Health and Wellbeing of the Newborn Foal

newborn foal

We last looked at nutrition of the broodmare when considering how to keep our horses in a healthy and happy state. In this article, I want to focus on ways we can determine if our newborn foal is healthy and happy.

Our mare has carried the foal full term (345 days on average) and has had a natural delivery, providing us with a foal – exciting! There are some things we should check straight away and other things we should keep an eye on over the next 24 – 72 hours. At this stage the foal is known as a neonate, that is, a newborn or really young foal.

Initial Checks
It is worth investing in a notepad that you can use to fill out details for any newborn foal. In fact, you may like to create a document that lists what you need to check and print out copies of this for use. Things you need to make note of include:

  • Time of the foal’s birth
  • Gender of the foal (colt – a male, or filly – a female)
  • Any concerns or questions you may have
  • The mare’s delivery and if it seemed troubled or to take a long time

Check your foal over in whole. Are there four legs, two eyes, two years, two nostrils? If the foal is a filly, can you easily see the anus and vulva under the tail? If the foal is a colt, can you see the anus where manure will pass through?

Check the eyelids – do they appear to be correct, or are they inverted? If this is the case, they may need to be manually corrected or even have a vet assess them and correct the problem. This is very important – if the foal’s eyelids are inverted (known as entropian) then the eyelashes will be rubbing against the eye and can result in ulceration and to the extreme – blindness.

Is the foal breathing easily? You can watch the flanks or the nostrils or even place a hand in front of the nostrils to feel for breaths. The foal will breathe a lot faster than its mother initially.

If you feel that the nasal passage isn’t as clear as it could be, run one finger either side of the nose; down the soft nasal passages to clear away any mucous that could still be there from the delivery. Remember that horses can’t breathe out of their mouths, so it is important that their nasal passage is clear.

Once we’re happy that our foal appears as a whole horse and that nothing seems to be out of order, we can now look out for further signs of good health.

newborn foal

The Nursing Foal
It is not unusual for foals to nurse up to 100 times in a day, for short periods at a time. Imagine them standing up, feeding, having a little play and then resting before doing it all over again. Remember how physiologically horses need to eat little and often? This starts right at the beginning of a horse’s life, with the drinking habits of the nursing foal.

How can we tell if a foal is nursing? We can observe it ourselves from a distance or even up close if the mare will allow it. The foal should be wrapping its lips and tongue around one of the mare’s teats and sucking, drawing milk into its mouth. An obvious sign that the foal isn’t nursing is that the mare’s udder (otherwise known as a bag) is full of milk and even dripping milk. If it appears full and is hard to touch, then the foal isn’t nursing.

Foals can prefer one teat over the other when it comes to nursing. If this is the case, be thankful that your foal is nursing, but try to encourage it to drink from the other side, too. If this isn’t happening and one side of the mare’s bag is filling with milk and getting tight and uncomfortable, you can express milk by running a thumb and finger from the top of the teat in a downward motion, applying firm pressure.

Relieving this pressure may be enough to encourage the foal to try this side again. It will definitely relieve some discomfort for your mare! If you fancy, you can milk the mare into a bottle and provide this to the foal right away, so that it isn’t wasted.

Some numbers to make note of – and perhaps write down in your foaling notebook! – are those of 1 and 2. The foal should be standing within 1 hour of birth and drinking within 2 hours of being born. It is important that the foal has nursed within the first 6 – 12 hours of being born. If this doesn’t happen, the foal is at risk of dehydration and not receiving antibodies from the mare’s first milk (her colostrum) which will help to build up its immune system.

Time is of the essence for this as the foal’s digestive tract is rapidly undergoing changes and won’t be able to absorb the antibodies in the colostrum after the first 12 – 18 hours of being born. If this is an area of concern, your veterinarian can carry out a blood test to determine if the foal has received sufficient antibody absorption and the resulting protection it provides.

Passing Manure and Urinating

Once the foal is taking milk into its system, we should anticipate that manure and urine are going to be passed out of the system over time. The foal’s first poo is known as meconium. This is recognised as small, hard black balls that are passed before softer manure comes through.

Colts may struggle to pass this more than fillies due to their narrower pelvis. If your foal appears constipated, seek veterinary help as an enema may be required. Once the meconium has been passed, the foal should find passing further manure easier.

foal meconium


A Raised Tail and Small Black Balls are Signs of Passing Meconium

Like with passing manure, fillies and colts should be urinating easily. For colts, don’t be concerned if they appear to be passing urine out of their sheath without the penis lowered. This will correct over the next few days. Do make sure that urine isn’t passing out of the umbilicus – the area where the umbilical cord was attached. If this is occurring, there is a great chance for infection to gather in the foal’s system and cause great damage very quickly.

There are some key things to look at when first assessing the newborn foal. Once you’re happy that the foal appears to be whole and healthy, drinking, and passing manure and urine, rejoice! If at any stage you are unsure, don’t be afraid to touch base with your vet and list you concerns. It’s better to find out something isn’t an issue than to end up with a sick foal.

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About the author

Christine Meunier

Christine Meunier was introduced to horses at the age of 13. She has been studying horses from age 16, starting with the Certificate II in Horse Studies and completed her Bachelor of Equine Science in 2015. Christine has worked at numerous thoroughbred studs in Australia and in Ireland for a breeding season. She then gained experience in 2 Melbourne based horse riding schools, instructing at a basic level before heading to South Africa to spend hours in the saddle of endurance and trail horses on the Wild Coast. Particularly passionate about the world of breeding horses, she writes a blog about equine education which you can view at: http://equus-blog.com

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