New born foals are one of the most precious things that arrive every spring. However, these new family members can cause their owners a lot of stress and fear. It is important for all horse owners planning for a new foal to understand what is normal, so that they are capable of recognizing and reacting when the foal or mare is not normal. The “wait and see” approach is inadequate when dealing with foals, especially newborns.
Gestational length, or the duration that a pregnancy lasts is on average 341 days in a mare. It can range from 310 to 370 days, with approximately 1% of mares stretching over the one year mark. The gestation length is independent of time of year and sex of the foal.
Parturition, the birthing process, is broken down into three stages. The first, begins when the uterus starts to contract. This can last as long as eight hours but most often around four hours. Violent colicky behavior is not normal. Stage 2 starts with the rupture of the fetal membranes. Delivery of the foal should take place within 5 to 20 minutes. Anything more than 30 minutes is abnormal and assistance is required. Normally, the two front feet come first approximately 10 cm apart followed shortly by the nose. During this stage, other signs of trouble include Red Bag, seen when there is premature separation of the placenta, or muddy brown fetal fluids, suggesting that the foal is stressed and likely short of oxygen. The foal should separate him or herself from the placenta and the umbilical cord. The third stage of parturition is the passage of the placenta. This should take place within three hours after delivery of the foal. Again, signs of colic are not normal. The mare should lick the foal dry, which is important for bonding. Experienced mares will assist foals to nurse. Younger mares may resist nursing initially due to discomfort.
Once the foal is on the ground and everything appears normal, there are some guidelines to determine if everything is in fact normal. A newborn should sit up in 1-2 minutes after birth with active movement immediately. If the foal remains on his side with limp extremities resuscitation is necessary. The foal should have a strong suckle reflex in 2-20 minutes and be standing in 60 minutes. The foal should have nursed within 2 hours of birth. If more than 3 hours, the foal needs evaluated and given colostrums. The normal rectal temperature of a foal is 37.2 to 38.6 degrees Celsius. The normal heart rate is 60 beats per minute (bpm) for the first 1-5 minutes, 80-130 bpm at 6-60 minutes and 80-120 bpm from 1-5 days of age. The foal should pass its meconium, the first bowel movement, within 3 hours. This will often not happen until after the first suckle. The foal should also urinate within 8-12 hours. Fillies will generally pee before colts. Colts will not usually drop their penis within the first few days.
A healthy normal foal should recognize and follow his or her dam. He should actively search for the udder and suckle with vigor up to 7 times every hour. Sleep is often followed by periods of feeding and activity. The foal should be considered to have a problem if he does not appear to recognize the mare, cannot find the udder, attempts to suck walls, corrals or the mare’s legs. A healthy mare should be aware of her foal at all times and be concerned when the foal is not near her. The mare should be eating and drinking normally without any signs of colic.
If you have any questions regarding the above information or any questions/concerns in general, please contact Twin Valley VHS at 745-6642.
Dr. Justin Noble DVM
Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services