Caring for Your Foal – The Importance of Good Gut Health

You may think that the time spent caring for your mare while you wait for her to give birth is filled with tension but once the foal arrives then the hard and careful work really begins in order to ensure that you and the mare between you raise a strong and healthy foal.

We will assume that you have kept up the mare’s optimum body condition with careful dosing of extra feed and if necessary supplements containing prebiotics, amino acids and postbiotics. This is essential for building protein levels and beneficial bacteria in the gut and more importantly to build a healthy foetal weight as well as keeping the mare at a healthy weight and ensuring good milk production. Your mare should also be up to date with her vaccinations to boost those all-important antibodies in the colostrum and protect the precious baby in those first few days. All of this should help to ensure your vet has the best chance of declaring the newborn foal fit and healthy at the first neonatal examination.

Careful and correct handling and cleaning of the umbilical cord during the birth is vital to prevent infection and your vet will advise you on this if needs be. You may wish to keep the placenta for your vet to examine. He will be checking firstly that the entire placenta has been expelled and then will check for signs of disease or infection.

Care for your Foal Immediately After Birth

During the first crucial hours after birth the foal must be kept under observation. It should be able to stand within the first hour and suckling within two. If you don’t see any sign that either of these is happening then contact your vet for help. There are several common causes of illness in newborn foals including bacterial infection so veterinary intervention at this stage could be lifesaving. Make sure the foal has passed its first droppings within 12-24 hours of delivery and that these are a healthy and normal dark brown or black and of a marble or pelleted appearance. Keep an eye on the foal’s production afterwards to ensure the droppings remain a lighter tan colour and soft. Try to maintain regular observation of the foal for the first few weeks to watch for any sign of lethargy or difficulty in feeding. And because very young foals are at risk of diarrhoea and respiratory illness make sure you keep a careful eye on its breathing, droppings, body temperature and suckling habits.

In the early stages, and preferably within the first 24 hours your vet should check both mother and baby and may decide to take a blood sample from the foal to check its colostrum intake. He may also decide to give the foal a tetanus antitoxin injection to provide protection against tetanus in the immediate short term.

Feeding and Weaning the Foal

Most foals will begin to nibble on hay and grain anywhere between 1 and 3 weeks of age depending on how much milk it is taking from the mare of course. When the foal reaches 10-12 weeks of age the milk will no longer be providing the level of nourishment or nutrients needed so the foal will need more of its own hard feed. Make sure at this stage that the mare is not allowed to encroach on the foals feed; always a danger when mare and foal are kept in the same stall. Always ensure that any feeders used by the foal are kept scrupulously clean and that feed and water is given fresh every day. Bacterial infection must be avoided at all costs.

In days gone by foals would not be weaned until around 7-8 months of age but now it is common practice to wean them by around 4-5 months old. By this age most foals should be leaving their mothers to play and forage independently – a task more easily accomplished when the foal has the company of other youngsters. The weaning and separation period can be stressful though and stress in a foal can lead to illness so this is when careful monitoring of feed and behaviour is necessary.

Caring for your Foal’s Gut Health

As we’ve already mentioned, the newborn foal on suckling for the first time receives a healthy amount of good bacteria in the mare’s colostrum. However the foal’s gut could still be infiltrated with potentially deadly bacteria at this early stage. Harmful bacteria can spread rapidly and cause diarrhoea or sepsis (septicaemia) – a very serious issue that can be fatal. Sepsis can also in some cases lead to pneumonia or meningitis in very young foals. A common condition called Foal Heat Diarrhoea can lead to distressing dehydration and illness. Even after weaning, when the foal is switched to grass and solid feed, bacterial imbalance can cause digestive problems.

Even though you may have fed your pregnant mare prebiotic and postbiotic supplements to help produce healthy milk it can help greatly to give your foal these supplements after its first feed of colostrum. These provide the nutrition and support which helps to grow a healthy colony of beneficial bacteria and form a healthy microflora system to stand the foal in good stead as it grows. By using these supplements there will be no need for further probiotics.

As mentioned previously, the first few weeks of a foal’s life are the most crucial in terms of healthy development and at this time you need to watch carefully for any signs of discomfort, lethargy or distress which could indicate conditions such as diarrhoea or foal heat. During this period, and during changes in diet or management, if you think the foal’s gut health may be compromised, you should consider giving a supplement to manage the gut’s bacterial microsystem.

Along with careful observation and monitoring, scrupulous hygiene practices, and the proper and timely administration of feed supplements you should be able to raise a healthy foal with few or none of the gut problems that can hinder a young horse.

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