Evaluating Neonatal Foals and Post-Partum Mares at Foal-Heat

Newborn foals have big jobs. They must transition from developing in a totally protected environment to doing everything on their own. They have to make huge physiologic changes to simply survive—by beginning to breathe, digest milk, move around in a world where diseases lurk, and keep up with their dams.

At the same time, the mare must recover from foaling and eat enough to provide nutrition for a growing foal, and her reproductive system must rebound to prepare for another pregnancy.

That’s a lot going on in a short time. Peter R. Morresey, BVSc, MVM, MACVSc, Dipl. ACT, ACVIM, CVA, of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, advocates that the mare’s foal heat—which occurs about seven to 15 days after foaling—might be the best time for a veterinary examination to make sure the foal is hitting his marks and the mare is ready for breeding.

At the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida, Morresey explained that this timing for an exam is valuable for the foal, the mare, and the breeder.

While there are many reasons to breed a mare—gene perpetuation, a desire to improve the breed, sentimental value—a major reason is financial. Selling the foal as a weanling or yearling requires that he or she be a good size and healthy at sale time. As such, illness or problems that affect growth, health, or soundness have an economic impact.

At birth, a foal is at 10% of his mature body weight, and the most rapid period of growth is in the months after that. So foal heat is the ideal time to be sure the foal is growing normally. Veterinarians will assess musculoskeletal development, breathing, heart activity, body structure, way of moving, umbilicus, weight, and, of course, nutrition.

It’s likely the foal will have diarrhea (called “foal-heat diarrhea”), but normally he should not be “sick” with it, Morresey said. So if the foal is depressed or the diarrhea is ongoing, it’s time to investigate further.

Then there’s the obvious need to be sure mare is healthy, because that’s the best way she can take care of her foal. She has the tremendous job of feeding the foal (that consumes 20-25% of his body weight each day in milk!), as well as repairing her own reproductive system to be ready for the next foal.

She needs a reproductive exam, including ultrasound, to be sure she’s ready for breeding.

From a commercial standpoint, Morresey suggested we think of the mare as an airplane: She lands, discharges the foal, and must be ready to take off again so she can fly past the stallion, pick up the next passenger, and be ready to land again in 340 days. That means turning her around in a timely fashion, which is healthy for her as long as all systems are go. Morresey recommended considering breeding on the foal heat as long there were no post-foaling complications.

Finally, the mare should get a general health exam, including nonbreeding checks such as soundness dental, skin, and endocrine or metabolic function. Appropriate hoof trimming is a must and, of course, be sure she gets enough and the right kind of feed.

While all of this is more than a “How are they doing, Doc?” exam, Morresey said it pays off. Even when treating high-dollar foals, he makes sure his clients’ dollars are spent wisely. Catching a problem early, minimizing mare and foal stress, and keeping the mare in best reproductive health is the best way to protect the investment.