Newborn Foal Care

Courtnee Morton, DVM
By Courtnee Morton, DVM on Feb. 24, 2023
Newborn foal

A normal mare’s gestation, or pregnancy, lasts about 11 months. As she gets closer to delivering, you’ll start to see signs that she’ll give birth within a few weeks. This will likely include enlarged mammary glands, a more relaxed or “dropped” belly, and maybe a slight decrease in her appetite.

A few days before birth, a bit of white milk “wax” may appear at the tips of her teats, although this is not always the case. At this point, she should be moved to a large, heavily bedded stall or a small turnout away from other horses, in a quiet area. She should be as minimally stressed as possible.

As the exciting day approaches, there are some things you can do to prepare to help your mare and her goal through the birthing process.

Preparing Your Foaling Kit

While she’s getting ready, you can get ready for the impending birth by preparing a foaling kit, including the following:

  • Thermometer—To monitor the mare’s and the foal’s temperature and health after birth before their first veterinary visit.

  • Towels—If your mare is calm and amenable immediately after the birth, you can dry the foal gently with towels to keep it from getting too cold.

  • Dilute chlorhexidine or betadine—After your foal is up on their feet, it is often recommended that their umbilicus should be dipped in a dilute chlorhexidine or betadine solution after it naturally tears from the placenta. The umbilicus is an open connection between the outside world and the foal’s circulation, making it a possibly entry point for infection. Dip the umbilicus a few times over the first few days while it dries. If the umbilicus doesn’t dry, becomes warm or swollen, or drips urine, take the foal to a veterinarian for an examination. These are all signs of a possible infection or a patent urachus (this condition occurs when the urinary tract does not close appropriately after birth).

  • Fleet enema—This can help if the foal strains to pass their meconium, or first manures that were formed during gestation. The first manures are typically dark or caramel in color and shaped into firm balls. They should be passed in the first 9–12 hours of life. If your foal is straining to pass manure, your veterinarian may advise you to administer a Fleet enema. Do not administer more than one or two enemas under their guidance, as severe meconium impactions may need further veterinary intervention and too many enemas can be traumatizing to the colon or cause other issues.

  • Banamine—This can help your mare deal with any aftereffects of pain, discomfort, or inflammation from the birthing process.

The Stages of Foaling

The foaling, or birthing, process has three stages.

Stage 1 (Several Hours)

During this stage, your mare will start to show signs of discomfort as her uterus begins to have contractions. She may pace, sweat, and repeatedly lie down and get up, or occasionally roll around .

As her contractions continue, her own movements will stimulate the foal to travel up into the cervix and birth canal. As it enters the cervix, the pressure on the cervix will cause the placenta to release allantoic fluid. This is referred to as the “water breaking” and marks the end of stage 1.

Stage 2 (15–30 Minutes)

During this stage, your mare’s contractions will involve abdominal effort along with the uterine contractions. These intense moments typically consist of a few strong pushes followed by a short period of rest. These regular, rhythmic contractions will repeat until the foal is completely expelled. During the birth, the normal position for a foal is for the front feet and nose to appear first, as if the foal is “diving out,” followed by the rest of the body.

If you notice that contractions cease at any point, if progress stops (for example, you see only feet for longer than 15 minutes), or if something other than a foot comes out first, you should call your veterinarian, as the foal may be in an abnormal position and need rapid veterinary assistance. Abnormal positioning can lead to tearing or a C-section, and can be fatal to both the mare and foal. Stage 2 ends after your mare has pushed the foal all the way out.

Stage 3 (Within 3 Hours of Birth)

This stage marks the passing of the rest of the fetal membranes and placenta.

These first hours are also an important time for bonding between a mare and her foal, so human intervention should be minimal. Some mares may be protective and slightly aggressive—even if your mare is typically very sweet and affectionate, approach her cautiously until she has settled.

If your mare is amenable, you can gently dry your foal with a towel and clean out the bedding in the stall to create a warm, clean environment. It is not uncommon for a mare to be tired or hungry after giving birth, so make sure there is hay available and the stall is clean and heavily bedded so they can lay comfortably.

The First Hours After Birth

After a foal is born, veterinarians use a 1-2-3 approach to watch for health and behavior measures.

Approximately one hour after birth, the foal should be standing, or close to standing, with minimal intervention.

