Key Takeaways You’ll Get
- Passive transfer of antibodies from the mare to the foal sets the stage for his immune system to develop.
- The stresses a mare encounters, from breeding to foaling, alter her microbiome significantly and, therefore, compromise her immunity and that which she shares with her foal.
- We can help create healthy competitive inhibition in the foal’s gut by introducing proper probiotics early in his life.
- For older foals and weanlings, we can avoid wrecking their microbiome by ensuring probiotics are administered any time they are facing stress, using antibiotics or being offered creep feeds.
Your lithe, leggy little foal has landed. He’s keeping you entertained, and his dam exhausted, with his curiosity and playfulness. It might seem like keeping him in one piece is your biggest challenge at this point, given that the “difficult parts” are out of the way—getting the mare in foal, keeping her healthy, and waiting for and attending to her foaling—and he’s zipping about like a drone with a freshly charged battery. But there are other threats at hand—threats that lurk in the foal’s gut, even though theoretically that gut is fresh and new.
We know the ecosystem of microbes living in the adult horse’s hindgut (the GI tract beyond the small intestine) is crucial to good health. Imbalances can lead to anything from diarrhea and colic to allergies and behavior problems. The foal is not excepted from this risk of imbalance, says Dr. Rob Franklin, an equine internal medicine specialist and co-founder of FullBucket, a veterinary-strength supplement business based in Weatherford, Texas.
What are the First Meal Fundamentals?
The foal’s gut is a blank slate for a great future. How do we avoid wrecking it?
We tend to think of the foal’s gut in the context of colostrum—the first milk meal, whereby the foal gets passive immunity from the mare if he consumes it within his window of gastrointestinal absorption, which begins closing at 12 hours and is done by 18 or even 24 hours.
“They’re not ready to tackle any invasion by a disease-causing bacteria or virus at Day 1,” says Franklin. “If there’s a delay in ingesting (colostrum), if there is a problem with the quality of it, or if it is leaked by the mare, that foal is going to get a severe infection. That’s why we do these passive transfer tests called an IgG at 18 to 24 hours to make sure they’ve ingested that.”
But even more is going on in that gut beyond—and after—colostrum absorption. “That foal is born with a naive immune system, it’s born with a blank slate in its digestive tract … so that microbiome is anxious to develop,” says Franklin. “It’s critical that it develops in a proper way that protects that foal from disease.”
Hint on how to avoid wrecking it...careful with the creep feed.
Mama Needs a Break (So Do Her Gut Microbes)
Whether the colostrum equips the foal to mount proper immune responses to pathogens, which are disease-causing organisms, and curate a balanced and effective gut microbe ecosystem depends on factors as far back as his dam’s breeding season: Caretakers changed her feed to be ready for the demands of carrying a foal, they kept her in the barn under lights to get her estrous cycle going after the winter period when it stops, and if she left the farm to be bred, she experienced inevitable stress from shipping.
In short, the mare’s hindgut microbes had a million reasons to change remarkably even before breeding and yet, because she’s a superstar, she conceived and carried that baby despite the shifts.
Then the dam’s microbiome took another hit around the time of foaling. Franklin explains that studies show broodmares are more at risk for colicking in the peripartum period, the time around when they’re getting ready to foal. Here’s why: “They start bringing the mare (who) … used to be out, now she’s in,” he says. “Now her social setting has changed, now her diet has changed. All these changes are changing her microbiome.”
In this state, her immune system is depressed and, so, she isn’t equipped to help her foal get off on the right foot. “Typically the foals that get the sickest get sickest the first week alive because they don’t have the competitive inhibition that a populated digestive tract has,” something the foal can build with good, strong early immunity.
Those sick foals? They’re at a disadvantage because of not only the state of their gut but also what veterinarians must do next to treat them. Dr. Keith Latson, an equine surgeon, co-founder of FullBucket, and its director of operations, says, “Now we’ve taken a very immature, developing microbiome, and we’ve unfortunately had to give antibiotics, indiscriminate killers of microbes.”
Robust Milk Drinker to Sick Creep Feeder
But even new foals that aren’t overtly sick can have early gut issues. “One of the really interesting things to me is the inability of some foals to digest the sugars in mares’ milk, and how that may contribute to dysbiosis or a shift in that very immature microbiome,” says Latson, a concept he believes is key to foal care.
“Initially it’s just milk that’s passing through,” explains Franklin, “so they’re going to get bacteria that can tolerate that pH that milk’s getting digested in. That’s going to create a friendly layer of competitive inhibition against a pathogen, (and) they’re not going to get much disease.”
But any hiccup in the foal’s life, any stress or disruption, can cause these bacteria to get outnumbered in a hurry in that naive-gut environment. “That’s one of the ideas of giving probiotics to a young foal, is to try to set up a GI tract that does have that competitive inhibition,” says Franklin. “You can put lots of friendly bacteria and allow the good ones to expand and keep the bad ones out.”
As a healthy foal’s gut matures, his hindgut comes alive and he starts to be able to digest cellulose, which is the fibrous part of plants. At 4 months old, about the time of weaning, things can go awry again with traditional husbandry methods.
“You see them eating with their mom,” says Franklin. “They’re watching mom and eating what she’s eating, and then we start to give them grain creep feed. ‘You’ve got to give them some creep feed, they need some energy,’ (we say). How do you think these foals in the wild are getting their energy? What are we trying to do? We’re trying to push the system.”
So, as owners with good intentions feed and even bulk up their weanlings, getting them slick and ready for sale, they spin the horses’ microbiomes on their head with the sugars in creep feed—this on top of the stress associated with separation from mom and getting acclimated to a new turnout or stabling situation. “Stress has a real physiological effect on us and on our physiology, things happen,” says Franklin.
How to Help
Thankfully, you can prepare your little guy for that stress and for a life with a great gut microbiome.
Speak with your veterinarian about setting your foal up for success with antibodies and probiotic support Days 1-7 of his life. FullBucket has created products to help support the foal in their early stages.
Keeping the Young Foals Gut Healthy with FullBucket
Foal Starter Kit - The Foal Kit was put together for owners of mares and breeding operations that need to get a head start on GI Disease outbreaks BEFORE they start. It’s a 7-Day prevention plan in a box. The Foal Starter Kit contains 1 tube of Foal Kick Start for Day 1, 6 tubes of Foal Probiotic for days 2-7, 1 Set of Foaling Indicator Strips and Foal Information Cards.
“We don’t have to wait for them to get sick before we can go in there and set up an intervention that can protect them along the way,” says Franklin. “Part of that is the way we feed them and the way we manage them.
“The more they can be out, the more they can get sun on their back, eating grass, the better,” he adds. “They can get all they need from forage and living beside their mom, they don’t have to get these massive grain meals. If you do feed those grain meals, you better to be doing something to counteract their negative effects, because they do have negative effects.”
Keeping the Weanlings, Yearlings and Mares Healthy with FullBucket
Around the time of foaling and weaning also takes a hit on her microbiome, FullBucket can help protect the mare with our probiotic pellets, granules and paste.
FullBucket is the only supplement company totally focused on digestive health. We have a complete line of all-natural digestive products to help control and prevent GI distress that leads to severe problems such as colic, colitis and ulcers.