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Tips for Foaling Season: Preparing for Your New Foal

Your new foal is due soon! Prepare ahead of time so you're ready and know what to expect with the foal's arrival. You'll want to:

  • Make the property safe and ready for your foal
  • Care for the mare before foaling
  • Be informed about the foaling process
  • Know what to do post-foaling
  • Understand normal and abnormal nursing behavior
  • Prepare smart accommodations
  • Know the safest way to handle a young foal

Making the Property Safe and Ready for Your Foal

Well before the foal is born, you'll want to "foal proof" the property.

Barn/stall:

Look over the stall and repair any loose wall boards, splinters, gaps between boards or doors where a foal can get caught, protruding nails, bucket hooks, latches, etc.

Keep rakes, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, tractors and other equipment out of the barn aisle.

Look over feeders and waterers — both inside the stall and in the paddock. They should be smooth with rounded edges. Use troughs and feed bins that foals can't get trapped inside should they climb or fall in.

Fencing:

Foals need clearly visible fencing that keeps them in and prevents predators from getting underneath.

The safest fencing for foals and young horses is diamond-V mesh or "non-climb" wire fencing with a top board for visibility. Fencing should be stretched tight and come all the way down to the ground.

Never use barbed wire, smooth wire or electric tape or wire as the sole fencing around foals. Skip the "field fence" as well because the large openings in the wire allow a foal to get a leg through.

Foaling Stall:

Clean and disinfect the foaling stall so it’s ready. If possible, leave it empty until right before the mare is ready to foal.

When foaling is imminent, bed the stall with straw or bedding hay (not moldy or dusty). Avoid shavings for foaling, which will stick to the wet newborn and possibly get in his nose. (If you usually bed on shavings, you can switch back to them once the foal is a few days old.)

If you have stall mats, you may want to pull them out for foaling and the first few days after the foal is born. They can be slippery, especially for a wobbly-legged new foal, making it harder for the baby trying to stand and get around.

Some owners send their mares to a farm specifically for foaling where experienced staff are on hand. This can be helpful if you don't have the best facility for foaling or are nervous about foaling at home. If this is your plan, don't wait until right before she's due.

Ideally, the mare should be at the location where she will foal four to six weeks prior. This gives her body time to produce antibodies that will pass on to the foal in her colostrum to protect the baby in the environment he will be born into.

foal in a field

Making the Property Safe and Ready for Your Foal

Well before the foal is born, you'll want to "foal proof" the property.

Barn/stall:

Look over the stall and repair any loose wall boards, splinters, gaps between boards or doors where a foal can get caught, protruding nails, bucket hooks, latches, etc.

Keep rakes, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, tractors and other equipment out of the barn aisle.

Look over feeders and waterers — both inside the stall and in the paddock. They should be smooth with rounded edges. Use troughs and feed bins that foals can't get trapped inside should they climb or fall in.

Caring for the Mare Before Foaling

Your mare should have routine veterinary health checks throughout her pregnancy, including all necessary vaccinations, with recommended booster shots four to six weeks prior to foaling. These are important not only for the mare's health, but to maximize the antibodies in her colostrum so she can pass this protection on to her new foal when he nurses that first day. Talk with your veterinarian to schedule vaccines at the right time.

Keep up with your mare's normal hoof care routine.

The last trimester of pregnancy (months 9–11) are vital as the foal is rapidly growing, so your mare needs a nutrition program designed around gestation. A supplement formulated for pregnant and nursing mares is also helpful.

Daily requirements of mare during last trimester of pregnancy:

1 to 1.5% of body weight in forage

0.5 to 1% of body weight in concentrate

Be Informed

If this is your first foal, do your homework ahead of time (there are a number of excellent books on this topic) to understand the three stages of the foaling process and what to expect:

  • Normal foaling presentation
  • How to assist the mare if needed
  • Red flags of potential problems and when to call the vet

1-2-3 Rule:

The normal healthy foal:

Stands within one hour

Nurses within two hours

Passes meconium (first bowel movement) within three hours

Normal Newborn Foal Check

  • Heart rate: 60 to 100 beats per minute (should be about 80 to 100 beats per minute by 24 hours old)
  • Respiration: 40 to 60 breaths per minute; noticeably shallow, slow or irregular breathing is cause for concern (should be about 30 breaths per minute by 24 hours old)
  • Temperature: 99 to 102 degrees
  • Gums: pink
  • Suckle reflex: by 30 minutes after birth
  • Standing: within 60 minutes of birth; taking longer than 2 hours to stand is not normal
  • Time until first urination: colts about 6 hours, fillies as long as 11 hours

The mare normally passes afterbirth within one hour after foaling. If she has not passed it within two to three hours, contact your vet.

