Care of the newborn foal


Although nature is often well-crafted and newborn foals quickly become independent, it is in the breeder's best interests to be familiar with good practice and to know how to recognise 'normal' behaviour and behaviour that should worry him if he is to be able to react appropriately in the event of a problem. Here's an overview of what to look out for when a newborn foal arrives.

newborn foal

I. Hygiene precautions

First of all, we strongly recommend that you provide a dry, weather-protected shelter for foaling and the first few hours of the foal's life. A clean, well-mulched stall and a healthy paddock reserved for broodmares are recommended for newborn foals, who unlike human babies do not have their own immune defences at birth. The foal should also be handled before any other horses in the stable, and hands should be washed before handling.

II. Newborn behaviour

From the very first moments of the foal's life, you should notice certain behaviours: 

  • From the first 5 minutes: the first shivers and righting reflexes
  • From 20 minutes after birth: the first sucking reflexes (you can test this yourself by offering the foal your own finger to suck on).
  • Within 2 hours of birth, the foal should be able to stand.
  • Within the first 3 hours of life, he will have found his mother's teats and will have started to suckle.
  • Before 6 hours, the meconium will have been expelled (meconium is the foal's first excrement and looks like a yellow/brown paste).
  • The first micturition takes place on average in the first 6 hours of life for females (11 hours for males), so it is important to make sure that the urine is flowing through the foal's natural channels and not through the umbilical cord.

The following biological constants can be observed: 

  • The newborn's body temperature is between 37.2 and 38.5°C.
  • The mucous membranes are pink
  • There are between 60 and 80 breaths per minute during the 1st hour of life, then between 20 and 40 thereafter.
  • In terms of heart rate, there are :
    > 40 to 80 beats per minute between 0 and 5 minutes of the foal's life
    > 120 to 140 beats per minute between 1 and 12 minutes of life
    > 70 to 100 beats per minute between 12 and 24 hours of life



III. Colostrum absorption

Colostrum is the first "milk" produced by the mare when the foal is born. This colostrum is rich in antibodies, which are essential for transferring the mother's immunity to the newborn foal. It is important for the foal to consume the colostrum in the first few hours after birth: the foal's intestinal barrier will not allow the necessary antibodies to pass until 12 hours after foaling, and even then, after 6 hours the transfer is much reduced. 

If the newborn does not acquire the necessary antibodies, the risk of joint, digestive, respiratory or umbilical infections will be high in the days (or weeks) following birth

In terms of quantities: a 50 kg foal will need to ingest at least 60 grams of immunoglobulins, i.e. 1.5 to 2 litres of colostrum (of good quality) in the first 12 hours of life. If the foal has difficulty standing up, it can be given colostrum by bottle if it has a good sucking reflex. The foal can take 150 to 250 ml of colostrum every hour. 

It's important to know the quality of the colostrum to avoid poor immunity transfer. We recommend testing the quality of this colostrum using a "colotest": a refractometer used to assess the concentration of immunoglobulin in the mother's colostrum.


If the immunoglobulin concentration is :

  • above 60 g/L, the colostrum is rich: if you have other foals to be born, don't hesitate to take 250 to 500 mL and freeze it to build up a reserve of colostrum that could help others.
  • if the colostrum level is between 40 and 60 g/L, don't take any. The foal should be able to consume all of it.
  • below 40 g/L, the foal should be supplemented as a matter of urgency, either with reserve colostrum or a commercial colostrum substitute. 

It is strongly recommended to check the foal's immune status by taking a blood sample between 12 and 24 hours after birth in order to identify and correct any antibody deficiency as soon as possible. There are test kits available (e.g. Snapfoal) that can be used at the stable in just a few minutes.


IV. First aid for the foal

1. The first dung

The newborn foal should make its first droppings within the first 4 to 6 hours of life, shortly after ingesting colostrum. It should expel meconium, a yellow/brown paste. Watch out for possible constipation (called meconium retention): if this happens, you can administer a laxative (e.g. a pipette of Microlax, available from chemists) after the first feed, although the mother's colostrum is still the most effective laxative.  

Good to know: the risk of colic is present in newborns between 12 and 24 hours of age. It's best to keep a close eye on them!


2. The umbilical cord

It is advisable to let the umbilical cord break on its own. In most cases, it breaks (3-4 cm from the foal's abdominal wall) when the mare stands up after giving birth.  If the umbilical cord still hasn't broken within 20 minutes of birth, break it yourself at the natural break site, which can be recognised by a slight narrowing and sometimes a sort of white ring. Normally, by grasping the umbilical cord on either side of this site and twisting it, it should break. If any blood comes out, clamp the cord (or tie it up if you don't have a clamp) while you wait for the vet.

Disinfecting the cord is essential: it is a real gateway to germs and infections. To disinfect it, soak the cord in a 2% tincture of iodine solution (or 0.5% chlorhexidine). Repeat the procedure 3-4 times on the first day of life, then twice a day for the next 5 days. Keep a close eye on healing for up to 15 days (the tip should fall off): pain, warmth, swelling are potential signs of infection that should alert you.


3. Serums

At birth, the foal does not have the antibodies needed to build up its immunity. To boost their colostral immunity, they are given an anti-tetanus serum at birth (which will protect them from tetanus for around 2 months). Trivalent serum can also be useful: it offers the newborn extended protection against certain infectious agents. 


Please note: serums are not a substitute for colostrum; they reinforce the immunity provided by colostrum.

foal and his dam


V. Warning signs: when should you be concerned?

In the first hours and days of a foal's life, it is important to pay special attention to it. Contact your vet if you notice any of the following symptoms: 

  • the foal has difficulty getting up
  • the foal has difficulty or is unable to suckle
  • the mother does not have enough colostrum, or the colostrum is of poor quality
  • the colour of the foal's mucous membranes is pale red, yellow or purple
  • the foal has a high or low temperature (hypothermia or hyperthermia)
  • the respiratory rate is accelerated
  • the foal appears constipated
  • the foal is lame
  • the umbilicus is hot or swollen
  • the foal has difficulty urinating


VI. Deworming and vaccination

1. Deworming

It is advisable to deworm the mother shortly before or after foaling, and to deworm the foal at least at 3 and 6 months, and even at 2, 4 and 6 months, taking care to vary the molecules. If the foal shows signs of parasitic infestation (bloated belly, emaciation, diarrhoea, colic) before 2 months of age, it can of course be wormed earlier. 

To limit the risk of parasite infestation, regularly clean the foaling boxes (at high temperature and under pressure, and disinfect them) and collect the droppings from the boxes and paddocks on a daily basis.


2. Vaccination

It is advisable to vaccinate the foal at 6 months of age against influenza and tetanus if the dam has been vaccinated. If she is not, vaccinate the foal at 2 months. We strongly recommend vaccinating foals against rhinopneumonitis at 4 months of age.


To know / to remember :

  • Pay close attention to the signals transmitted by the foal in its first days of life
  • Absorption of colostrum is vital to the foal's survival, and expulsion of meconium must follow quickly.
  • The healing of the umbilical cord requires careful monitoring in the first few days. 



Even if everything seems to be going well, if you are not an experienced breeder, don't hesitate to call in your vet within 24 hours of foaling to check that everything is going well!