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Rearing a Foal

Rearing a Foal


Immediately after birth, all of the care a healthy foal needs will be provided by the mother. However, it must soon get used to human care and attention, as well. A foal’s first movement after birth is usually to shake its head and to shiver which helps maintain body temperature. Very soon afterward, the foal begins making attempts to get to its feet. A normal foal should be on its feet within two hours of birth and one that does not should cause concern. Once standing, a foal soon finds its mother and, within a few attempts, finds the teat and starts nursing; this should happen within four hours of birth.

Unlike many mammals within the womb, a foal receives no antibodies from its mother before birth. These antibodies are essential for protection against infection. Foals obtain their initial immune protection by taking in their dam’s first milk, or colostrum, which is thick and yellowish. This is best absorbed when a foal is less than six hours old. After this, changes in its intestines mean that the foal is less able to absorb antibodies, and by 12 to 18 hours after birth it is unable to absorb them at all. It is therefore vital that foals receive the colostrum before they are six to eight hours old. If they have not done so by then, the mare must be milked and the colostrum must be given by hand-held bottle or by means of a stomach tube by a vet.

Foals take small amounts of milk at frequent intervals, day and night, resting in between feedings. It is hard to estimate the amount a foal is receiving and the milk output of a mare varies considerably. Thoroughbreds produce from one to two gallons a day. Lack of milk is rarely a problem early in a foal’s life, but it may stunt growth later, requiring early weaning. Occasionally, foals become fat and top-heavy, even suffering from limb deformities because their dam’s milk is too rich, but weaning can also cure this. The composition of mare’s milk alters when they are in estrus, and foals may experience adverse affects, such as diarrhea at this time. Orphan foals can be reared successfully using a proprietary horse-milk substitute that has more suitable protein content than cow’s milk but can also cause diarrhea.

Signs of Illness

When a healthy resting foal is approached, it should get up right away and go to its dam and nurse. Any foal that does not should be given special attention. Signs of “sleepiness” and refusal to nurse (which can be identified if the dam has a tight udder) are indications that something is wrong. In such cases, the foal’s temperature should be checked. The normal temperature of a foal should be 100.5 to 101° Fahrenheit; temperatures of 102 degrees or higher are matters for concern and a veterinarian should be contacted. Bacterial infections are common in foals, especially if they have not received colostrum. Infection of the joints causes lameness; infection of the lungs, pneumonia; infection of the blood, septicemia. All of these infections cause symptoms of lethargy. Feces are first formed in a foal’s bowel while it is still in the dam. These feces, called meconium, are hard and black, and usually passed in the first 12 hours after birth, but occasionally they remain in the foal and can cause great discomfort. An enema can prevent this, but if the foal appears to be in pain, call a veterinarian. Tetanus can also occur in very young foals. On many breeding farms, they are given tetanus antitoxin for temporary protection until they can be vaccinated at three months old.


In the wild, foals are normally weaned at nine to 10 months if the mother has again become pregnant, but foals may go on nursing for up to 18 months or two years if the mother has not become pregnant again. The quality and quantity of the mare’s milk decreases after six months of lactation, and weaning is best done around six to eight months after birth, in the foal’s first Fall. Colts should definitely be weaned or separated from other females before they are one year old. Although they are not sexually mature until they are at least 18 months old, sexual behavior begins much earlier and they may be kicked or injured by their dams. Weaning involves considerable changes in a foal’s digestion, and the more gradually the process can be carried out, the better. Creep feed, by which a foal is fed in an area so restricted that the mare cannot get to it, can be introduced when the foal is three to four months old and gradually increased until weaning is complete. Weaning is also a psychological upset for the young foals, as well, and some stable vices can be attributed to traumatic weaning. It is preferable to wean batches of mares and foals together, for this seems to cause less distress, and weaned foals benefit from having companions.


Provided that a small enough halter is available, foals can be led from the day they are born. The more foals are used to being handled the better as it can save a lot of trouble later on, and makes procedures such as worming, foot trimming and castration far simpler. Care should be taken in tying up young horses. Tethering is not recommended for foals because of the possibility that they may panic. A quick-release safety knot should always be used. A horse’s education can begin very early, and the sooner they are used to being groomed, having their feet picked out, and being handled generally, the better off they will be. If a young animal is used for showing, or regularly needs greater control than can be exercised in a halter, it can be fitted with a bit as a yearling. However, it is not advisable to break horses for work until they are nearly mature. Thoroughbreds mature early, and are broken as yearlings, to race as two-year-olds. Eventers, hunters, and pleasure horses are not usually broken until at least three years or four years of age.

Breaking may cause some problems, however. Although most horses are almost fully grown by four years old, they continue to develop and are not fully mature until they are six. Many of the problems encountered during breaking-in are caused by immaturity (extra stress on immature or underdeveloped bone). In Thoroughbreds, this shows as sore shins or knee troubles known as carpitis. In riding horses, splints on the foreleg cannon bones and curbs on the hocks are seen. Weakness in young horses may also lead to damage or injury, such as forging (the striking of the sole of the forefoot with the hind foot) or brushing of the feet. Overwork can produce damage, particularly back injuries, which may not show up until later. Lungeing also puts extra strain on a young horse’s body. Sore and cut lips, cuts in the mouth, and saddle and girth sores are injuries directly related to breaking. The permanent cheek teeth are emerging at this stage of a horse’s life (between two and four years) and these, along with other developing teeth, may cause problems with the bit. Well-fitted surcingles, saddles, and girths are essential.

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