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Care of the nursing foal

Horse Health: Mother Nature, their own mother and human caretakers all have a profound effect on the wellness of young horses

From the time a foal is a week old and healthy until it is weaned, its physical, mental and emotional development is influenced by many caretakers. Mother Nature and Mother Horse are the foal’s primary caretakers, however, human caretakers can also have a substantial influence on the foal’s development.

Many events that occur in the life of a young foal shape the nature of the horse it will become. By the time the foal is six months old, it will have already attained about 80 per cent of its mature height and be at over half of its mature weight. Much of its attitude and behaviour toward humans and other horses, as well as its ability to learn will have been affected. Gentle, yet firm and correct, handling of the young impressionable foal is essential to a healthy relationship with humans. Oftentimes the nature of this relationship determines the fate of the young horse.

One of the most important considerations in foals from one week old to weaning is healthy physical growth and development. This critical stage of growth for the foal is strongly influenced by nutrition, and nutritional mistakes made early in life can lead to structural problems that limit a horse’s soundness in the future.

A foal generally cannot consume enough grass or hay alongside the mare to cause a problem. However, foals supplemented with additional grain, alfalfa or processed feeds are predisposed to overnutrition and excessively rapid growth. As a result, the foal’s developing musculoskeletal system is susceptible to a number of problems. The discovery of these problems can be delayed until the young horse begins training or is placed into hard work.

Often the connection between early overnutrition, excessive growth rates and developmental bone diseases fails to be made. Such developmental bone diseases include the numerous presentations of osteochondrisos dessicans and/or osteochondritis (OCD), various arthritides, and wobbler’s syndrome which is the clinical presentation of improper cervical bone formation.

Therefore, supplemental feeding of the nursing foal, also known as creep feeding, requires careful consideration. Industry standards pressure the young horse to “look its best” at a young age. This unrealistic expectation represented in futurities and yearling sales often dictate feeding protocols that reflect short-term gain which are at odds to long-term soundness of the horse.

Decisions to creep feed the nursing foal are complex and complicated and must take into account the nursing mare’s productivity, forage availability and the growth rates desired by the horse owners. Optimal growth rates for a sound five-year-old horse can be very different from industry standards for growth.

Many young foals may have crooked-looking limbs for the first days of life. So long as the foal can travel alongside the dam easily and comfortably, the majority of these abnormalities will self-resolve. After six to eight weeks crooked limbs in a foal are of much greater concern, particularly those that are acquired and progressively becoming worse. If the afflicted foal appears to be sore and stiff with visible swellings associated with the joints, then the concern is even greater.

Careful observation and the ability to recognize normal “correct” conformation are key to monitoring the growing legs of a foal. Flexural and angular limb deformities are deviations from correct limbs. Flexural deformities refer to abnormalities most evident when viewing the limbs from the side and relate to the flexor tendons. Angular limb deformities are abnormal angulations at joints when viewed from the front or the back with the limb deviating to the inside or the outside.

Early recognition of development limb problems is key to their successful management. Treatment for flexural deformities and angular limbs depends on the individual case and may involve dietary modification, exercise restriction, specific hoof care, medications, surgery or a combination of these treatments.

Lameness is always a red flag in the young foal and needs immediate attention. Young foals with a sudden onset of severe lameness require prompt veterinary attention. A common cause of severe lameness in foals is septic arthritis. An infected joint is a life-threatening problem and must be treated correctly as quickly as possible for the best prognosis.

Young foals may be born with or acquire an umbilical hernia within the first four to six weeks of life. The majority of hernias smaller than the length of three fingers will likely self-resolve. However, umbilical hernias larger than three fingers will generally require surgery in the future for complete closure.

Generally it will not be necessary to vaccinate a foal prior to weaning. The immune system of a foal that consumes sufficient colostrum at birth from a vaccinated mare is competent and resistant to infectious diseases. A mare with vaccinations up to date and vaccinated four to six weeks before parturition will ensure the foal is provided with good levels of protective antibodies in the colostrum.

While any worm can affect the nursing foal, the most significant parasite is the ascarid, also known as the roundworm. Young foals are at a particularly high risk for ascarid infestations whenever their rearing grounds repeatedly occurred in the same location for a number of years. Ascarids can cause depression, respiratory disease, stunted growth, diarrhea, constipation and potentially fatal colic. Heavy burdens of adult roundworms can cause a life-threatening impaction in the foal’s small intestines. Deworming with fenbendazole (Panacur) is highly effective against ascarids and is an extremely safe product for foals. Deworming the mare shortly after foaling is recommended as the first step in protecting the foal from an overwhelming load of parasites.

About the author

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Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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