Foal and Mare Health Care

A spanking-new foal may not be quite the picture you envisioned. However, it's important to recognize what's normal and what's not. Learn in this article what to expect in the days ahead and at the time of birth.

New Foal Basics
• Once a mare’s water breaks, she should deliver her foal within 20-30 minutes.
• Make sure the amniotic sac is not covering the baby’s nose. If necessary, break the membrane.
• Give mother and baby time to lie quietly undisturbed.
• The umbilical cord will break as mare and foal begin to move around. Treat the stump on the foal’s belly right away.
• Your baby should stand within an hour of birth, and he should be nursing vigorously within the first two hours.
• A vet check within the first 12-24 hours of delivery is always a good idea for both mare and foal.

Life around horses is never boring, but it sure can seem that way in the small hours of the morning when you are on foal watch and nothing is happening. You have been dreaming about this event for nearly a year, but you have also spent the past three cold nights camping out in the stall across the aisle from your mare; listening, waiting, watching and reviewing foaling guides by flashlight, getting very little sleep.

Your much-beloved mare seems more than ready for everything to be over. She is cranky, uncomfortable and looks like she would explode if you poked her with a pin. Your “foaling kit” is in a duffle bag by the barn aisle (packed with clean towels, antiseptic for the navel, an enema for tardy meconium, a big plastic bag for the afterbirth, soap, gloves, a camera…) and your vet’s phone number is entered onto your speed dial. You have resolved to watch quietly, only entering the stall if the foal’s feet aren’t coming as the vet described or if the amniotic sac is blocking the foal’s breathing.

Newly born foals do not come out looking like the stunning babies shown in glossy stallion ads. Although the absolute miracle of new life is beautiful and humbling, the sight of a newborn can be unnerving if you don’t know what to expect.

We asked a number of horsemen to recall their honest impressions of the first newborn foal they ever saw. After their initial “Ahhs” and “magnificent miracle” responses, and with the promise of anonymity, they were a bit more candid.

“Ick.” …”Something’s very, very wrong here!”…And, memorably, ” A skinny, deformed, brain-damaged spider.”

An average pregnancy lasts 340-342 days, and while plus or minus 7-10 days is considered normal, a foal who arrives earlier than that is cause for concern. Premature foals are at risk of multiple problems, since their lungs, digestive tract and other systems may still be immature.

Foals arrive wet, bedraggled, and partially wrapped in the amniotic sac. Initially upon delivery, the baby’s hindquarters or back legs may still be inside the mare. That’s normal, and is thought to have an anesthetic effect on the mare. You should not be in a hurry to disturb them.

What the Heck Color is That?

Despite the definite truth that there is no such thing as a good horse that’s a bad color, many people have a soft spot for certain coat colors and/or patterns and many horsemen actively breed for them. Newborn foal coats seem designed to give anxious owners fits on this point.

A palomino foal that will ultimately glow like pure gold may well be born creamy white. A foal that will end up black may start out mousy gray. The eventually black legs of a bay foal can start out tan. Many a deep sorrel began as a blonde. Any foal that has a gray parent has a 50/50 chance of turning gray, but can start out any color of the equine rainbow-often black. To add further joy to the confusion, many foals show an uncertain color at birth that cannot easily be defined.

The best way to at least get a general idea of mature coat color is to take a close look at the hair close around the eyes and muzzle, but not even that will necessarily work right away.

Appaloosa breeders can face particular challenges on predicting the mature color of a foal. Some Appaloosa foals are born with spectacular “blankets,” but even these markings can change as the foal matures. Some foals are born with vivid “characteristics” of the breed-mottled skin, white sclera around the eye and striped hooves. Some are born with no characteristics or obvious Appaloosa color, but may develop them later. Some do not. Nothing is written in stone with horses, but generally breeders consider that if by the age of 5 the horse has not developed an Appaloosa pattern or characteristics it is unlikely to do so.

However, you do want to make sure that the foal’s face and nose are free of the amniotic sac. If the membrane doesn’t break upon delivery or within a moment or two, you’ll need to step in and help so the baby can begin to breathe. The foal will ooze or snort clear fluid from his nostrils as he makes the transition from his watery world to a dry one.

The foal may begin to shiver-a natural mechanism for generating heat-as its furnace kicks on and adjusts to the abrupt change in environment. There’s no need to be overly concerned as long as you’ve provided adequate shelter from the elements and the temperature isn’t extreme. Instead of towel drying junior yourself, it’s likely best to leave the initial grooming to mom. You will, however, want to make sure the foal is upright on his chest so his lungs can clear.

