Vet Talk

On Shaky Legs: Another Look at Foaling Season, Part 4 – It's a Foal!

The mare and foal need a post-natal exam even when they both look fine

Published: March 24, 2014

While the foal is still lying down, you’ll want to dip the umbilical cord in disinfectant. Talk to your veterinarian about what he or she prefers and how often to do it. Dipping the cord helps prevent bacteria from crawling up from the stall floor and entering the foal’s bloodstream through the vessels of the umbilicus. Make sure the mare is haltered and someone is restraining her securely before you start wandering about on the floor with her baby.

Once the cord is dipped, everyone needs to get out of the stall and leave the new family in peace to bond. Over-stimulation from humans is a big factor contributing to mare rejection of foals. Baby needs time to figure out how to nurse, and mama needs to figure out what this new life-form is, and why it’s trying to eat her. They can do that best on their own.

In the last installment of this series, we talked about the average time to standing (one hour after birth) and nursing (two hours after birth) for foals. This timing matters a great deal. Not only does the foal need nutrition, but the colostrum (first milk) contains over 90% of the antibodies that the foal needs to fight off infection. Antibodies are pretty big molecules, and after the first 24 hours, the lining of the gut will “close” to large molecules, not allowing them to enter the bloodstream. Think of a screen where the holes suddenly tighten up and only let smaller particles pass. You also want the antibodies to enter the bloodstream before any bacteria from the environment. This means that baby needs several meals pretty darn quickly in that first day.

“How do I know if my foal got enough colostrum?"

I’m so glad you asked! If all looks well, your next task is to call your vet, tell her the good news, and schedule a post-foaling examination.

But the mare and foal both look fine. Why do they need an exam?

Even if everything looks good on the outside, health goes more than skin deep. Having invested this much time and money, you don’t really want to lose your foal to a hidden condition that could have been treated if it had been caught early, do you? Just like human babies, foals can be born with abnormalities of the heart, lungs, eyes, muscles, bones, digestive tract, and you name it… Many of those issues may not show up to the casual observer. A full physical examination is a good way of screening for early problems.

Also, remember that colostrum thing? The best way to know if the foal drank enough colostrum and got enough antibodies is through a blood test. Your veterinarian can draw blood and run a test to check the foal’s IgG levels. Immunoglobulin G (IgG) provides a marker for antibody levels. If the IgG is low, the foal may need a plasma transfusion to get the necessary antibodies. This can be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as treating a life-threatening infection.

Most foals and mares benefit from lots of fresh air and sunshine and frolicking after the first few days. However, if your foal is born with a limb deformity, your veterinarian may recommend postponing the rambunctious play dates for a week or two. Listen. You paid for the advice. Take it.

It may be tempting to just turn your back on mare and foal once their bond is established. After all, mom does the feeding, and it’s not like baby’s in training, right?

Not so fast. Foals get bigger. They grow up to be horses. Ask yourself this: Would you rather have a 100-pound animal who doesn’t like having his feet handled or being led on a halter or a 1000-pound animal with the same issues? Opinions on handling and training vary, but speaking as a veterinarian who, more than once, has been called upon to do an emergency halter-training session in conjunction with the first vaccinations, in my opinion, foals (and the people around them) benefit from early, frequent, consistent, and calm handling. Do it the same way every time. Slowly get them used to the ways in which they will be handled throughout life. Don’t make it a fight. Always end on a good note, even if you have to back the expectation down a step, always end with a positive response on the part of the foal.

Hint: a positive response is not when the foal jerks his foot away and you put him back in the pasture positive that you aren’t going to try that again any time soon.

Not only do foals need to get used to human handling while they’re still (relatively) small and malleable, they have special preventive care needs.

While foals retain immunity from the antibodies they got from their mothers (remember the colostrum?) for a couple of months, eventually those antibodies start to fade, and they need to develop their own immunity to disease. Because the immune system needs some prep to build antibodies to a disease agent, initial vaccination usually requires a series of shots. With a few exceptions, vaccination is not a one-and-done deal.

Talk to your veterinarian about the recommended foal shots for your area and the level of exposure at your barn. The American Association of Equine Practitioners also has a handy “Foal Vaccination Chart” to help you get the basics in black and white.

Foals are more susceptible to internal parasites than older horses. A heavy parasite load can hit a foal hard and fast. Since many equine internal parasites are becoming resistant to deworming products, it’s not a good idea to assume that your rotational deworming strategy is going to work “just fine” for your foal. Talk with your veterinarian about developing a testing and strategic deworming program for ALL horses on your property.

Hoof care is another DON’T SKIMP area. People are often tempted to assume since foal hooves are tiny and most foals don’t wear shoes, they also don’t need much in the way of hoof care. Bad assumption. The hooves act like levers when they contact the ground. Changes in the length of toe or heel alter the forces on the bones and joints of the legs. For a growing horse, uneven hoof growth can contribute to uneven growth in the bones of the leg. Have your farrier take a look at your foal’s hooves when she comes out to trim or shoe the big horses. If nothing else, having his feet rasped and handled regularly will help the little beast develop his manners.

After the first couple of weeks, your foal may start nibbling at pasture grass or mom’s hay or grain. While he’ll still need mom for his primary nutrition for several months, you’ll want to talk with your veterinarian about setting up a creep feeder (a feeding station he can enter but mom can’t). Ask your vet about proper nutrition for YOUR foal. Different breeds are likely to have slightly different requirements, and you’ll want to find the right nutrient balance. Insufficient nutrition is obviously going to interfere with growth, but I’ve actually seen more problems in practice (especially within the halter horse discipline) with OVER-fed foals. An overly nutrient-rich diet can cause inflammation at the growth plates leading to developmental bone and joint disease. Don’t just push the grain supplement your trainer, the feed store clerk, or your best friend whose cousin is a barrel racer said that you HAVE to feed. Ask. Your. Veterinarian.

Nutrition brings us, and your foal, to weaning. If this is your first foal, you may have a lot of questions. When should I wean the foal? How do I do it? How long do they need to stay separated? Do I move the mare or the foal?

Many of those answers depend on the individual mare-foal bond, your facilities, your intentions for the mare and the foal, and other factors that are situation-specific. Translation: Ask your Veterinarian.

In general, most foals are weaned somewhere between four and six months of age. The exact timing depends on the growth rate of the foal, mare and foal behavior, and your own readiness. A big, bully of a colt who is already trying to mount his mother might be due for a much earlier weaning than a sort of spindly, quiet foal who had a recent illness.

Weaning tends to be stressful for both mare and foal. Since stress can suppress the immune response, it’s good to avoid adding any other stressors such as surgery (hernia repair, castration, etc.) or things that require a good immune response such as vaccination or long travel around this time. I like to give at least a two-week cushion after weaning before I ask their immune systems to do anything new.

Okay… your foal is on the ground and off to his grown-up life as a real horse. That’s it for this series, but I hope you’ve had some fodder for foaling thought.

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