Written by Lacey Quail under the direction and review of Rebecca Bott.
Neonatal care of the mare and foal is important to the health and wellbeing of both animals.
Care of the Mare
Foaling is a strenuous process. Therefore, it is important to allow the mare time to rest after she has given birth to the foal. It is the mare’s natural instinct to rise shortly after foaling and to start caring for the foal. Thus, the temptation to intervene should be resisted.
A mare should expel her placenta shortly after giving birth (usually within an hour or two). If the mare does not expel her placenta within the first two hours after foaling, she may have an increased risk for bacterial infections, laminitis, as well as delayed opportunities for rebreeding. However, a horse owner should never pull on the placenta if it is only partially expelled from the mare. This can cause tears in the placenta, which can lead to pieces of the placenta being retained within the uterus and presenting an opportunity for bacteria to thrive. Once the placenta has been expelled, it should be evaluated for any tears, which could be indicative of retained pieces, as well as for the proper coloring (red color on the inside, grey/white color on the outside).
Carefully observe the mare for several days after foaling. Due to the recent abdominal exertion of birth, the mare may experience discomfort when passing feces and may even develop a gastrointestinal impaction. To prevent an impaction, bland feeds with gentle laxative qualities can be added to the mare’s diet in moderation post-foaling. If the mare were to acquire a uterine infection, it would be noticeable during the first few days after foaling. Although a slight discharge from the vulva is expected while the uterus involudes, any abnormal (thick, white/yellow/brown in color, or foul odor) discharge requires veterinary care.
Care of the Foal
Immediately after being born, it is important to ensure that the amniotic sac is no longer covering the foal’s nose and making difficult the foal’s first breaths. Gently swipe downwards along each nostril to expel fluids out of the nasal passage. A healthy foal will begin breathing well on its own. It is important not to interfere with the bonding between mare and foal. As such interventions should be attempted with minimal commotion or invasiveness.
Soon after birth, a healthy foal will begin to move about. These movements typically cause the umbilical cord to break. After the umbilical cord breaks, the umbilicus should be dipped in a dilute iodine or chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) solution. The umbilicus should be dipped several times in the first two days of life. This protects the foal from any bacteria that could travel through the umbilicus to the body and cause infection. It is important to observe the navel of the foal for several days to ensure it remains dry and is not bleeding.
After the foal has stood, they will instinctively begin to try and nurse. Although this process may seem slow, horse owners are encouraged to allow the foal to find the mare’s udder on their own. However, assistance may be required if the foal has not found the udder and nursed within the first two hours of life. Never force the foal’s head to the udder. Instead, milk out a few drops onto your hand and gently guide the foal to the udder. After a few attempts, the foal should learn where and how to nurse on their own.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of foal care is ensuring they receive colostrum in a timely manner. Colostrum contains antibodies that are important for the immune function. A foal can absorb the antibodies in colostrum during the first 24 hours of life. After that time, the ability of the gastrointestinal tract to absorb intact immunoglobulins is very low if present at all. In fact, the absorptive ability starts to decrease rapidly after 12 hours of life. A refractometer should be used to test the quality of a mare’s colostrum in order to ensure future immune health of the foal. A reading of good or great is desired. If a mare has poor or fair quality colostrum, owners are encouraged to follow up by having their veterinarian perform a test to verify adequate transfer of immunoglobulins to the foal. This can be determined with a simple test performed on a small sample of blood from the foal.
In addition to its importance to the immune system, colostrum also has a laxative effect on the foal. This ensures that the foal passes its fetal excrement, meconium, in a timely manner. Foals that are constipated or attempting unsuccessfully to pass meconium will not be focused on nursing. In these cases, an enema may be warranted.
A foal may develop diarrhea at any time within the first couple weeks of life. Diarrhea can be extremely detrimental to a foal as they dehydrate quickly. Although diarrhea is not normal in a newborn foal, many foals develop mild scours around 1 to 2 weeks of age. At this age, mild scours are not a concern if the foal is nursing regularly. However, it is important to monitor hydration, and to keep a foal’s hind end clean and coated with rash cream to prevent scalding.
The first few days of a foal’s life set the stage for a healthful life. If the simple guidelines described within this article are followed, a horse owner can be assured that they have assisted in promoting the health and wellbeing of their mare and new foal. Consult your veterinarian or Extension Equine Specialist for further information regarding the care of your mare and foal.
About the Author
Lacey graduated with a degree in Animal Science from South Dakota State University on May 7, 2016. She will begin her MS degree at Texas A&M University this fall.
- United States. Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Post-Foaling Care of the Mare and Foal. By Cynthia A. McCall. Auburn, Ala.: Alabama Cooperative Extension System, 2002. Apr. 2002. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
- United States. iIGrow. Colostrum Ingestion in Foals[BR3] . By Jared Janke and Rebecca Bott. South Dakota State University, 12 May 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
- United States. iGrow. Foaling Part 1: The Foaling Kit & Foaling Area. By Lainie Kringen and Rebecca Bott. South Dakota State University, 12 May 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.