The initial first few hours are when the mare and foal need to form a strong bond. Mares have a very strong instinct to look after their foals, therefore the foal-dam bond should not be interfered with.
Any delays in the foal establishing a normal pattern of behaviour should be a concern and may indicate the early signs of problems.
What you can do to check that your newborn foal is healthy?
It is best to observe its behaviour and overall appearance closely. After your initial observations up close you will need to watch the foal undisturbed, preferably from outside the box. Once the foal has stood it should be nursing 5-7 times each hour. In between these times it should be exploring its surroundings, bonding with the mare and sleeping. Most foals should startle when you enter the box and run to hide behind its mother.
- Is the foal bright and inquisitive?
- Are there any signs of prematurity? For example a short silky coat, floppy ears, domed forehead, slack tendons and a small size.
- Foals gums should be pink and moist.
- Is the foal shivering from the cold? Weak or premature foals are particularly susceptible to feeling the cold as they have poor body insulation and energy reserves. They are not always able to regulate their body temperature.
- Check that the foal is sucking correctly. Milk on the foal’s head may means the foal is not nursing correctly, or the mare is producing more milk than the foal can ingest. Milk seen coming down the nostrils may mean problems like a cleft palate.
- Have a close look at its legs. Are they straight and able to support the foal when it stands? Are they lax, windswept or contracted? If so, is the foal having difficulty staying up to nurse?
- Does its chest expand normally, with both sides symmetrical with each breath?
- Has it passed its first dung – the meconium? This is the dark hard balls of faeces that are an accumulation (while in the womb) of allantoic fluid, gut secretions and cellular debris. Failure to pass this can result in colic. After passing the meconium, pale coloured pasty milk faeces should now be passed. Overdue colts are most at risk of meconium colic.
Any deviations from a normal physical appearance need to be seen by a veterinary surgeon promptly.
The foal’s immune system
Your foal has been born with a naïve immune system that does not have antibodies to fight off infections. The mare’s first milk or colostrum is vital for the foal’s health over the next 3 months because it contains the vital antibodies that will be absorbed across the foal’s gut to protect it.
Specialised cells in the newborn foal’s gut are uniquely designed to absorb colostral antibodies for a short period of time. After 8-12hours these cells close down and stop absorbing antibodies. Therefore it is essential that the foal sucks from the mare and receives the colostrum as early as possible within this time.
Observe the mare’s udder prior to foaling. If she runs milk before the foal is born, it may be that she is losing her colostrum. In this case it would be advisable to collect and freeze it until the foal is born. The quality of this thick creamy coloured milk depends on its richness. Very rich, good quality colostrum contains higher levels of proteins. These proteins can be measured on a hand held instrument called a refractometer that your veterinary surgeon will have.
Maiden mares may have poor quality colostrum or inadequate amounts. It may be advisable to make prior arrangements to buy some from a neighbouring stud farm if needed.
Foals that fail to suck may need to have a stomach tube passed by the veterinary surgeon and given the stored colostrum. This should be done within the first 4 hours.
Other preventative measures to ward off disease
Your foal will need to have its first vet examination within 24 hours of being born. This examination will be thorough and include all the body systems to recognise the early signs of disease or abnormalities. These problematic signs may be vague and non-specific but can rapidly worsen if they go unnoticed. You should always remember that a foal is not just a 50kg horse – not only do they change and grow rapidly but they can get sick just as quickly.
Your vet will take into account the mare’s breeding history, as abnormalities during the pregnancy can be dangerous to the foal. They will examine the mare’s placenta carefully making sure that it has passed intact. Retaining either all or part of the placenta can quickly lead to infection in the womb. This can rapidly trigger toxic shock, resulting in laminitis.
They will also check the foal’s navel, the umbilicus, for any swelling, continued wetness, a hernia, infection and to see if it has closed up properly. It will need to be dipped in an antiseptic solution. This helps to dry the navel stump and prevent bacteria from tracking up into the body.
A blood sample can be taken when the foal is at least 18 hours old, to determine if the passive transfer of antibodies has successfully occurred from the dam to the foal. This is called an IgG test. Other tests can determine if an infection or anaemia is present, as well as detect for other abnormalities.
Good preparation before the birth will help minimise stress for you and your foal. Raising your foal will then be a rewarding and educational experience for you.