A Foal's First Days
A foal develops inside the mare for about 342 days, or about 11 months and 11 days if you want something easier to remember. That is the AVERAGE length of gestation for a mare, but we consider normal gestation length to be anytime between 330 and 365 days!
Those of you who have been assigned "foal watch" are well aware that mares are pretty secretive about when they will give birth. We all look for udder development, lengthening of the vulva, or the long sought after wax on the teats. All of these things indicate that the mare is getting ready to foal, but none of them really give you a sign that says she will foal within the next 24 hours conclusively.
It is, however, very important that a mare be observed at time of foaling. With that little life on the line, minutes count. When the mare starts into active labor and the water breaks, a foal should be delivered within about 30 minutes. If delivery is delayed the foal may not live. Additionally, it is important for the mare that the foal is not in a bad position for a long period of time because it can cause damage to her as well.
Assuming that all goes well and delivery happens naturally and normally, the foal should immediately try to get onto its chest and after a few nice rubs with a towel he should start making attempts to rise. Most foals are up within a couple of hours and many are even nursing by then! We want the foal to ingest the first mare's milk, colostrum, by the time he is six hours old. Foals receive protective antibodies from the colostrum, but their intestines are only able to accept them for a short 12 hour window at the beginning of life.
Another milestone for the foal is the passing of the meconium. Meconium is formed in the foal's intestines while in the uterus and needs to be passed in order for the milk feces to follow. Occasionally a foal will have a "plug" of meconium that can be prodded along with an enema. Sometimes there has to be some veterinary intervention. Usually all of the meconium is passed within 12 hours. Nursing usually stimulates gut activity and helps that "first feces" move on down the line.
Another milestone in the first day of life is the passage of the placenta from the mare. For the
entire gestation the placenta has given the foal life by connecting the mare's blood supply to the foal's. As soon as the foal is delivered, however, that amazing living tissue starts to die off. It should be passed by the mare within three hours of delivery in order to prevent complications such as uterine infection, sepsis, and founder. If a mare does not pass it on her own, then veterinary help should be summoned.
An examination of the pair is recommended sometime between 12 and 36 hours. At that time a blood sample can be taken from the foal to determine if an adequate amount of antibody rich colostrum was ingested in time to be absorbed
. The IgG (immunoglobulin G) test measures the level of this antibody protein in the foal's blood. We like that number to be above 800 mg/dL.
Other things that are noted during the foal exam are the health of the umbilicus, or belly button. It should be clean and dry and not thicker than an index finger. Sometimes a hernia is noted.
Vital signs are recorded and a stethoscope is used to evaluate heart rate and rhythm as well as to detect any murmurs. Lungs and intestines get a good listening to as well. The limbs are evaluated for joint swellings and for conformational correctness. The veterinarian looks at the eyes
externally to see if the lids are functioning properly and internally to see if the foal has any issues with the internal structures of the eye.
Every foal born in our practice receives an injection of E-Se, a vitamin E and selenium product. Because our pastures and forages in this part of the country are deficient in selenium, this injection helps to prevent White Muscle Disease.
To round out the exam, the placenta is examined. It is important to look at the "blueprint" of the pregnancy. Sometimes the placenta will give us clues about the foal's health.
If it is too thick, we will be concerned
that the foal was living in a compromised environment in the mare and we will want to keep a close eye out for infections in the foal. We also need to be sure that the entire placenta has indeed come out of the mare's uterus.
A healthy foal will be expected to gain about 3 lbs. /day in the first month with his mare producing about 2 gallons of milk daily. It takes a lot of calories to keep a lactating mare in good body condition!