When something’s off, newborn foals can deteriorate very quickly compared to adult horses.
It’s important to have a good grasp of what’s normal and what isn’t, and assess the foal’s health at parturition.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- If the water has broken, but there’s still no sign of the foal at the vulva after ten minutes, the foal’s position should be examined with clean hands/arms.
- Normal positioning - two legs forward, one just in front of the other, the muzzle 10-20cm behind the feet. If the foal’s position is normal, allow another 10 minutes. If the foal still hasn’t advanced, call the vet immediately.
- If a red balloon-like structure is visible at the start of foaling, immediately break it open (in the middle of the slightly brighter star-shaped spot, see photo).
The placenta has detached early and the foal can’t get oxygen. It needs to be delivered ASAP before it suffocates! Call the vet. This foal will require vet attention post-partum.
- The foetal membranes might cover the foal’s nose, pull them aside so the foal can breathe. Don’t intervene if not necessary, as it can disrupt the mare-foal bonding process.
- The foal should sit in sternal recumbency within two minutes, stand within one hour, nurse within two hours and the mare should pass her placenta within three hours. Call the vet if this takes longer.
- Let your vet check the foal’s antibody level at 12 hours, check the foal for congenital problems and give the foal tetanus antitoxin if required. The latter is especially important if the mare has not had her tetanus booster within four to six weeks before parturition.
It is important for the foal’s health to drink enough good quality colostrum within the first eight hours of life. This is because a foal is born without any antibodies to protect it against the pathogens that are all around us. These antibodies are provided through colostrum, which is the first fraction of milk that the mare produces. Colostrum is more viscous (thick and sticky) than milk and looks slightly yellow. A mare will only make colostrum at the start of lactation, which makes it very important that the mare doesn’t lose her colostrum before the foal is able to drink it. Antibodies are a type of large protein. In adult horses, large particles have to be broken down (digested) to be absorbed, as the gut has a natural barrier (otherwise bacteria would also be able to get through!). However, in a newborn foal, this barrier is still in its “foetal stage”, which allows the antibodies to be absorbed in the gut.
From birth, the gut barrier gradually starts to close up. It would normally take a foal approximately two hours from birth to nurse. If this takes longer than three to four hours it is considered abnormal. At this stage a vet should be contacted so that the foal can be helped before the gut barrier has closed completely. Once it has, therapy becomes more intensive for the foal, owner and vet. If therapy is offered too late, the foal might already have acquired an infection that’ll be even harder to treat.
The vet can check the antibody concentration in the mare’s colostrum (hold around 2mL aside before the foal gets to it). Even if it is good colostrum, keep in mind that the foal can still become immuno-compromised if it doesn’t drink enough. That’s why we recommend having your vet do an antibody-blood test when the foal is 18 hours old to decide whether the foal needs any extra support.
Do you have a pregnant mare and would you like to be prepared? The NZ Equine Research Foundation has published a nice booklet for horse owners. It takes you through everything you need to know. Please contact us if you would like one.