Having to wait for something always makes it seem more precious, and waiting almost a year for a foal to hit the ground after the careful planning of stallion etc makes the arrival of a foal even more exciting. However, as with all neonates, if anything goes wrong with a very young foal it tends to go very wrong very quickly and knowing what a “normal” foal should look like is of utmost importance.
The changes which the newborn foal must make at birth are very profound, involving almost all the body systems. The transition from a foetus to the free living neonatal foal is probably the riskiest time in any horse’s life. At the point of birth clearance of the airway and the onset of breathing is the most important single event and there is a defined period of about 3 minutes for this to occur that cannot be exceeded without serious life threatening consequences. A healthy foal should be making attempts to stand within 30 minutes and be standing successfully by 2 hours. Ideally a foal will have suckled successfully by 3 hours and definitely by 6 hours. After 6 hours the newborn ability to absorb colostrum (the mare’s first, anti-body rich milk has larger molecules) optimally rapidly declines over the next 18 hrs to virtually nothing. Foals that do not receive sufficient colostrum are hugely vulnerable to infection from 48hrs to 1 month of age. This can manifest as septicaemia (infection in the blood), infection in the joints, respiratory and gastrointestinal upsets and a general failure to thrive. Even a foal that has been up and suckled well and early can have a sub optimal antibody level if the mare’s colostrums is not of sufficient quality as is seen in some of the older mares or those in poor body condition or those that have been running milk for some time prior to foaling (effectively wasting this precious substance). In these cases it is advisable to discuss this with your vet prior to foaling, he may supply you with some frozen high quality colostrum to top up your foal’s intake. Mares are ideally vaccinated against tetanus in the last month of pregnancy to optimise the anti-tetanus immunoglobins in the colostrum, for those that haven’t been vaccinated recently your vet may advise that the foal is given a tetanus antitoxin at the 24-48hr check.
It must be said at this point that over 95% of foals are born with no complications! It is more natural and from a disease control point of view it is “cleaner” to foal outside, however, bear in mind that horses have an ability to find hazards in seemingly safe fields – every year we see foals that have been born into ditches, and last year one that found a small patch of nettles as cover in an otherwise bowling green smooth and lovely field with disastrous consequences. Also, for those births and newborns that do not go according to plan they need attention rapidly and should never be too far away from a dry clean covered area with lights just in case. Also, it goes without saying that for foaling checks, it is less taxing on the owner to check a mare in a foaling box than wander around a field at night with a torch.
It is necessary to treat the foal’s umbilicus soon after birth and every 6-8 hours until it is dry, for this you can use chlorhexidine or iodine preparations, we recommend a commercial iodine powder spray or a home recipe of 0.5% solution of chlorhexidine and surgical spirit (please contact the office for full details). The wet naval is a common entry site for bacterial infection and keeping this sterilised until it is dry is very important. Another thing to keep an eye on is the passage of the meconium (the foal’s first faeces), this is very dark in appearance and should be passed within the first four hours and by 24-48hrs the milk dung appears which is much lighter in colour. Some foals struggle to pass this first waste and can be observed straining and uncomfortable, for those that have not passed it within 12hrs contact the vet who may advise an enema, some studs will use these prophylactically, colt foals are more at risk of retained meconium than fillies.
We advise that if you are happy with the foal’s progress in the first day that the first vet examination is carried out between 24-48hrs. This will involve an examination of the mare, placenta (always keep this until the vet has seen it) and the foal. It is at that stage that blood testing to check foal antibody levels is carried out. The “gold standard” is to test antibody levels on all foals, so pre-empting any problems. However, if the foaling process was trouble free, the mare and foal both appear well and the foal suckled well and early, this may not be necessary. If there is any cause for doubt then this blood test is vital. Those foals who are not doing well or whose antibody levels are very low will require a transfusion and prompt commencement of antibiotic therapy. “Wait and see” for those foals that do not appear quite right is not an option, foals (as with all newborns) can go downhill rapidly. Poorly foals cause a huge amount of emotional (and economic) stress, any concerns must be addressed as soon as possible and as with most things in life, prior preparation and an awareness of what is normal and what is not and what can be expected will reduce the incidence of any problems.
From a handling and habituation point of view, if you are only going to be able to spend, say, 100 hours in a year, with a foal then we advise that as much of it as possible is spent in the first week. What we call “undemanding” time, which is simply being in the presence of humans, getting the foal used to being touched all over (without restraint, wait for the foal to come to you) at this stage will set your foal up for a lifetime of happy acceptance of handling. For some procedures (vet exam, vaccination etc) restraint is necessary and at this time firm but minimal is the guideline.
Richard Stringer BVSc MRCVS of Stringer Equine Veterinary Practice