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Breeding Basics: Animal Husbandry
Monday, April 24, 2017 - by Marvin Pave

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Breeding Standardbred racehorses is both an art and a science. For those who aren’t breeding at the commercial level, but would like to optimize the success of their breeding product either in the sales ring or on the racetrack, Hoof Beats presents part six of a seven-part series on breeding basics.

This month’s topic: care of the foal.

We asked veterinary and breeding experts what they thought were the most important factors in ensuring the best possible foaling outcome, specifically, what steps to take to hopefully assure that proper care will produce a healthy and marketable foal. Offering a range of opinions are veterinarian Etta Bradecamp, reproduction specialist at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.; Richard Arnold, president of Willow Oak Ranch in Tennessee and Montana; and owner and breeder Jim Avritt Sr. of Lebanon, Ky.

Begin at Birth

Care of a foal begins before birth and continues through and after weaning, as covered previously in this series. Like in most aspects of horse breeding, planning ahead, said Arnold, makes potentially difficult situations more manageable, assuming a normal, uneventful birth, foal management can be processed with some precision while always watching for separation from the norm.

“Nursing the foal is the first challenge in a normal birth,” he said. “Assuring successful completion of this important milestone can test your patience and the foal's strength. Although most foals stand up within an hour of birth and search for their mother's udder, some foals are slower and this is where patience comes in.”

He said a normal foal will take approximately two hours to find the dam's udder by itself. Some foals may take a little longer.

“We assist any eager foal in finding the udder, but we rely on their natural energy to seek nursing,” he said.

Arnold said that if the foal has not nursed with guiding assistance within 3-4 hours, it may be weak or compromised and you should get your veterinarian to assist in tube-feeding the foal. Either through their mother or frozen colostrum, all foals should receive colostrum within 3-4 hours of birth. 

Observation of the foal for the first 4-6 hours is essential, Arnold said.
“After the foal nurses a couple of times, you wait to see the foal pass its first stool (meconium). If that does not occur in the first few hours after nursing then the foal should have an enema. Specialized enema kits should be on hand and available if needed.”

Sometime in the foal’s first 24 hours, it should be examined by a vet and have its blood checked for antibodies (IgG) and levels above 400 to 800 are considered adequate to protect the foal from infection.

Bradecamp said once the foal is born and has made it through the first couple days of life, daily monitoring ensures that any illness or developmental problems are detected early and treated as needed.

“Foals are very precocious and may not show signs of illness until they are quite sick,” she said. “Daily monitoring of attitude, appetite, and activity level are important to recognizing the first signs of the most common illnesses that affect foals.”

Bradecamp also noted that increased respiratory rate and/or coughing may indicate respiratory disease such as Rhodacoccal pneumonia and that diarrhea or failure to nurse out the mare are signs of gastrointestinal disturbance.

Get Them Moving

Within 24-36 hours of nursing, Arnold said he moves the mare and foal from the foaling barn to her regular stall. 

“It is important to get them into a normal environment as soon as possible,” he said. “A normal foal does not need the artificial warmth of the foaling barn and will readily adapt to the outside temperature of the mare barn.”

Arnold said that leading the foal and mare requires two people – one to lead the mare and the other to cradle the foal front and back with their arms and move it along with the mare.

“When to halter the foal is a much-contested issue,’’ he said. “We halter the foal after a few days, but do not attempt to lead the foal until a couple of weeks when moving the mare and foal from stall to paddock and back.

“The exercise is good for both. Rule of thumb: if the weather is above 40 degrees, leave them out for most of the daylight hours. If below 40 degrees, put them out twice for one hour. As the foal grows and becomes stronger, they are integrated into groups with other mares and foals.”

Monitor Health

When a foal is around six weeks old, it should start eating some of its dam’s grain.

“Some foals may even try eating grain much earlier than this,” said Avritt. “If the mother will not permit sharing, you can feed the foal in a foal cup away from the mare and tether her close to her feed to prevent interference.

“Continuously monitor the physical condition of foals and feed accordingly; do not allow them to become too fat or too thin.”

Arnold said foals should become accustomed to halters within two weeks, after which you should begin handling their feet, which need to be trimmed about every 4-5 weeks.

“This ritual will keep the foals growing correctly and develops good habits that will pay dividends for everyone involved with the foal’s career going forward,” he said. “We groom-train and handle the foals each time we trim their hooves and these practices intensify after weaning.”

Bradecamp suggested that maintaining a good health program with regular de-womings and vaccinations prevents many diseases from ever becoming a problem.

“Health programs may vary from farm to farm and are most effective when designed specifically for a farm,” she said. “Discuss your health program with your veterinarian to ensure that it meets the needs of your horses.

Bradecamp said that lameness and joint effusion are signs of possible septic arthritis (“joint ill”) or other orthopedic problems.

“Any changes in the foal’s normal attitude and behavior warrant taking a closer look at and may require veterinary consultation and care,” she said. “A quick call to your veterinarian at the first signs of illness can make the difference between catching a disease quickly and turning it around and a long, protracted illness if allowed to progress for days before treatment is initiated.”

While some conformation faults may correct themselves as the foal matures, others require swift intervention. For more information on this, see the “Shoeing News” article in this issue.

“Close monitoring of development of the limbs for angular limb deformities that may need corrective trimming, shoeing or surgery can prevent bigger problems down the road,” she said. “Continuously monitor the way the foals/yearlings stand and move and trim feet accordingly; many foals/yearlings that do not stand properly can be helped through proper trimming by a competent farrier.”

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.