Every year, foals are separated from their dams in stalls and paddocks where walls or fencing do not extend to the ground. And every year, foals find ways to drown, hang, impale or otherwise hurt themselves in enclosures that had safely contained horses for years. The truth is, what we consider a safe environment for a grown horse is not necessarily safe enough for a foal. Sometimes this fact leads only to minutes or hours of anxiety. But other times, an inadequate facility can open the door to tragedy.
The ideal foaling environment is outdoors in May or June, in a pasture with clean grass, fresh air and plenty of sunlight. It’s closest to what a horse would experience in nature. But the reality is, particularly with show horses, we’re usually trying to get early foals. And in most of the country, January or February is not an optimum time to have the birth outside. Additionally, the foals and their dams are valuable, and we closely monitor mares when they’re about to give birth, which is difficult if they’re outside in a pasture.
But, if you live in California, Florida or another state where the weather is more cooperative early in the year, or if your foal is due in late spring or early summer when moderate temperatures prevail, you may choose to use an outside foaling paddock.
A foaling area with a water source, like a lake, pond or running creek, is an obvious site for a potential drowning, but even a puddle can present danger to a newborn. Most vets have experienced the client whose mare gives birth outside overnight, and the baby lands in a puddle. Unfortunately, the foal is sometimes dead from exposure by morning. It’s heartbreaking, and avoidable.
On rare occasions, a mare will foal standing, which creates the possibility that the baby will land in a water trough and drown. Utilizing specialized waterers, large plastic water containers from which the horse drinks once it noses aside a ball that covers the opening, can prevent a drowning. Also available are automatic waterers, or buckets which can be hung high above the foal’s reach.
Make sure the fence lines run low to the ground so the foal can’t escape underneath. It’s expensive to use solid board around a pasture; however, it is practical to use mesh and a board frame with small openings. Use fencing material, like smooth wire or pipe, to prevent small feet and heads from becoming entangled.
Foaling monitors may be used in either a stall or a foaling paddock. They consist of three basic types: a surcingle that alerts horse owners when their mare lies down; a vaginal thermometer that cools when pushed out by the foaling process or the transmitter that is sewn into a mare’s vulvar lips and separates when the water breaks. All three of these devices can call papers or phones, when activated. These products have the advantage of allowing the horse owner freedom, but they may give some false alarms.
To help the mare acclimate to her foaling environment, the final months before the mare’s delivery can be divided into three phases. With four weeks to go, the mare can be moved into a pasture close by, so staff can keep a watchful eye on her. Two weeks later, the mare can be moved to the barn or foaling paddock. One week before delivery, or earlier if she suddenly looks like she is going to foal, the mare can be moved into the foaling stall.
Almost everything about the foaling stall has to be given careful consideration in order to make it as safe as possible for both the mare and her newborn.
The size of the stall should be 12-by-12 or, ideally, 12-by-24 to ensure that mare doesn’t pin the foal against the wall and crush him. To further reduce that risk, each birth should be attended by a person able to call the vet if necessary.
Before a mare moves into the barn, the foaling stall should be washed down with a solution of water and bleach. Keep in mind that this disinfects the stall; it doesn’t sterilize it.
The bedding should be straw for the first week or two following the birth, then sawdust may be used as the possibility of the foal inhaling the sawdust is greatly decreased by that time.
Inspect the stall for gaps between walls and floors, and under doors. Also check for rough edges, knot holes, or protruding nail heads. Anything that might inflict a cut or entrap a small foot should be eliminated.
To feed and water the pair, shallow rubber feeders set on the ground for grain, and small, automatic waterers mounted above the foal’s head are foal-friendly.
After the foal is strong enough for turn-out, a run made of pipe panels that are low enough to the ground to prevent the foal from either getting stuck or rolling underneath, provide a safe environment. Sand in the run provides good footing for the mare and foal.
When the foal is 4 to 6 weeks old, it can graduate to traps or paddocks that contain three-sided sheds for shelter. Weather permitting, and with temperatures of 55 degrees or higher, it may stay outside overnight. In these paddocks, all the safety precautions for safe fencing, feeders and waterers remain, and the foal and dam can enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
Adding a second mare and foal pair into the paddock to share playtime and to start the integration process of joining a herd, can be begun at 4 to 6 weeks of age. If the two mares are good friends, they can be good company for each other. You can tell right away if it’s not going to work.
With a little time and preparation before the birth, owners can provide a safe environment for their much anticipated foal. For most people, breeding their horse is more than just a financial investment. They’re emotionally involved with their horses and any loss is major. Following these suggestions may help them ensure their investment.