Young foals are both precocious and precarious creatures. They are precocious in being able to arrive in the early hours of the morning and nurse and shadow their dams within hours of arrival. Yet they are precarious should they succumb to any illness which leaves them struggling for survival.
Recognizing healthy behaviour and development of the young foal is critical to identifying when something is amiss. Initial stages of illness in young foals are subtle and unfortunately can be easily overlooked, which is why early detection of problems is critical to a favourable outcome. It is an emergency if a foal that initially appears healthy suddenly deteriorates, and no matter the cause, quick intervention is vital.
At birth a normal foal is bright and alert to its surroundings. It will quickly assume a sternal position and attempt to rise. Ideally a vigorous foal stands and nurses easily within two hours. Foals that have not nursed within two to three hours may need assistance or medical attention. Ingestion of colostrum, the mare’s first milk, within a critical time frame is crucial to the foal’s short- and long-term health. This colostrum is energy and nutrient dense, most renowned for its ability to “jump-start” a healthy immune system.
Colostrum also has laxative properties which assist the foal in passing his first stool, called meconium. The meconium is usually dark-greenish brown or black, and sticky. It is typically passed in the first three to four hours after birth. Meconium which is retained causes the foal to express abdominal discomfort, straining to defecate, swishing its tail, and eventually becoming reluctant to nurse. An enema is indicated in foals that have not passed their meconium within 12 hours of birth.
The young foal will lay down and sleep often. It will nurse frequently, sometimes nursing 20 or more times a day. This is normal. Within days the newborn foal “fills out” from its gangly newborn state, continuing to grow and strengthen daily.
Generally foals develop diarrhea or scours seven to 12 days after birth. As this timing often coincides with the mare’s first heat cycle it is often referred to as “foal heat diarrhea.” This normally runs its course with no apparent ill effects towards the foal and is speculated to be a natural reaction as the foal’s digestive tract matures. Many foals begin experimentally eating manure at around 10 days. This practice does not seem to be harmful to the foal.
It is not uncommon for a foal to begin life with weak legs. It may be down in the pasterns/fetlocks, having contracted tendons or deviations of the distal limbs. These generally self-correct with moderate/modest exercise within the first few days of life as the soft tissues strengthen and/or adjust. Severe deviations or ones not improving may require veterinary consultation.
Early activity is essential to the foal’s physical development. The practice of keeping foals safe in stables for the first few weeks may be detrimental to the adult horse. Muscular and hoof development benefits from many steps on varied terrain surfaces. Naive hooves expand fully with weight bearing, keeping the frog in contact with the ground. This stimulates development of the caudal part of the young horse’s foot which provides a vital pillar of support as the 100-pound foal matures into a 1,000-pound horse.
Healthy foals are curious and inquisitive, constantly engaging with their environment. Whenever they become dull or lose their focus on the mare there will be a problem. Weak, troubled foals lose strength nursing and will have “milk nose” or dried milk on their face. As healthy foals keep the mare nursed and her udder relieved, whenever the mare’s udder is distended the foal is not thriving. Other not-so-subtle signs of distress in a young foal are nasal discharge, abnormal respiration, coughing, watery diarrhea, lameness, urine leakage from the navel, and abnormal swellings of the umbilicus or around the genitals. These are indications for veterinary involvement.
Since the health status of a young foal can change rapidly, recognition of both normal and abnormal signs of health during the first few weeks of life is essential to averting a crisis.