The first hours of life are critical for a foal’s survival and future health. Usually a healthy newborn has no problems, but sometimes severe weather can present challenges. Dr. Peter Sheerin, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital (Lexington, Kentucky) says one of the biggest concerns with newborns is their ability to regulate body temperature.
“Ideally they need to be born into a protected environment with plenty of bedding, minimal drafts, not too cold. People wonder about use of heat lamps, foal blankets, etc. but this should be evaluated on an individual basis. If weather is really cold, they may initially need heat lamps, but then the question is for how long. This would be on a case-by-case basis. There are pros and cons for using blankets. If it’s extremely cold or a drafty barn, a blanket may be beneficial but then we have to make sure the foal is adapting to the blanket and able to get up and down and move normally,” Sheerin says.
We don’t want the blanket to inhibit the foal’s movement or entangle his legs.
“The other question is whether the blanket confuses the mare and interferes with her recognizing and nurturing the foal. This could be especially problematic for a first-time mother. If you put the blanket on the foal immediately, before she has a chance to bond with her new baby, you may create a problem,” Sheerin says.
“Another thing we worry about in cold or stormy weather is getting young foals outside for exercise. If they stay cooped in a stall this can lead to problems, especially if the stalls aren’t cleaned regularly and foals are lying around in that environment for extended periods. Air quality may be poor, with higher levels of ammonia. This can put foals at risk for respiratory problems, damaging their young lungs and the cilia that line the airways,” Sheerin says.
Confinement and lack of exercise might have an adverse effect on the developing skeletal system, tendons and muscles. “If the foal is born with lax tendons and the fetlock joints are down to the ground, you want that foal to have a little controlled exercise. If he is confined in a stall, it will take longer to get the needed exercise. If there’s an indoor arena the mare and foal could be turned out for short periods. If you don’t have an indoor area for exercise, evaluate the outdoor environment and decide whether you can turn them out safely, and if so, for how long,” he says.
The foal may go out and run around for a little while, then want to lie down. You either need to provide a dry spot to lie down (putting out bedding so the foal won’t be lying on snow, mud or wet ground) or bring them in again before a foal becomes tired and lies down. If you do provide bedding outside, the mare and foal will urinate and defecate in it. This makes management more challenging,” Sheerin says.
Some paddocks may be muddy or have snow.
“You have to consider footing, going from the barn to the paddock. You might have temperatures warming up during the day and then overnight it freezes. Everyone wants to turn mares and foals out in the morning, but it might be a sheet of ice where they have to travel to the pasture. You also have to consider the footing in that pasture.”
If it is extremely cold, there are risks for hypothermia with a new foal. Most people who foal early in the year have some kind of shelter for foaling mares and newborns, though once in a while a mare might surprise you by foaling earlier than you anticipate.
“If a mare foals outdoors on a cold night and you don’t find that foal right away, there can be a multitude of problems with hypothermia; the foal may not get up quickly enough to nurse before it becomes too chilled. Did it nurse efficiently to get adequate antibody levels from colostrum?”
You may discover the foal after it was born outside, and things seem OK, but then the foal may go downhill. Those foals need to be closely monitored.
Hot weather at foaling time can also present challenges, due to the foal’s inability to thermo-regulate during those first days of life.
“If foals are born when it is really hot outside, they may overheat and dehydrate because they don’t feel like nursing. If they are born with thick hair coats, as many foals are, they may readily overheat. We need to keep them in an appropriate environment,” Sheerin says.
“If it’s too hot outside, maybe we need to keep them in the barn, with fans going. If we turn them out, we can turn them out in the evening after it cools off, so they can get the exercise they need. We don’t want them out in direct sun whenever it’s really hot because they will run around and get overheated. Then they will lie down out in the sun and become even more overheated. If they get dehydrated they may not be strong enough to nurse, or to keep up with the mare. If she goes to a different part of the field, the foal may be too listless to travel with her,” says Sheerin.
Young foals are fragile during the first hours and days of life, so a healthy environment is crucial.
“Other challenges besides cold or hot weather include wet, or wet windy weather. If there’s a lot of rain and mud, we worry about potential infections in the umbilicus if the foal is outside, lying in the mud. Moisture can also create skin problems due to being wet all the time,” he says.
You don’t want the foal to be chilled outdoors in a downpour.
“Any time foals become hypothermic they probably won’t nurse enough. In different environments, we try to put the foal in the best conditions we can, and not expose them to extremes, if we can avoid it. By the same token, we have to make sure we don’t baby them too much, because this puts them at risk for other issues—both physically and mentally,” Sheerin says.
You have to allow the youngster to be a horse, while at the same time not exposing them to great extremes of environment. It’s a fine line, at times.
“And everyone looks at it differently, in terms of their own comfort level for what they are willing to expose the foal to,” he says.
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