Recognizing Problems In the Neonatal Foal

Foaling season brings the reward for all that waiting over the past 11 months of your mare’s gestation. While this time should be a joyous occasion, some foals begin their life struggling to survive. Problems with new foals can quickly become serious, even fatal.

Here is a rundown of what is normal in foaling, so you can quickly recognize anything abnormal and deal with it immediately.

Normal Timing of Foaling Events

The normal gestation length of a horse is 340 days. Foals are considered premature if they are born prior to 320 days. Foaling is divided into three stages, with each having their own normal timing of events.

Stage 1 can occur for a variable amount of time, anywhere between 2 to 6 hours. During this stage, the fetus is positioning itself into the dorsosacral position to prepare for foaling. Initial uterine contractions and cervical relaxation are also occurring.

Outwardly, the mare will be acting uncomfortable and may appear colicky –- she will be restless, possibly pacing and sweating, stretching out, raising her tail, and getting up and down frequently. Stage 1 ends when the chorioallantoic membrane ruptures and allantoic fluid is released (i.e., the water breaks).

This video highlights fetal repositioning and Stage 1 of labor (watch to 2:11).

Stage 2 labor begins with the water breaking and ends with the delivery of the foal. This stage should occur rapidly, lasting only 20 to 45 minutes (sometimes up to 60 minutes in maiden mares having their first foal).

During this stage, the mare will often lay down, in either sternal or lateral recumbency, and strong uterine contractions occur. Initially, the amnion -- a whitish, translucent membrane -– will protrude from the vulva, followed by two front hooves and the foal’s muzzle. The bottom of the hooves should be facing downward with the foal’s head resting over the legs. Anything different from this is abnormal and a veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

The widest portion of the foal is its shoulders, and once they have passed through the birth canal, the remainder of foaling should be relatively easy for the mare.

If the mare is not making progress, the feet/head are not in the proper position, or you notice a thick, red membrane protruding from the mare’s vulva (“red bag,” premature placental separation –- the foal is not getting oxygen from the placenta), call your veterinarian immediately!!

Stage 2 Labor, including the foal standing for the first time!

Premature placental separation -- "Red Bag". Call your veterinarian immediately!

Stage 3 of parturition involves the expulsion of the placenta. This generally takes up to 1 hour post-foaling, but the entire placenta should normally be passed within 3 hours of foaling. If the placenta remains within the mare for more than 3 hours, the mare can become seriously, possibly fatally, ill.

Do not attempt to remove the placenta manually, as it can tear and leave pieces behind within the mare. The placenta should be examined by a veterinarian to determine if it has been passed in its entirety. Sometimes, pieces can be left behind in the uterus and cause serious illness.

Any strange colorations of the placenta are cause for concern. The weight of the placenta should be determined -- a normal placenta should weigh approximately 10% of the foal’s birthweight, which should be 10% of the mare’s weight. If the placenta weighs significantly more or less than this, it can be an indication of problems occurring in utero, which puts the foal at risk for disease. In order to assist the veterinarian, the placenta should be saved in a garbage bag or feed bag until it can be examined.

Identifying a Normal Foal

Just as in foaling, the neonatal foal has its own set of timed parameters. A normal foal should:

  • STAND within 1 hour of birth
  • NURSE within 2 hours of birth
  • PASS MECONIUM (first feces) within 3 hours of birth

The foal’s suckle reflex should be present by 20 minutes after birth and should get stronger as time goes on. Once the foal stands and nurses, it should nurse approximately every 30 minutes. Any deviations from these time frames should be cause for concern, and a veterinarian should be consulted ASAP. Sometimes, abnormal foals can appear normal for the first few hours of life.

Things to look for when observing a foal include:

  • Attitude: Should be bright, strong, responsive, and very active
  • Willingness/Ability to Nurse: Approximately every 30 minutes
  • Awareness of Surroundings: Foals are generally timid and should stay close to its mother
  • Relationship with the Mare: The mare should be interested in the foal, and the foal interested in the mare
  • Ability to Move Around: The foal should be able to move around freely and without problem
  • Respiratory Pattern: The foal’s breathing should not be labored

Identifying High-Risk or Problematic Foals

Being able to recognize and identify problems with foals will help deal with potential problems early before they become life-threatening. A veterinary check-up on the mare and foal, whether they are both looking healthy or not, is highly recommended 12 to 24 hours post-foaling to catch any early signs of disease.

Any condition that affects fetal development, maturity, delivery, and peripartum period may result in neonatal illness. Some of the first signs that the foal may be in trouble include, but are not limited to:

  • Not nursing often or normally
  • Salivating excessively
  • Grinding teeth
  • Abdominal distension or pain (getting up and down, rolling onto their back)
  • Straining to urinate or defecate
  • Limb abnormalities (flexural or angular limb deformities)
  • Lameness
  • General dullness

While there are many problems that can occur with a foal, recognizing the difference between normal and abnormal is essential. Using this chart -- Foal Physical Exam Parameters -- while observing your foal can alert you to any issues that need to be addressed immediately by a veterinarian.

Healthy foal smiling with big teeth

Prevention Is the Key

Although it is hard to anticipate ALL the problems that could possibly occur in foals, there are some things you can do prior to the foal hitting the ground in order to prevent a variety of issues.

Vaccinating the mare at 5, 7, and 9 months for Rhinopneumonitis, or Equine Herpes Virus (EHV-1), will help protect the mare from late term abortions due to the disease. Giving the mare pre-foaling vaccines (which include EWT, WNV, Rabies/PHF) will help boost the mare’s immune system and allow her to pass on maternal antibodies to the foal in the colostrum.

Having the foal tested for IgG levels 8 to 12 hours after foaling, and giving hyperimmunized plasma if those levels are low, will ensure that the foal has the proper antibodies needed to fight off infections he may pick up in the environment.

Keeping a keen eye on the foal and being able to recognize the abnormal quickly will allow a veterinarian to examine and treat the foal earlier, which will help nip any problems in the bud before they become serious or life-threatening.

Do you have questions or concerns about breeding your horse? Contact Dr. Allison Kiser of Badger Equine Veterinary Services!