Signs of a Healthy Foal

Chances are your foal will sail through the baby stage with flying colors, especially if it’s normal at birth and good management practices are in place at your farm. However, even under the best circumstances, it’s possible that your youngster could fall prey to one or more problems that can affect foals. How does a healthy newborn foal appear?

Healthy newborn foals should:

  • Assume a sternal position (be able to sit up on his chest) within minutes of delivery.
  • Breathe easily, slowing from an initial high of about 70 breaths per minute to 40 to 60 minutes within 15 minutes of birth.
  • Have red or at least pink mucous membranes, indicating adequate oxygen is reaching the tissues.
  • Display a strong suckle reflex within two to 20 minutes of birth.
  • Appear alert and display an affinity for the dam.
  • Be able to stand within two hours and nurse within three hours.

If your foal fails to meet these criteria, he may already be suffering from a serious condition and needs the prompt attention of a veterinarian. Good observation coupled with prompt action gives you the best opportunity to help your foal avoid a setback. 

Make every effort to maximize the chances of your foal’s continued good health. These good management practices can make the difference between a healthy foal and a sick one:

  • A well-ventilated, clean foaling environment.
  • Good farm and stable hygiene and parasite control.
  • Sound nutrition, current vaccinations and regular deworming of all equine residents.
  • Plenty of fresh air and room to exercise for the foal as well as commencement of a regular vaccination and deworming program.

Our Foal Health Watch Guide describes signs of a variety of common ailments that can occur during the first 6 months of a foal’s life. In most cases, even if the problem is not life-threatening, you will still want your veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis and direct you in the most effective treatment. Please keep in mind this guide lists signs that are frequently observed with certain foal disorders, but not all foals display the same signs or to the same degree. A foal’s condition can deteriorate very rapidly, so don’t wait until your sick baby shows all the signs before acting and calling your veterinarian.

Foal Health Watch Guide

FIRST SYMPTOMOTHER SYMPTOMSPROBABLE DIAGNOSISACTIONS
Labored, suppressed or noisy breathingSoreness, reluctance to moveBroken ribs due to severe compression from deliveryStall rest, gentle handling
 Reluctance to move or nurse, extended abdomenRuptured diaphragm, often due to birth traumaImmediate corrective surgery
 Yellow-stained amniotic fluid with deliveryMeconium-aspiration pneumoniaAntibiotics
 Depression, coughing, intermittent feverFoal pneumoniaAntibiotic treatment based on bacterial culture
Loose stoolsMild diarrhea at time of dam’s foal heatTransient, “9-day scours”Gently clean foal’s tail and buttocks with soapy water to prevent scalding of skin
 Dehydration, scalding of skin on buttocks, matting of tailNoninfectious diarrhea (from overeating, eating manure, etc.)Fluids, decreased rations, clean tail and buttocks as above
 Rapid dehydration, scalding, matting, fever, depressionInfectious diarrheaAntibiotics, fluids, clean tail and buttocks regularly
ColickyColic after ingesting first milk, enema ineffectiveClosed colon or rectum – development error causes gut to end in blind pouchSurgery, success depends on length of missing part
 Rolling, thrashing, lying on back, fecal matter not passedSevere constipation, fecal mass too large or too far forward for enema to be successfulLaxatives, fluids
 Lethargy, appetite loss, diarrhea, teeth grinding, lying on ground with feet in airUlcerConfirm with endoscopy, treat with anti-ulcer medication
Profuse watery discharge from eyesBlinking, avoidance of light, scratched corneaInversion of eyelid (entropion), dehydration, if uncorrected can lead to blindnessFluids, lubricate eye and lids gently, pull out eyelid as often as necessary, surgery may be needed
Navel stump dripping urineWet, soiled, warm, swollen navel stump“Leaky navel” (pervious urachus), umbilicus fails to closeDaily cauterization with silver nitrate or iodine, possible surgery
StrainingTail switching, meconium (first feces) not passedSimple constipation, meconium not passedEnema, fluids
 Distended abdomen, little or no urine produced, toxicity, fever, jaundiced membranes, progressive weaknessRuptured bladder due to birth trauma or jerk on umbilical cord after deliverySurgery to repair hole in bladder, drain urine from bladder, fluids
Low immunoglobulin (IgG) countLess than 400 mg/dlFailure of passive transfer, foal did not receive adequate colostrum or was unable to absorb IgGProvide colostrum if foal less than 24 hours old, otherwise administer plasma IgG transfusion
 Greater than 400 mg/dl, low risk environmentPartial failure of passive transferFoal probably adequately protected, but watch closely
 Less than 800 mg/dl, high risk environmentPartial failure of passive transferAdminister plasma IgG transfusion, monitor IgG level
Weakness, incoordinationDelivery between 300 and 320 days of gestation, low birthweight, little or no suckle strength, weak fetlocks and lax pasternsPremature birthOxygen, humidity and temperature control, tube feeding, fluids
 Intolerance to exerciseCongenital heart defectCardiovascular exam, surgery
 Will not nurse, severe diarrhea, dehydration, subnormal temperature, bluish-white third eyelid“Sleeper foal” caused by Actinobacillus equii bacteriaAntibiotics, fluids
 Inflammation of umbilical vein, fever, depression“Navel ill” (septicemia), systemic bloodstream infectionAntibiotics, fluids, intensive nursing care
Swollen jointsLameness, fever, depression, joints are hot and painfulJoint ill (septic arthritis) or bone infection (osteomyelitis)Antibiotics, surgical draining
Mare cannot nurseMare dies, does not allow foal to nurse, or is unable to provide milk (agalactiae)Orphan or rejected foal, agalactic mare, early weaningSupply colostrum is newborn, provide foal milk replacer or nurse mare

