Raising a healthy foal starts with the foaling process. During and immediately after foaling are the two most critical points in that foals’ life. Start by considering the actual foaling process in stages. As the expected birth date closes in, start bringing the mare in at night to give her a large, clean, safe stall to foal in. Stage 1 begins when the foal moves into position in the birth canal. You won’t know it’s happening but the mare does. She will become restless, pacing, maybe kicking at her abdomen or turning to look at her back end. She might even lay down and get up several times or roll as if she’s colicky.

We switch to Stage 2 as the foal presents – the mare’s water breaks and the foal passes through the birth canal. The foal should appear quickly, within 20 minutes of the water breaking. If it does not, or if you see upside down feet (breech delivery) or red placental tissue (red bag), contact your veterinarian immediately for assistance. In a normal foal birth, you won’t have to do anything but watch.

Once the foal clears the mare, make sure the foal’s airways are clear, the foal is breathing normally and the umbilical cord breaks on its own. This should happen when the mare stands up. You will want to sanitize the umbilical stump but don’t interfere with the bond forming between mare and foal. She’ll be curious and want to sniff the new addition in her life. It is important the mare and foal are allowed time to create a strong bond to ensure the foal is not rejected. If it’s cold and wet, the foal might appreciate your help in drying with an old towel or clean straw, rubbing briskly but gently. This is also an opportunity to begin the imprinting process, where you quietly and calmly introduce yourself to the foal, gently get them used to being handled and give the foal an opportunity to learn you can be trusted. There are books and publications available on how to initiate the imprinting process properly.

For Stage 3, the mare should pass the placental mass on her own in 3 hours or less. If it takes longer than that, you should consult your veterinarian to see if oxytocin is recommended. If even a small piece of placenta is left behind, there is the potential for a uterine infection. As far as post-partum care is concerned, making sure the foal nurses and gets that all-important colostrum intake is key to immunity development. It is also important to clean the mare’s udder and legs because as the foal is figuring out where to nurse, it could pick up surface bacteria from the mare.

That tiny little foal is your investment in the future. You want to be sure to give it the best possible start on that future so take the time to ensure passive transfer of immunity takes place. What does that mean? Colostrum present in the mare’s first milk is key to the development of the foal’s immune system. Those colostrum antibodies are indicative of every pathogen that mare has ever been exposed to and are then passed along to the foal. Your new foal should stand within an hour of birth and begin nursing soon after that. Not just nosing around but actively looking for the udder – ensure there is a visible seal from mouth to teat and actual swallowing, you can put your hand on their throat and feel it. If you see an udder that is full and tight, odds are effective nursing has not taken place. Your foal only has about 18-24 hours for the gut to absorb those antibodies before the intestinal walls begin to close. If you know the foal did not get colostrum, maybe the mare died during birth or is otherwise unable to nurse, then it’s important to provide supplemental colostrum, preferably from another mare on your farm to ensure the foal gets antibodies from possible pathogens in its current environment. If you are unsure if the foal got the colostrum, maybe the mare foaled in the pasture unexpectedly, your veterinarian can run an IgG test within 48 hours from birth to see what antibody levels are and possibly provide antibody plasma. After this point, you can let nature takes it course – keep areas clean but don’t obsessively bleach wash everything. The foal needs common environmental pathogens to continue naturally developing its immune system.

The next step in good foal health relates to nutrition. If you are meeting your broodmare’s nutritional needs, then she will have no problem meeting her foal’s needs. Remember that she is eating for two and should maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5.5-6.5. For the first 90 days or so, the foal won’t need any hay or feed concentrate, just mother’s milk. Be sure they are nursing 5-10 times per hour to get the nutrients it needs and prevent digestive upset. After about 3 months, the foal will start exploring feed options, mouthing and tasting what mama is eating. They will start nursing less while eating more hay and feed concentrate.

Healthy Foal Goals

To ensure a healthy foal starts before their feet even hit the ground. Once they get here, all they need are a strong immune system, good nutrition and plenty of room to run and grow. If you ever have any questions about the health of your animals, always contact your local veterinarian or a trusted equine health professional.

Brenda Jackson, Murray County Extension Coordinator