written content is updated frequently to incorporate the best practices within the equine healthcare industry. Thanks for visiting!

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