Breeders can’t entirely ensure the health of their foals, but smart planning and preparation can go a long way in preventing some of the most common injuries and problems young horses face.

FOALS ARE BOTH AMAZINGLY RESILIENT and amazingly fragile creatures. If all goes well, they stand and walk within hours of birth. But any glitch in the process, and they’re often left fighting for life. Fortunately, many common problems—even devastating ones—can easily be avoided, says Amy J. Jergens, a veterinarian at Countryside Large Animal Veterinary Service in Greeley, Colorado.

Pairing with other horses too soon can add too much energy to the paddock, leading to injuries if the situation isn’t monitored closely. As foals become more accustomed to being turned out, other horses can be added to the herd with less chance for problems, say Amy J. Jergens, DVM, DACVS.

“The first six months of a foal’s life have the greatest impact on his athletic ability and monetary value,” Jergens says. “Yet this stage is largely ignored, leading to a significant number of deaths and avoidable complications.”

Though full-time breeders often have smooth-running foaling operations, even some of Jergens’ more experienced clients have fallen upon preventable problems. Neonatal intensive care and surgery can often fix life-threatening com-plications, but as the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Even uncomplicated births and seemingly healthy foals need a veterinary exam within 12 to 24 hours of birth, Jergens says. Careful assessment of a newborn gives a veterinarian the opportunity to tackle problems before they become devastating or untreatable.

However, most equine practices don’t have the equipment or facilities necessary to handle neonatal intensive care, so locate a practice in your area that is equipped to handle such emergencies in case the need arises.

The most common cause of death in foals is from septicemia, a bacterial infection in the blood. When foals are born, their bodies remain largely undeveloped, including their gut. Because the gut is “open” at this time, foals can properly absorb the immunity and antibodies passed from the mare’s colostrum. For the same reason, they’re also susceptible to infection.

Cleanliness and precautionary vaccines can help ward off such problems. Therefore, Jergens recommends the following:

Six weeks before foaling, move the mare to the premises where she’ll give birth. The move will allow the mare to develop anti-bodies that are specific to the environment, which she’ll later pass to the baby.  

Within four weeks of foaling, administer a tetanus vaccine and an influenza vaccine. Protection from these vaccines will also be transferred to the foal.  

As the mare nears labor, move her to a disinfected stall that’s cleaned at least twice daily.  

Clean the mare immediately before and after foaling to decrease the amount of bacteria on her body, which could be transferred to the foal. The foal may be further protected from infection by cleaning the mare, hand-milking two to four ounces of colostrum, and bottle-feeding the baby his first meal.

The sooner a foal receives colostrum, the sooner he receives protective antibodies from the mare. Colostral intake is the greatest within the first eight hours of birth, but the foal continues to absorb colostral benefits up to 18 hours after birth, Jergens says.

The umbilicus should be dry and small. After the umbilical cord ruptures (allow this to happen naturally), the area requires special care to reduce the chance of bacterial infection.

Disinfecting the area with providoneiodine dries out the umbilical stump, which can cause damage, infection or patent urachus, an unnatural opening between the bladder and umbilicus. Instead, Jergens recommends the following:

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