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Foals and Foaling


By Dr. Allison Forbes

So your little foal has hit the ground! Your new addition should be bright, alert, and have a suckle reflex within the first five to ten minutes after breaking through the fetal membranes.  Then, remember the 1-2-3 rule:

Within ONE hour:  the foal should stand
Within TWO hours: the foal should nurse
Within THREE hours:  the mare should pass the placenta

A foal’s normal vital signs are as follows:

Respiratory rate– newborns can have a rate up to 80 breaths per minute, but it should drop to 40-60 breaths per minute within a few hours

Heart rate– newborns should have a heart rate of at least 60 beats per minute, and by the time the foal is 24 hours old, the rate should settle into the range of 70-100 bpm.

Temperature– a normal, healthy foal should be able to thermo-regulate appropriately (shiver, sweat).  Normal range is anywhere between 99-102.0

When your veterinarian goes out to check your new munchkin, they will do a thorough physical exam.  All organ systems will be evaluated in order to recognize any abnormalities as soon as possible, which allows you to make informed decisions and the best choices for management of your new addition.

1)        Nervous system– all foals appear hypermetric, meaning they move with exaggerated motion.  Their cranial nerves are intact at birth, while their menace response and pupillary light reflexes are delayed. Mentation is also observed; as a day in the life of a normal foal is this:  sleep, wake up, stretch, urinate, nurse, explore/playtime, repeat. If your foal is dull, loses affinity for the mare, or loses interest in nursing, please contact your veterinarian right away, as this can be an indication of HIE (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy)/neonatal maladjustment syndrome/dummy foal, which will be covered next month.

2)        Cardiothoracic system– the lungs initially auscult (sound) harsh and crackly. This is because the airways are opening up and transitioning from a fetus to neonate.  So, typically veterinarians watch respiratory rate, effort, and pattern for indications that your foal may have an underlying respiratory disease.  It is not unusual for your newborn foal to have a continuous murmur of the heart; this is due to shunting of blood while a hole in the chamber of the heart called the ductus arteriosis closes. This murmur is called a PDA, or “patent ductus arteriosis.”  Typically, this murmur can be ausculted up to 72 hours after birth.  Any murmur or arrhythmia (irregular) heart beat should resolve after a week; if your foal is greater than seven days old and your vet is still hearing abnormalities, a further work up and diagnostic tests are strongly recommended.

3)        Abdomen– the abdomen, or belly, of your newborn foal will be manipulated and palpated.  We are typically feeling for hernias: scrotal, inguinal, or umbilical.  Sometimes the hernia will spontaneously resolve and close. Other times, surgical intervention is needed. Your veterinarian will also listen to all four quadrants of the gastrointestinal tract to ensure proper motility. We listen for hypomotility (slowing of GIT) and hypermotility (faster moving GIT).

4)        Gastrointestinal tract– the foal should have an almost fully developed gastrointestinal tract at birth.  The small intestine is complete; however, the large and small colon continue to develop after birth.  This delayed development occasionally leads to a meconium impaction. Meconium is distinct in its dark, hard, tarry appearance. Once meconium is passed, manure will change to a lighter brown color and become soft. If your foal is born and is covered in meconium, this is an indication of fetal stress during parturition or late gestation. Aspiration (breathing in) of meconium leads to severe pneumonia. Once up and nursing, the foal should pass the meconium within 1-4 hours. Nursing helps trigger the “gastrocolic reflex” and works as a laxative to help move things through. If no meconium has passed within 6 hours, a soapy water enema can be given. If you notice your foal’s tail flagging, stomping their feet, rolling, or straining, let your veterinarian know promptly.

5)        Urogenital system- if the umbilical cord does not break during birth, it will most likely break once the foal or mare stands up.  Typically, it will break about one inch from the foal’s abdomen.  If you allow the two to bond quietly, the foal will be able to receive a couple pints of blood via the cord if it hasn’t broken.  Do not cut the cord yourself. If the cord does not break, and you need to do it manually, hold it firmly with both hands at the intended break site, and then twist and pull to separate.  If sharply cut, the likelihood of hemorrhage increases greatly. Once the cord is broken, remember to “dip” the umbilicus to prevent a bacterial infection. It is recommended to use a diluted chlorhexidine solution. For the first 48 hours, you should dip the stump every 6 hours. Then, for the following 2-3 days, dip every 12 hours. Before dipping, pay attention that the stump should be dry; if it’s moist or wet, that is abnormal. A colt will typically urinate within 5-6 hours after birth; fillies generally lag behind and will not urinate until 10-14 hours after birth. It’s important to watch your new foal to see if they are urinating. If there is no attempt to urinate, or you notice urine from their umbilicus or urachus, call your veterinarian immediately.

6)        Musculoskeletal system– tendons, ligaments, and joints are palpated thoroughly.  Depending on how far along in gestation your foal was before birth, joints and bones may not be completely developed.  Premature foals tend to have tendon laxity, while post mature foals tend to have tendon contraction.  Rib fractures/breaks during parturition are not uncommon.

Blood will also be drawn for a test that is done stall side, called the IgG snap test. This allows veterinarians to have a quick answer if immunoglobulins are at an acceptable level.  Basically, is your foal’s immune system up to snuff?  It is recommended to have them tested at around 12 hours old, and we want to see levels above >800.  If other blood work is necessary, your veterinarian can use it to determine if your foal is already fighting an infection, or was oxygen deprived during birth. Depending on the history obtained from you, our physical exam findings, and some diagnostic blood work, we can proceed with the best plan for your foal and you.

Congratulations on your newborn!

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