A Critical Horse-Breeding Checklist for Foals

Ensure that your newborn foal is growing normally with this foal development timeline.

How do you tell the difference between a healthy newborn foal and one that is sick? Let’s start at the moment of birth and walk through the activities of a normal newborn and the signs that’ll alert you if something is wrong. If the foal is born normally and is breathing normally, don’t rush in and handle him or cut the umbilical cord. The cord will break when the mare stands up, so don’t disturb them until then. The placenta contains close to a quart of the foal’s blood that will be lost if the mare stands and the cord ruptures too soon. The only exception is if the amnion (the thin white membrane that covers the foal) is over the foal’s head and is preventing him from breathing. If that’s the case, step quietly into the stall and slide the membrane off the foal’s head and muzzle.

Once the umbilical cord has broken, dip the stump in Betadine or chlorahexidine solution two or three times a day for the first couple of days to help it dry quickly and seal off the navel to prevent infection. A healthy, full-term foal will:

  • Roll up on his chest within minutes after birth.
  • Have an effective suckle reflex within 20 minutes of birth.
  • Stand within an hour of birth.
  • Nurse from the mare within two hours of delivery.

You might be able to recognize proper foal development now, but are you ready for the birth? Download AQHA’s Equine Breeding Techniques and Foal Health Tips report for information about the stages of labor that will put your mind at ease!

Any deviation from the normal parameters listed above could be a sign that the foal is weak or suffering from neonatal maladjustment syndrome. These foals are known as “dummy foals.” The condition is the result of the foal not getting enough oxygen during the birth process. An exam of the foal should always begin with a quick assessment of his body language. A healthy foal’s:

  • Attitude is bright, alert and responsive, and he stands with an erect head and neck carriage.
  • Mucous membranes at the gum line are pale pink. When you apply pressure to the gum with your thumb or forefinger, the white spot left by pressure should return to pink in less than two seconds. This is the CRT or capillary refill time.
  • Respiration should be above 30 breaths per minute.
  • Pulse should be around 60 beats per minute and can increase to more than 100 beats per minute within the foal’s first hour of life. Take his pulse by placing your hand on the foal’s thorax, just behind his left elbow.
  • Heart rate should be between 70 and 110 beats per minute. If you’re using a stethoscope, a murmur can sometimes be heard over the left side of the heart during the first 5 to 7 days of age. This is normal.
  • Meconium, which is a foal’s first bowel movement, should be firm, dark and pellet-like or pasty. He should pass the meconium within the first 24 hours after delivery. The meconium is usually followed by soft, tan-colored feces.
  • First urination should occur within the first 8 to 10 hours of age. A colt might not drop his penis to urinate during the first week. If you see your foal straining to urinate, this could be a sign of a ruptured bladder, a bladder infection or a persistent urachus, which occurs when the umbilical cord doesn’t close completely.

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Have your veterinarian draw blood from your newborn to make sure all of the necessary antibodies have been transferred to him from the mare through her colostrum, also known as the first milk. If the foal hasn’t gotten all of the antibodies he needs, you might have to give him supplemental colostrum or plasma.