Foals are some of the most precocious infants of any animal species, and it is fairly easy to see which parts Mother Nature has given priority to ensure survival.

The foal’s head and ears will be relatively large compared to the neck. Foals are generally “ribby,” with very little fat or muscling. Most obviously, the length and odd angles of their legs are legendary. The chest and hips of newborns are quite narrow at birth to enable passage through the birth canal, so their legs don’t so much form the traditional “four corners” when they attempt to stand as much as they do a pair of weird triangles.

Comprising most of the foal’s body, those nearly adult-length legs have grown, developed and been compressed into what becomes a fairly cramped package before birth. It takes a while, in the words of Wyoming rancher Gill Folley, “to un-origami them.”

For example, it’s not uncommon for a foal to be “down in the pasterns,” with the fetlock joints nearly to the ground. However, as the foal nurses, gains strength and begins to move around, the tendons and ligaments may quickly begin to do their job. The same can occur with contracted tendons, which may make the foal appear over at the knees, or worse, give him that spidery leg shape.

It would be nice if we had reassuring guidelines as to how long it takes for a foal’s alarming legs to straighten out. But with textbooks filled with possible developmental problems-many of which can be corrected with early intervention-no reputable veterinarian will say how much of a deviation can end up normal without seeing the foal and his radiographs.

In a nutshell, you should have your vet check your foal within 12-24 hours after birth anyway to determine his general health and the level of antibodies he receives from the mare’s colostrum. You will also want your vet to check the mare. Let the professional evaluate those astounding legs.

Reassuringly, Dr. Steve Palmer of Woodlyn Farms in California notes, “My first impression on seeing my first foal-a very big Hanovarian-Thoroughbred cross-about 45 minutes after he was born was that he looked like a baby wildebeest, or perhaps more accurately, an ‘un-wieldy beast.’ His head was huge and his ears enormous, his body was all ribs, his legs were incredibly long with ungainly knobby knees, and he wobbled around on his fetlocks in back. I could see improvements in his walking ability within about 15 minutes, however, and by the next day he was trotting around like it was no big deal. Six years later, he’s jumping 4-foot fences.”

Normal Foaling and “Red Flags”

Once the mare’s “water” breaks, the foal should be delivered within 20-30 minutes. The foal should be able to be on its sternum (belly down, backbone up) within 2-3 minutes of birth.
The 1-2-3 Rule for the foal:
1. A healthy foal should stand within 1 hour
2. The foal should start nursing within 2 hours
3. It should pass the meconium (first feces) within 3 hours

If any of these important benchmarks is not reached, call your vet immediately!

Some sources list the mare’s passing of the placenta as #3. Normally, this should pass within 30-40 minutes. If possible (not all mares cooperate by foaling on time in a confined space), save the placenta for your vet to examine. A really strong plastic trash bag is useful for this.

The foal should not strain unduly to pass the meconium. It is generally okay for the handler to administer one over-the-counter enema to ease this important passage. If the foal needs more than one, consult with your vet. Too many enemas can cause serious problems.

The mare will probably experience some post-partum cramping. If colicky symptoms worsen, continue more than 3-4 hours and/or the mare’s mucus membranes are pale, call your vet.

Bumbling & Stumbling
A new foal’s primary urge is a desire to stand and nurse. Often, even before he attempts to rise, you may see his bright, pink tongue protruding from his mouth. The foal may curl the tongue and make sucking sounds, which look and sound strange, but are perfectly normal. They’re a good sign that your foal is eager and equipped to get his first meal. A foal who shows little or no urgency to nurse is cause for concern.

The baby’s attempts to get to his feet may be exceedingly clumsy at first-and painful for an anxious owner to watch. An oversized foaling stall, or, in good weather, a safe outdoor enclosure, where there are no close walls or fences for the baby to careen into, are the best choices for a foaling environment for just this reason. Resist the urge to “help” junior rise.

This also applies to interfering with the foal’s attempts to find the udder. While baby may seem to nuzzle everywhere he shouldn’t, this exploratory process is normal and necessary. You may be surprised, too, how-if left undisturbed-your mare will do her part to position herself to help her baby reach his goal. However, if the foal hasn’t nursed within two hours, you’ll want to consult with your vet about the appropriate way to intervene. The sooner baby starts receiving the antibody-rich colostrum from mom, the stronger and healthier he’ll be. Once your baby nurses, he’ll be ready to nap. But he should continue to rise at frequent intervals to test his legs and eat.

