The First 24 Hours of a Foal's LifePosted by Julia Reinisch, Contributor | 05.03.2019
"Watching my mare give birth for the first time was exhilarating and wild, almost surreal. It was incredible to watch the things that she was doing intuitively to take care of her baby." – Shannon W.
If your mare is expecting, you know what it feels like to be simultaneously excited and scared. You might find yourself thinking, "What if something goes wrong? How do I know if the foal is healthy? Will they be safe?"
Although these are fair questions to ask, and occasionally things do go wrong, it's important to understand normal horse behavior during the birthing process so that we know when to intervene and when we need to trust mother nature to take the reins.
What To Expect During the First 24 Hours of a Foal's Life
Note: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a replacement for professional veterinary care. Always keep the number for your local veterinary clinic available for reference.
The Instinct to Survive
As mammals, horses have developed instinctual behaviors that help protect their newborns. Some of these behaviors may seem odd, but when we take a look at them from a survival perspective, we can better understand the natural events as they happen in front of us.
Horses are prey animals, which means that they have to be wary of natural predators such as coyotes, cougars, wolves, and bears. To be able to survive, horses have developed a very fast response time and ability to outrun predators, called the "flight" defense.
Newborn foals are especially vulnerable to predators, which is why the sooner they can identify danger and flee if necessary, the better their chances of survival. Because horses are a precocial species, foals are neurologically mature, and with some basic guidance from their dam (the mare that gave birth to them), they quickly learn these vital skills.8
24 Critical Hours
The first 24 hours of a foal's life are the most critical to supporting their well-being. They'll experience a period of dramatic physical changes and may also be confronted with some of the greatest risks to their survival since they are at their most vulnerable during this time.
We're going to walk through the most significant time landmarks that you should be aware of while your mare is foaling.
Keep Your Foaling and Lactating Mare Healthy
Pregnancy and lactation take a lot out of a mare. Supplements such as Farnam Companies Mare Plus® Pregnancy Supplement can help keep her healthy during the foaling process.
Mare Plus® is rich in vitamins A, D3, and E, as well as calcium, phosphorus, and iodine for expecting mares.
Immediately After Birth: First Breaths
Before the foal's hind legs exit the birth canal, they try coordinated movement which tears the fetal sac that held them in their mother's womb. This tearing allows it to take in its first few breaths and open its eyes. Foals generally have a higher than normal respiratory and heart rate immediately after birth, but these will stabilize within the first two hours.1
After delivering her foal, the mare will rest for ten to twenty minutes. During this time, blood will continue to transfer to the foal from the placenta, and the umbilical cord will naturally break either when the foal moves around or the mare stands. It's important to not interfere with the natural breakage of the umbilical cord to ensure proper clotting.5
First 30 minutes: Bonding
One the mare has rested, she will stand and begin to nuzzle and lick the foal. This critical period is an important time for her to establish the dam-foal bond. The licking behavior stimulates the foal while also drying it and helping initiate the bonding process. During this time both the mare and foal will learn each other's scents and vocal cues—important for helping the foal and mare recognize one another and for the foal to develop its instinct to follow the mare.4
The foal will take an instinctive interest in their surroundings, which will lead to wobbly first attempts at standing up.1
1 Hour: Standing
The newborn foal will likely make several attempts to stand before being successful—most foals stand within their first 40 minutes to one hour after birth. If the foal does not continue to try to stand, the mare may nuzzle and even nip at the foal to encourage the behavior. Because it is a large prey animal, the ability for a foal to stand and eventually run is an essential instinct for its survival.2
After successfully standing, the foal will vocalize toward the mare and display signs of the suckle reflex—meaning that they will extend their tongue out and curl it while making suckling noises. They may even attempt to suck on the mare's elbows, nose, legs, the stall walls, and even you! This behavior means that the foal is ready for its first meal.3
2-3 Hours: Nursing
While the foal instinctively knows to suckle, they don't necessarily know how to find the udder. With gentle assistance from the mare, the foal will eventually find the teat and begin to nurse.4 It's common for the mare to not stand perfectly still while the foal nurses. Instead, they'll take a few steps and even circle around their stall to help the foal learn a "following response."3
A foal's immune system isn't fully developed at birth. For humans, maternal antibodies are passed to the baby from the mother through the placenta. In contrast, a foal must nurse to obtain antibodies supplied by the mare through colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk produced by a mare and is often thick, yellowish, and has the consistency of honey.2
It is imperative for healthy development that the foal nurses and receives the colostrum as soon as possible. The foal is only capable of absorbing the antibodies within the first 12 hours of life before the antibodies are just broken down by their digestive system.2 If the foal is unable to get the colostrum through nursing, it is possible to provide them with a colostrum supplement that can help provide these vital nutrients.
Milk Products Inc. Ultra Start Multi Colostrum Supplement provides a source of nutrients to newborn animals less than 4 days old that do not receive enough maternal colostrum.
After their first meal, the foal will develop a rhythm of frequent feeding and sleeping.2 During the first two to four hours, they will also pass meconium (their first feces) which is a dark and sticky stool.6
12-24 Hours: The Following Instinct
The dam-foal bond will be quite strong, and the foal will closely follow the mare or vocally call to her if she is not within sight. The fact that the mare and foal will remain in close proximity at all times is unique horses compared to other common livestock species. For example, cattle will usually find hiding spaces for their calves while searching for food and sheep and goats will gather with other newborn offspring to play.4
The foal's entire body is experiencing rapid growth, so they will nurse frequently during their first few weeks of birth—starting at two times per hour. After a few weeks, the frequency and duration of the suckling will decrease as they begin to eat other foods.7 To aid in maximum growth and development of the foal, supplements such as Farnam Companies Grow Colt® Growth and Development Supplement can also be added to their daily rations.
The foal will continue to explore its surroundings and will "develop periods of play by 'prancing' and 'chasing' around the mare between periods of feeding and sleeping."2
While birthing mares and newborn foals may need assistance during problematic circumstances, it's amazing to be able to watch firsthand how their instincts prepare them for this incredible event. If your mare is foaling or if you have questions about the birthing process, stop by any JAX Ranch & Home store to talk to our experts. They'll be able to tell you what to expect and can provide you with the supplies and resources you need to raise healthy horses.
1. Corp-Minamiji, C. 2011. Young Horse Development: Birth to Six Months. The Horse. https://thehorse.com/150637/young-horse-development-birth-to-six-months/
2. Carson, D.M. & Ricketts, S. W. 2010. The Newborn Foal in Horses. VCA Animal Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/the-newborn-foal-in-horses
3. Diehl, N. 2015. Normal Mare and Newborn Foal Behavior. The Horse. https://thehorse.com/111698/normal-mare-and-newborn-foal-behavior/
4. Gill, W., Meadows, D.G., & Neel, J.B. 2016. Understanding Horse Behavior. Agricultural Extension Service of the Institute of Agriculture. https://4-h.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/UnderstandingHorseBehavior.pdf
5. Hagstrom, D.J. 2002. The Foaling Process: What is Normal? University of Illinois Extension. http://livestocktrail.illinois.edu/horsenet/paperdisplay.cfm?contentid=41
6. Oglesby, R.N. 2013. Care of the newborn foal and mare. Horse Talk. https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2013/09/23/care-newborn-foal-and-mare/
7. United States Department of Agriculture. 2013. Care of the Newborn Foal. USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Extension. https://articles.extension.org/pages/10331/care-of-the-newborn-foal
8. Williams, A.C. 2004. The Basics of Equine Behavior. Equine Science Center, Rutgers University. https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/the-basics-of-equine-behavior/