Weaning Foals

Early autumn is a time when horse owners are frequently preparing to wean foals from their dams. Proper preparation makes the process much easier. There are several management practices that should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. (Ex: If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day.) Keep in mind that beyond two months of age, the dam’s milk is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth. The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Ensure the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to its health care plan. Vaccination is stressful for the animal, so we do not want to do this at the same time we wean the foal.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled (imprint training is a great tool), taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.
  5. Weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should be avoided during weaning. For example, the day you wean the foal is not the day to change feeds.

There are a number of different ways to handle weaning, depending on the number of foals and the layout of the facility. There are several factors to keep in mind:

  1. There is probably less stress on the foal if it remains in the pen or paddock where it is accustomed instead of being moved to a new location.
  2. Misery loves company. If you have more than one foal, wean at least two at a time and keep them together. If you have only one foal, perhaps you have a nice old gelding who can be a babysitter?
  3. Make certain the pen and paddock are safe with good fencing and no hazards.
  4. Out of sight (and earshot) means out of mind. Mares and their foals tend to calm down faster if they cannot see and hear each other after weaning.
  5. A few days prior to weaning, reduce the mare’s grain intake to prepare her to dry up from milk production. Her udder is going to be somewhat swollen, so don’t plan on cinching her up right away for a trail ride.

Monitor the new weanlings closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition. Because a weanling cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse, some weanlings can become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning from inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

Proper preparation can minimize weaning stress for foals and broodmares and make for a more pleasant autumn for the horse owner, too.

Feeding Broodmares Properly

While visiting an area farm at feeding time I watched the owner give her mare an extra portion of feed since she was eating for two. I know she meant well, but the mare is not due until May. I explained to her that the “extra portion” really isn’t needed – she can continue to feed her mare on a quality maintenance program, including quality forage, until her last trimester.

During this time, the foundation of the foal’s body is being built, so quality nutrition is needed, but it doesn’t put a big strain on the mare just yet. When she reaches the last part of pregnancy, the foal’s body begins to actually grow by around 1 lb per day, and that is when the demands on the mares’ reserves begin. At that point, the owner would be wise to switch to a feed specially designed for broodmares and foals, as these feeds take into account the increased needs of the mare during that last part of pregnancy, and are formulated so a regular portion can be fed instead of having to provide “extra”.

Explaining further, I told her to gradually switch the mare to a broodmare or mare and foal ration, over a period of 5-7 days. Total dietary protein – not just from the grain, but from the grain and hay both – should be 12-14% (depending on amino acid balance) and balanced for all nutrients. It is important that the concentrate portion of the diet provide adequate protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus, as well as other vitamins and minerals. The foal is pulling significantly from the mare’s supply during the end of the pregnancy, and building up stores of nutrients for the first weeks of life on the ground. For example, the foal will not receive any copper from mare’s milk, so it has to store up sufficient levels while still in the womb to last it until it begins eating solids alongside its dam.

Finally, most mare & foal feeds are designed such that the mare should continue on the ration until she is through the heaviest part of lactation, and the foal can begin eating alongside her to adjust to solid feed, then can continue on the same feed through weaning – thereby reducing at least one stressful switch at that difficult time!