This May All be New to the Mare
While the vast majority of mares are excellent mothers, Colorado State University’s Dr. Patrick McCue notes that, especially with a young and/or first-foaling mare, it is important to monitor the mare’s behavior.

Fewer than 5% of foalings have mare/foal bonding problems, but it can happen. It’s more likely if the mare requires medication and/or has had a difficult delivery that has interfered with the privacy many mares seem to prefer at foaling. If she has a sensitive udder, she may be reluctant to allow the foal to nurse.

While many mares whicker softly to their newborns, other mares may squeal upon being touched, nudged or butted by their babies the first few times. They may be expressing discomfort, or reacting like they might when meeting another strange horse. Actual fear of the newborn foal can appear in first-time broodmares, but more commonly, a new mom may take an hour or so of quiet privacy to establish a bond with her baby. Fortunately, true foal rejection is very rare.

Got Colostrum?

Foals get anitbodies through the milk, so make sure mom is immunized. Excessive milk leakage prior to foaling is a cause for concern.

A newborn foal needs to receive an adequate supply of colostrum (the mare’s first milk) during his first 8-12 hours of life. In order for that colostrum to have ample antibodies to protect the foal from disease, your mare should be vaccinated four to six weeks before her due date. Discuss with your vet what vaccines he recommends for your area. Typically boosters for influenza, rhinopneumonitis, tetanus, rabies, Eastern and Western encephalomyelitis, West Nile virus, botulism, and rotavirus will be among those given.

If a foal doesn’t nurse vigorously, or a mare appears to have an inadequate supply of colostrum (say she’s been streaming milk for several days before delivery), there could be what vets refer to as a “failure of passive transfer” (FPT). In other words, the foal doesn’t receive the level of antibodies necessary to ward off infection. That foal should receive colostrum from a donor source, or be given an infusion of plasma. Discuss this possibility in advance with your vet, so you’ve got a back-up supply “just in case.”

Although a blood test can determine your foal’s antibody levels, it takes time to get the results. If your vet is in doubt, he won’t wait to administer supplemental colostrum, as there is only a short window of time where the foal’s digestive system can readily absorb and utilize it. A plasma infusion may be done as an alternate treatment.

No matter how “gentle” or “broke” or “easy to handle” a mare may normally be, it is wise to remember that this is a time of powerful instincts in a half-ton of maternal hormones. Moves that might seem innocent to a human could be highly threatening to the new mom.

We had a sweet, trusting mare who seemed shyly proud to show off her new baby to the people in her life. The next day we put them both into a private pen for some sunshine and pictures. The colt, a friendly little tyke, kept wobbling over and shoving his nose into the camera. I kept backing up, until what I saw through my viewfinder became something out of a horror movie.

My “best friend” mare was roaring toward me in a serious burst of her break-from-the-starting-gate speed. Her jaws were gaping. Her very large teeth were bared. Her ears were flattened to her neck and she had murder in her eyes.

Before I could do more than cringe, she grabbed me by the shoulder, flipped her head and threw me sideways through the air like a dog might toss a toy. I landed more than 10 feet away as the mare proceeded to do her considerable best to savage the nosy gelding who had quietly approached behind me and poked his nose over the fence toward her baby.

I will be forever grateful that the mare was considerate enough to get me out of the way before she got down to business with the gelding, but vivid bruises on both sides of my shoulder showed precise matches to equine upper and lower teeth for quite some time. The gelding spent the better part of the next five months at the opposite end of the pasture.

Coming Out of Nowhere
Newborn foals are so efficient about getting up and around that it can be easy for handlers to forget that everything is a very new experience for the particular foal standing by your mare.

Equestrian journalist Kathie Mautner notes, “The thing that struck me most was what a blank slate newborns really are. He really and truly did about fall down taking the 6-inch step down into the pasture the first time out. He had no clue what uneven ground was.”

Nope, never boring, horses. Consider those long, quiet hours waiting by the foaling stall as a time to rest up. You have a lot of fun work ahead of you.

We would like to thank Patrick McCue, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACT of the Colorado State University Equine Reproduction Laboratory, the staff of theAppaloosa Horse Club, and both the named and anonymous horsemen cited in this article.

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