It is very important to be familiar with the behaviour of a normal healthy foal so you can recognise signs of illness should they occur.
Behaviour after birth
immediately after birth, the foal shakes its head a few times and makes floundering movements in its endeavours to sit up or to stand on its feet. These become stronger by the minute and usually within 15-20 minutes the foal is looking bright and is sitting in a normal position. Its efforts to stand are usually very shaky at first. A big effort to launch itself on its feet often results in the foal going completely head over heels and landing on the ground again. It gains strength through several attempts, often failing after only a few minutes, but gradually standing for longer periods.
In normal foals all this happens in the first 15-30 minutes and, provided the foal is obviously getting stronger, there is usually no reason to interfere by lifting or supporting the foal in any way. During these initial struggles the cord has broken off, leaving only a small 3-5cm umbilical stump on the foal.
Bonding with the mare
After the foal has become more balanced on its feet, it will search for the mare’s udder. It is quite important that this contact is established as soon and as firmly as possible, particularly if it is the mare’s first foal. Some mares become alarmed or very upset, trying to bite or kick at the foal when it approaches. This must be corrected very promptly to avoid injury to the foal. The more should be caught and controlled. Simply hold the mare while the foal approaches and when the foal makes a muzzle contact she may settle down without further problems.
More disturbed mares may require holding for longer periods and may have to be twitched to allow the foal to suck. If this is done quietly, it may only be necessary during the first few hours. If this fails to calm the mare, it will be necessary to call your veterinarian to tranquillise the mare so that she will accept the foal. Occasionally, it may be necessary to blindfold the mare until she accepts the foal sucking and muzzling around her legs.
If the mare has shown animosity towards the foal, you must keep them under close observation for many hours as the mare may revert to rejection of the foal as soon as the restraint is removed. Even the fact that you are present may not stop her attacking the foal. Always seek professional help and advice in situations where you feel out of your depth.
The first feed
Once the foal is firmly on its feet it should make strong attempts to suck the mare. Studies show that they tend to orientate themselves to suck between the mare’s legs, and therefore it is important to make sure the foal’s efforts are condentrated around the back legs and not the front of the mare.
Normal foals have usually had their first drink of milk within 60 minutes of being born. Foals that take longer than this must be kept under close observation, as the foal must obtain its energy from the mare’s milk (colostrum). It is essential therefore that it drinks as soon as possible after standing as prolonged walking or wandering without proper intake of colostrum will soon weaken the foal.
Examination of the newborn foal
Once the foal has had sufficient for its need at the initial sucking, it is time to perform a health examination. Veterinary surgeons or stud masters should perform this check as whoever performs the treatments must be certain of what they are doing.
The foal’s navel should be examined, if overlong, should be ligated close to the body with sterilised string, the free portion of the chord is then cut off below the ligature. The stump is treated with strong iodine to hasten dying and aid in the prevention of organisms entering the foal. This is particularly important in preventing the development of abscesses in the navel cord and bacteria gaining entry through the navel cord.
Where mares have been given booster doses of tetanus toxoid 4-6 weeks prior to foaling, there is a high level of antibody against tetanus in the mare’s milk. This gives protection to the foal but only if the foal sucks normally and is capable of absorbing the antibody after it drinks from the mare. Approximately 10% of foals do not receive sufficient antibodies to give adequate protection, and for this reason it is advisable to give any foal that may not have received adequate colostrum a dose of tetanus antitoxin in the first day of life.
Has the foal passed the meconium? The meconium is the faecal material that has accumulated in the foal’s bowel during the last months in the mare. It is usually in the form of hard pellets which may vary in size and occasionally cause problems by becoming jammed, this causes constipation and will cause the foal to strain, roll and show signs of abdominal pain. Call your veterinarian as prolonged delay increases the foal’s distress and may cause bowel complications.
The final stage of foaling involves the mare passing the placenta and usually takes between 1-3 hours, it should be kept for your vet to examine when they come to perform the post foaling examination on the mare and foal.
If you recognise anything abnormal call your nearest Vet Cross clinic or our 24 hour emergency service on ph: 4151 5044.