What to Do Post-Foaling

To cut down on the organisms and bacteria the foal will come in contact with when nursing for the first time, gently wash the mare's udder and hindquarters. Use warm water and mild soap to remove foaling fluids, blood, dirt and manure. Then dry with a clean towel.

If this is your first foal, do your homework ahead of time to understand the three stages of the foaling process and what to expect

Dip the foal's navel according to your veterinarian's instructions to prevent infection. "Dip the navel immediately post-foaling and hold it there 20 seconds. You can't go wrong dipping it a couple more times in the first few hours," advises Sam Crosby, DVM, whose equine practice is based in Arcadia, Oklahoma. "A dilute mixture of chlorhexidine solution is less caustic than using the 7% iodine many people have used in the past."

If the navel stump doesn't dry up within a few days, and if it becomes hot and/or swollen, call your veterinarian.

First Day Vet Care

New Foal Exam — have your veterinarian out within the first 12 to 24 hours to conduct a new foal exam and to be sure the baby falls within normal parameters.

"The new foal exam is critical," notes Armon Blair, DVM, a veterinarian with Ocala Equine Hospital in Ocala, Florida. "We can discover potential problems early and treat them accordingly. This provides a much higher chance of success." 

During the new foal exam, the veterinarian should draw blood for an IgG test (Immunoglobulin G test, also known as “failure of passive transfer” test), which will show if the foal has absorbed enough antibodies from the colostrum. These antibodies are critical because they protect the foal during the first several months of life until his own immune system develops.

"It's imperative that the IgG test be done within the first 24 hours. The veterinarian can use a portable test to pull blood from the foal and test it right there in the stall. If the numbers aren't high enough, the vet will treat the foal with intravenous plasma," explains Dr. Crosby.

Mare Exam — your veterinarian should also do a post-foaling exam of the mare.

Nursing: What's Normal, What's Not

Newborn foals, like human babies, do a lot of sleeping and nursing.

Frequent, vigorous nursing is the norm. A healthy new foal nurses five to seven times an hour. If he's been sleeping, he'll nurse as soon as he wakes up, typically every 30 minutes to an hour. The average young foal will consume roughly two gallons of milk over a 24-hour period.

Pay attention to the nursing pattern and the mare's udder. After the first day, when the foal is getting good at the business of nursing, her udder shouldn't look overly full or "tight," as it may have just before foaling.

A normal nursing pattern is one strong indicator that your foal is healthy. Reluctance to nurse or decreased nursing can be a sign that something is wrong and is a good reason to call your vet promptly.

Safely Handling a Young Foal

Early handling in the first days makes a lasting impression. Rubbing — rather than patting — the foal all over his body teaches him that there’s nothing to fear from your touch.

When you need to restrain a young foal for any reason, the safest method is to cradle his body from one side. Put one arm around his chest, just below the neck, and place the other arm around his hindquarters, just below the tail. This allows you to hold him in place or guide him forward. Use the least amount of restraint needed or the foal may resist.

Smart Accommodations

You'll want to keep your mare and new foal in their own area for at least the first week, away from other horses.

Outside the stall a small paddock is best because the foal can quickly become exhausted if he’s turned out in a large field and the mare starts running.

Be Observant

The best thing a new foal owner can do is pay close attention.

Taking your foal's temperature on a daily basis is an excellent way to monitor his health. An elevated or below-normal temp may be the first indication that something is amiss.

If you notice changes from your foal's normal routine and behavior, call your veterinarian promptly. "Prompt examination and treatment of medical issues is critical," emphasizes Dr. Blair.

Never "wait it out" to see if a foal improves on his own. Young foals are fragile and can go downhill quickly. If the foal runs a fever, acts dull or lethargic and/or loses interest in nursing, don't delay in getting veterinary attention.

Now that you've learned about preparing for the new arrival and immediate post-foaling care, be sure to read Foaling Season Part 2 to get solid advice on caring for the young foal.

 

Foaling Season Tip #1: Watch Mama!

You think you know your mare, but even a laid-back mare can be extra protective of her new foal, especially in the first few days. Be careful when moving around her and the baby. Pay close attention to her body language and watch those ears! For safety's sake, any time you handle the foal, it's best to have someone else on hand to hold the mare, at least early on.

 

Foaling Season Tip #2: Smart Foal Handling

Proper handling when your foal is very young will allow him to gain trust and submit to human touch without fear. The foal develops respect as he learns it's not acceptable to invade your space and that you can control his movements. The goal is for him to see you as a dominant herd member, or leader, not as his peer. Don't encourage roughhousing like jumping up on you, bumping into you or nipping. Such activity might seem funny with a week-old foal but will turn dangerous as he grows bigger and stronger.

By Cynthia McFarland
Stable Talk | Farnam