How long it takes a newborn foal to stand for the first time, as well as when he successfully nurses, are key factors in his immediate and future health. • Photo by Molly Montag.

Health Matters: For Foals, the First 24 Hours Are Critical

Depending on what your specific equine discipline is you may have your own thoughts on what time of year is the best to have foals born.  As a veterinarian I cannot think of a better time than right now!  The weather isn’t so unpredictable with cold spells and ice storms.  The extended daylight hours tend to drive mares into cycling whether they have been under lights or not.  

Some may think it’s a tad late, but realistically there is plenty of breeding season left for even multiple-embryo mares.  So, if our goal is to produce strong healthy foals, then having them in the optimal time of year is a great start.  However, to ensure they become their best, the first 24 hours is truly the most important day of their life.   

Broodmares 101 : The Homework

No one likes homework, but with broodmares it is critical to a successful foaling.  This starts months ahead when you are administering their rhino vaccinations to prevent viral causes of abortion, and most importantly giving pre-foaling vaccinations one month out from their due date.  These vaccinations go a long way to a healthy pregnancy, and ensuring high levels of immunoglobulins being passed in the colostrum on day one.  

With that taken care of, plan out your foaling scenario.  For some that may be at home, and others may choose to send mares to a professional facility that specializes in foaling mares out under very controlled and monitored circumstances.  Preferences and finances may dictate otherwise with mare owners choosing to foal mares out in pastures.  

Whatever way you choose – be prepared, think ahead, and commit to doing your system the best you can. 

Location, Location, Location

Just like in real estate location – location – location is important.  The best way to start the process off is to ensure your mare is in a safe, quiet and pressure free environment.  The less your mare has to worry with while foaling the more she can concentrate on being a good mom.  True, horses are flight animals, but if you’ve gotten too close to a newborn foal with an aggressive mom you found out how quickly that changes to a fight response. 

So, if the mare has to spend time fighting off other horses/mares/predators she feels threatened by, both real or only perceived, the greater likelihood of disaster. Unfortunately, we see too many foals in the hospital who have been seriously injured by the mare stepping on them in the process of fighting off other horses.  

Delivery Day

There is no Amazon delivery for foals, so this is up to us.  At Reata Equine Hospital, like many other facilities, we use a Foal Alert system to ensure every foaling is attended.  In horses, unlike many other species like cattle and dogs, the foaling process should move along quickly from the time you see the water bag exposed or break.  We like to have foals on the ground within 15-20 minutes at the longest from the time the process starts.  Many need assistance in delivery and that isn’t abnormal.  Helping with moderate traction is fine, but it is definitely a learned skill.  

Once the foal is on the ground and the umbilicus has detached, we treat the navel stump with a disinfectant solution and administer an enema right away.  Once those two crucial and fundamental steps are done you can take a break.  Basically, get in – help out – then get out.  Allow time for the mare to rest, and the foal to bond with mom.

The 1-2-3 Rule

Now the clock is ticking on the most important 24 hours of life.  Three things need to happen now in relatively quick succession.  A good rule of thumb we tell our clients for newborn foals and mares is the 1-2-3 rule.  The foal should stand within 1 hour.  He should be nursing within 2 hours, and the mare should pass her placenta within 3 hours of foaling.  Of course, there will be some normal variation of the times and actions, but it is a solid guideline to use when determining if you have a problem.  Many foals will be standing and nursing within the first hour alone, however, the farther they get from the 1-2-3 rule the closer you are to a serious problem.  

Be certain there is a difference between a foal attempting to nurse and solidly latching on to nurse vigorously. To be honest, watching a foal learning to nurse is one of the most frustrating things for me.  I’m cheering them on and telling them what to do from outside the stall like a complete idiot.  Sadly, it never helps.  I don’t have much patience, so walking away for a while helps.  

A safe, stress-free environment is an important part of a successful foaling. • Photo by Katie Kramer.

But, really latching on to nurse vigorously is probably the most important step of the process.  This ensures they are able to ingest and absorb the colostrum they so desperately need to establish their immune system. This is why we did our pre-foaling vaccine homework! 

Colostrum is liquid gold, but that gold can only be deposited within the first 12-24 hours of life. A foal’s small intestine has the unique and very short-lived ability to absorb the large molecules in colostrum which provide the immunoglobulins necessary to establish a strong and functional immune system.  If there is a failure in this transfer there are ways to supplement and augment their immune system, but playing catch up gets very expensive and does not work as well as Mother Nature intended. 

Expect the Best, Plan for the Worst

Foaling mares out is like asking someone out on a first date – expect the best, but plan for the worst. Dystocias, retained placentas, and red bag foals are all realities.  If you don’t know what they are, start reading up or better yet send your mare to a good facility.  Just like in life there are a myriad of ways the plan can go awry.  

Just this year I had a great operation that had a mare unexpectedly foal three weeks early out in the pasture.  Thankfully, the foal wasn’t truly premature, but another pregnant mare in the pasture stole the baby for herself and ran the maiden mare off.  It was like a horse soap opera. The late broodmare pasture got checked four times a day so that situation was quickly rectified before the wheels fell all the way off that scenario.  The more you know, huh?  

Happy foaling everyone! 

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