Caring for Foals in Winter

Caring for Foals in Winter

Take care of – but don’t coddle – those early foals. Expert advice for foals born before spring.

gray mare and foal (Credit: Ameli Pinet-Dorie)

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Horse breeding experts Dr. Joe Carter, D.V.M, of Oklahoma Equine Hospital, and Barbara Helland, owner of Helland Ranch in Hutchinson, Minnesota, have years of experience in the horse-breeding industry. They foal out both ranch-owned and client mares in the winter. Here, they offer their advice on the specific management needs of early foals. What they had to say centered around four major areas of concern.

Concern No. 1: Foaling Indoors vs. Outdoors

This might sound obvious, but in cold climates never let a mare foal outside. Too often, mare owners make that mistake, either by accident or ignorance. If you’re dealing with a cold climate, Barbara says you need to have the mare in a stall. To have a foal outside is very risky for the mare and the foal. A foal could freeze to death or, at the very least, get frostbitten ears. However, a mare doesn’t have to foal in a heated barn.

“If someone doesn’t have a training facility or a large ranch,” Barbara says, “and they’re in a part of the country where there is snow, they’ll be fine with a stall they can put a couple of heat lights in, or just a 200- to 300-watt bulb. Try to keep the stall fairly warm, with good bedding.”

And make sure to be in attendance.

Once the mare foals, if you don’t have heated facilities, get the foal dried off. Barbara points out one thing she has noticed: “Most early foals are born with long hair. Mother Nature takes care of them, especially if the mare has been outside.

“If you have a winter foal where you’ve pampered the mare and she has been under lights and didn’t get turned out, that colt will be born with smooth hair. On the other hand, if the mare has gone out daily and is used to the climate and the weather, the colt is usually born with long hair.”

Once the foal is dry, that long hair does it good.

“If the mama has had to weather it,” Barbara continues, “I think that colt will be a little more rugged in its overall strength.”

Concern No. 2: Fresh Air

“Fresh air and being outside in cold weather is less of a concern than being inside, confined with poor ventilation,” Dr. Carter says.

Any barn, no matter how clean, will have ammonia buildup from urine in the stalls. Since ammonia is heavier than air, it rests close to the floor, right where foals spend a lot of time.

“High ammonia content is hard on foal lungs,” Dr. Carter continues. “Hopefully, you have a well-designed barn that’s going to allow for the ammonia buildup and smell that a closed barn will have. With a poorly designed barn, I would be even more sensitive to the fact that it could be damaging to their lungs, and fresh air is going to help them. Breathing in that ammonia can set them up for pneumonia and other respiratory problems.”

In a heated barn, you also run into moisture buildup, which creates an environment for bacteria to grow. Barbara points out that an exhaust fan can help ventilate a heated barn. Barn dryers are another helpful piece of equipment, although more expensive than simple exhaust fans. Found commonly on pig farms, a barn dryer takes the humidity out of a barn environment by heating cold, dry air from outside and shooting that into the barn, rather than heating the old, wet air inside. In any case, no matter how well ventilated your barn, nothing beats clean, fresh air a foal gets from being outside.

Concern No. 3: Shelter

Can young foals be outside when it’s really cold? Dr. Carter has this to say: “I think people should not anthropomorphize their horses, apply human characteristics to their animals. God designed them to run around in cold weather. You’ve got to use your common sense. If it’s going to be zero degrees with a 30 mph wind, they certainly aren’t designed to be out in that kind of weather.

“But look at your typical early spring storms. There are some blustery storms in March. Since the natural breeding cycle begins on the first of April, you could naturally see foals born in March and April, in that kind of weather. They can handle it.”

Just make sure early foals have shelter.

“Wind protection is the moist important thing,” Dr. Carter says. “I like farms to have a windbreak where horses can be protected from a strong north wind.”

Barbara points out that the problem with snow is often not the cold, but the physical problem of having turnout space full of drifts that a foal can’t get through. At the Helland Ranch, Barbara makes use of an indoor arena for those snowed-in days.

“I wouldn’t suggest anyone turning foals out if it’s snowing,” Barbara says. “It lands on them, and some of it melts with the heat of their body. The foal will get severely chilled. If you have a safe lot that’s not slippery, babies will cope with the cold, as long as wind chill temperatures aren’t 10 to 20 degrees below zero.”

Do Foals Need Blankets?

Barbara adds another thing: “I know some people blanket their babies and turn them outside. I don’t suggest that at all. Mother Nature will take care of them. The more days they’re outside, the better they get acclimatized. It happens very, very quickly.”

Concern No. 4: Exercise

Breeders sometimes complain that early foals will have leg problems. That might be related to exercise – either not enough or too much. Owners can make the mistake of keeping an early foal inside too much, without exercise.

“Bone is a very dynamic organ in terms of its response to exercise,” Dr. Carter explains. When it’s not being exercised, it’s not developing as strongly – laying down more calcium, hardness, converting cartilage to bone in the growth plates – as it normally would.

“If it’s exercised, the body is recognizing work and the need to get stronger, and the bones recognize the need to get stronger, so they develop. You’ve got to get those legs stimulated to start doing what they’re supposed to do.”

That means plenty of room to run and play.

“Treat that early foal like you would any other,” Dr. Carter says. “Keep it in a stall for the first day and make sure everything is OK, then start turning him and the mare out in a small paddock.”

On the other hand, inclement winter weather is bound to hit, and that early foal will have to be kept inside for a few days. Owners can make the mistake of giving a foal too much exercise too soon after prolonged confinement.

Again, Dr. Carter explains that “there was a study that found a higher incidence of OCD lesions with foals that had been stalled for one week or longer for different maladies, such as diarrhea or pneumonia.”

OCD stands for osteochondritis dissecans. It is a developmental orthopedic disease caused by a lesion in joint cartilage and/or in the bone just beneath the cartilage surface, which can eventually affect the joint action itself. It most often presents itself in younger horses, from the short yearling to 2-year-old age.

“Those foals had a higher incidence of OCD than the normal populations," Dr. Carter explains, "and the speculation was that it was due to going from stall confinement to sudden exercise."

If a foal has been rested a week or longer, the bone softens; it is that dynamic when they’re that young. So, after confinement, if the mare and foal are turned out into a pasture, a mare typically takes off at full speed down the fence line with the baby galloping behind her.

“The chances are pretty good for that foal to ‘hit’ a soft spot on the end of its bone, thereby damaging the cartilage and the bone underneath it, creating the opportunity for an OCD lesion to start.”

Dr. Carter says the same risks probably apply to stall confinement for a prolonged bad-weather period.

“If we’ve got a foal that has been in confinement for a reason, then you work him out gradually, increase his exercise slowly. Go from the stall to a small trap or a stall with a run, and then incrementally increase his time, so he doesn’t overdo and damage those growing bones, setting himself up for OCD and other potential problems.”