Approximately two hours after birth, the foal should be nursing. The first several hours of life are critical, as this is when they consume colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk a mare makes, and it is rich with important antibodies that help form a newborn’s immune system. Foals are born with completely naive immune systems, so the colostrum is full of antibodies to help the goal start to create immunity. Colostrum can only be absorbed properly by the foal’s intestinal system for approximately 24 hours, and most foals need about 2­–3 quarts of colostrum in the first six to eight hours of life to create an adequate starting point for healthy immunity.

If your foal is not nursing well within a few hours, your veterinarian should come out for a visit. They may administer colostrum via a nasogastric tube. Bottle-feeding foals is not recommended, as their risk for aspiration (getting milk into the lungs) and developing pneumonia is high.

If this is a mare’s first foal, the nursing sensation can be slightly uncomfortable or odd, so they may walk away from the foal. You might need to halter her to keep her still while the foal finds the teats. If she is squealing and kicking, your veterinarian may recommend banamine to reduce pain and sensitivity.

Approximately three hours after birth, all the fetal membranes and placenta should be passed. The foal’s nursing stimulates further contractions to help pass these tissues. If part of the placenta is still hanging after three hours, have your veterinarian out for an exam, as this is a very easy way for bacteria to enter the body and can be a major source of severe infection, laminitis, and other conditions.

Within the first nine to 12 hours, you’ll see your newborn foal pass their meconium.

Healthy Foal Behaviors

Normal physical exam findings for a foal include:

  • Temperature: 99–102 F. Foals cannot regulate their own temperature well, so this may vary based on weather conditions and other external factors.

  • Heart rate: 80–120 beats a minute, but it may be higher if a foal is excited or anxious.

  • Respiratory rate: 20–40 breaths per minute.

  • Normal height and weight vary greatly depending on the breed and the genetic factors of the mare and sire. Most average sized Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred foals are between 80–110 pounds.

  • Nursing habits: A newborn foal should be nursing frequently, usually seven to 10 times an hour, for a minute or so at a time.

Foals should vary between periods of rest, nursing, and being up and active. While foals are curious creatures, they typically stay close to their mother, especially the first few days of life.

A newborn foal exam should be performed about 24 hours after birth, or sooner if any issues arose with birthing. This exam will include a physical examination to check for any physical abnormalities and a blood test to check for adequate antibody consumption.

Common Problems of Newborn Foals

Some common medical issues that may arise with newborn foals include:

  • Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT): This occurs when the foal does not receive an adequate amount of colostrum. If your foal did not consume enough colostrum, or if the colostrum was low in antibodies, your veterinarian may recommend an IV administration of plasma to help boost their immune system. There are many types of plasma available, some may be recommended in certain areas if certain diseases are prevalent such as Rhodococcus, a bacterium that causes severe pneumonia in foals, or a gastrointestinal type that contains protective antibodies against several diarrhea-causing bacteria.

  • Meconium impaction

  • Umbilical infections

  • Joint Illness: Joint illness can occur when bacteria enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation in the joints. Symptoms include lameness and swelling over one or more joints, fever, and lethargy.

  • Diarrhea: Foal diarrhea can be caused by a variety of factors, including infections and changes in diet. It is important to address diarrhea promptly, as it can lead to dehydration and other complications.

  • Respiratory Infections: Foals are susceptible to respiratory infections, which can be caused by bacteria or viruses, aspiration of milk during nursing or cleft palate, or inability to clear placental fluid from the lungs if born prematurely. Symptoms include coughing or wheezing, increased respiratory rate, lethargy, fever, and nasal discharge.

  • Contracted, or lax, tendons after birth: During the first veterinary visit, your foal’s limbs will be evaluated for proper conformation. Depending on if fetlocks are dropped, or if the foal is walking on their toes, your veterinarian may recommend exercise restriction, splints, specialized shoes, medications, or other therapies to help position the limbs properly. Severe cases may require surgery, but most cases can be managed medically and with correct exercise.

Your foal’s first veterinary visit will consist of a very thorough physical examination to check for the above conditions, along with eye issues, cardiovascular or respiratory abnormalities, and discuss the mare/foal relationship.

If your mare is not wanting to let the foal nurse, your veterinarian should be called out right away; they can help sedate the mare if necessary, give anti-inflammatories, or implement hormone protocols that can help the mare adjust. If the mare rejects the foal and hormones do not help, or if your foal becomes orphaned, your veterinarian will help you create a care plan.

Featured Image:

Courtnee Morton, DVM


Courtnee Morton, DVM


Dr. Courtnee Morton is a 2017 Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine graduate. Since graduation, she completed an equine internship...

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