The birth of a foal is problematic. Also, when he appears healthy, it is often a relief. However, the mortality rate observed in farms would be around 3-4% of foals born in blood breeds, with the majority of deaths occurring during the first two days of life. Once they have passed this milestone, you should know that the first years are very important for the foal to express its full potential. This is what we explain to you in this article.
During the foal’s first days of life
The first thing the foal does is bond with its mother. It takes him 2 weeks. On the mother’s side, it’s faster: it only takes a few hours. From birth, the mare blows into the nostrils of her foal so that her little one becomes familiar with its smell. Then, she speaks to him so that her little one recognizes his tone: this is called the nickeling, particular neigh emitted by the mare to reassure her foal. This snuggles against the body of its mother, tries to get up (a foal must absolutely be standing within 2 hours of birth, otherwise you have to call the veterinarian) and suckle. The mare licks him to stimulate him and guide him towards the udder. Like any small mammal, it is important that the foal drinks the colostrum, first milk, rich in antibodies, in the hours following its birth. During its first 24 hours of life, the foal should consume 15% of its body weight in milk, which is approximately 7.5 kg for a foal thinking 50 kg.
If he can’t do it alone, you have to help him. The owner must also disinfect the foal’s navel with 2% iodine tincture or Betadine, several times a day for the first 3 days of life. For the next 4 days, daily disinfection will be sufficient. It is also necessary to watch that the foal makes its first droppings well (meconium) because constipation is common in newborns. Beyond these few treatments, it is important to let the connection between the mother and her little one be made to the end.
Develop an early relationship with the human being
Previously, the first prolonged moments that the foal spent with a man happened during the breaking-in. But the fashion for ethology has changed mentalities and raised awareness of the need to take them in hand earlier. It was during the 1990s that the approaches changed. Behavioral imprinting of the newborn foal is the first book dealing with the handling of foals from birth. It was released in 1994 and its author is the American veterinarian Robert Miller. Here is what he recommends.
The first step is to approach the mare and obtain her consent to interact with the foal. Only when you feel that the mare accepts your presence can you begin the impression of the foal. The idea is to do like the mother: you exhale gently into his nostrils and let him inhale you in turn. It is also possible to associate its presence with a particular sound with which the foal will associate you: you can imitate the whinny of a horse or choose another sound. Then you gently and slowly rub against the foal. It starts with the head, the ears then continues through the neck and up to the tail, without omitting the legs and the genitals. At the end, you can try putting the halter on him. You have to rub the piece of rope harness on his body before trying to put it on. If you have to go slowly, you also have to go quickly: at no time should the foal feel strangled. Once the halter is on, it can be left in place for 15 to 30 minutes. If you decide to follow these instructions, remember never to leave a foal alone wearing the halter: it could end badly for him.
This approach did not have only followers. The method has been criticized for being too early at the risk of disturbing the natural process of impregnation of the foal by its mother. The objective of this protocol, carried out as a whole several times a day, is to stimulate the foal so that he trusts his owner who can then ask him more easily to do new things. However, studies have shown that this was not the case: foals handled in this way from birth were not necessarily the most cooperative thereafter. It could even harm the development of their potential because they were often less autonomous and less skillful than those left to themselves and their mother.
The rhodococcosis is the most well-known foal disease, particularly between birth and 3 months of life. It is fatal in 80% of cases. It’s a bacterium Rhodococcus, who is responsible. It is present in the soil and in droppings and is transmitted by the respiratory route. An adult horse can be a carrier without its existence being threatened. The most frequent form of the disease consists of lung abscesses triggering severe coughing, even respiratory distress. The foal generally appears dejected: he has lost his appetite and has a fever. There are also digestive or articular forms, which are particularly difficult to treat. A combination of antibiotics can overcome the disease, but the treatment is long and expensive and is only really effective on the respiratory form. And if the foal survives, he can have lifelong sequelae.
The newborn foal may suffer from sepsis, generalized infection. It can arise during the first days of his life, especially if he has not drunk enough colostrum. But it can also be contracted in utero, by interposed placenta. A navel infection is normally ruled out if you follow the disinfection protocol given above. Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in young foals. The little one has a fever, does not eat, lies in bed without reaction. Other symptoms such as swollen joints, a distended belly button, coughing or limping can be identified. The foal’s chances of survival are slim and you have to react very quickly: you have to call a veterinarian urgently.
Weaning the foal
In the wild, the weaning of the foal takes place around ten months. For her part, the mother can give birth again. The youngster stops suckling but continues to develop alongside its mother until it reaches sexual maturity. In breeding, foals are separated from their mother around five or six months, sometimes earlier. This early schedule generates a lot of stress, with a lower health of the animal, even the appearance of stereotypies (repetitive, rhythmic gestures without apparent goal). Breeding constraints prevent us from carrying out weanings that are closer to what is done in nature. But measures are taken to improve the situation: progressive or brutal separation from the mother but by a simple fence, weaning in pairs (by combining two foals) or in groups in the paddock.
Once the weaning is achieved, it is necessary to take care of the accommodation and the feeding of the foal. Exclusive accommodation in meadow is what seems to have the least negative impact on foals. However, in winter it is difficult to do this. It is then necessary to organize daily outings with congeners.
The foal drinks only milk for 1.5 months. Afterwards, milk production naturally decreases and what is still produced is no longer sufficient to ensure the foal’s good growth. For the transition to solid food to be smoother, it is necessary to anticipate the drop in milk production and from the first month, start offering the foal solid food such as forages and concentrates. The foal benefits from his mother’s example when she feeds herself and imitates her. But some mothers won’t let their foal share their food. Also, it is advisable to build a manger to which only the foal can have access. The little one thus gradually adapts his digestive system to the change.
The foal has a very thin stomach wall in the first weeks of life. It is therefore sensitive and easily develops ulcerations, and this until the age of 2-3 months, before the immune system is fully developed. Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (UPE) is twice as common in domestic foals (45%) as wild foals. Foals that eat alfalfa straw rather than hay are also more likely to develop ulcers because this straw has long, coarse fibers. Two weeks after weaning, more than 90% of domestic foals still develop ulcers.
The energy needs of a foal vary according to its age, weight, breed and environment. In addition, each foal has its own metabolism which also varies its calorie needs. For good growth, care must be taken to achieve a balanced intake of amino acids, vitamins and minerals. A caloric deficiency will lead to stunted growth, while an excess will promote developmental orthopedic disorders (DOD) such as OCD (osteochondrosis dissecans) and epiphysitis. Regular monitoring of the baby’s growth and weight gain is one of the best ways to adjust if the quantities are not suitable. A diet that is too high in sugars can also promote the development of DOD.
At 1 year, the foal reaches 90% of its adult size. A saddle horse reaches its final size at 3 years old, and a draft horse at 5 years old. A saddle horse does not complete its growth before its 5 and a half years because its vertebrae have not finished their ossification. It is now known that a horse should not be stripped before it has 4 years. Following a foal from its birth to adulthood is a magnificent adventure, but it is a demanding path on which only enthusiasts should embark.