by Robo Hendrickson

What a breeder couldn't see about his newborn baby horse that shocked him

What a breeder couldn't see about his newborn baby horse that shocked him

Weatherford, Texas 2015. Jeff squatted in a corner watching while his best mare stood over her newborn foal to clean the slick hide.

I could tell by his darting eyes and wrinkled brow that he was not just observing the wonderful scene of newborn life, but taking in every aspect of the movements and interaction between the two for the first time.

A newborn foal is an amazing sight to be seen. The significance of birth is always mesmerizing (if a bit gross to some) but a newborn foal birth is special.

The baby foal’s big, bright eyes scan the area just minutes after they hit the ground.

By their unique design, they are able to stand on wobbling legs and move around within a short amount of time – preparing for predators and the need to move fast.

“See that right front leg?” Jeff asks softly to not upset the pair. “That knee is bigger than the other.”

Even pointing it out I cannot see the difference, the variation is so slight.

  1. Seasoned horse breeders like Jeff scan the newborn foal for signs of immediate problems. Crooked legs, inattentive nature or the inability to rise and receive the momma’s first milk, the all-important colostrum, are warning signs that special attention might be required.

    What’s not being seen in this delicate blooming of life are all the processes going on inside the foal.

    The foal’s digestive tract has never been used and this sterile system is about to be bombarded with all kinds of good, life-sustaining things and bad, life-threatening things.

    The mare’s colostrum is a wondrous concoction designed to supply nutrients and antibodies to help give the foal a good, strong start.

    With luck, as soon as the foal is able to stand and move around, instinct guides it to find the mare’s udder and feed. But not long after that, those curious lips will be nibbling and pecking her tail, the stall shavings and everything else that looks interesting.

    If a mare doesn’t produce good quality or enough colostrum, newborn foals may be at risk.

    Disease causing microbes, or more technically “pathogens”, lie in wait for just such an event. Once in the system, they go to work wreaking havoc on the foal’s digestive tract.

    Most often the first signs are diarrhea or depression in the foal. But these often don’t present themselves right away.

    “We foal these mares out in ultra-clean stalls. But we can’t always get them clean enough. If the babies show signs of scours, we move them quickly to our NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) and start them on fluids and antibiotics.” Jeff described.

    “Foals are best born out in an open pasture on clean grass away from the herd and highly trafficked areas. But even then I’ve seen baby horses have problems. We just aren't set up for that here.”

    Foal diarrhea, or scours, is among the most common clinical problems in newborn and young foals.

    According to a National Animal Health Monitoring System Equine study conducted in 1998, diarrhea affected over 20% of foals within the first 6 months of age.

    Diarrhea is a symptom of enteritis, inflammation of the small intestine, and it  may be caused by a number of pathogens affecting a foal’s weakened immune system.

    The most common infectious causes of diarrhea in a foal include: Salmonella, E. coli,  Rotavirus, Coronavirus, Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium difficile.

    Non-infectious causes of foal scours may include: foal heat diarrhea, diet changes and sand ingestion.

    What can breeders and horse owners do to help prevent foal scours?

    1. Check your mare’s colostrum for antibodies prior to and just after birth.

      Evaluating the mare’s colostrum can tell you if the passive transfer of antibodies, particularly the equine immunoglobulins that enhance a new foal’s immune system, is occurring at the time of birth.

      The easiest and fastest way to do this is to test a drop of colostrum using a Brix refractometer. The refractometer measures the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum that a foal may receive.

      Mare colostrum with high amounts of dissolved solids (i.e. high immunoglobulin levels) will have a higher percentage score. Scores over 23% are ideal.

      Brix refractometer evaluation of equine colostrum has been shown to be highly repeatable and highly correlated with immunoglobulin levels measured in comparative assay testing.

      Purchase here-

      Measure colostrum Brix % at birth. Supplement foals with banked colostrum or plasma if quality is poor to avoid foal failure of passive transfer.

    1. Supplement your pregnant mares’ feed with Saccharomyces boulardii for horses , (found in FullBucket’s equine probiotics)

      Recent university studies show that nutritional supplementation of the S. boulardii probiotic enhances the quality of mares’ milk, specifically the amount of antibodies concentrated in the colostrum.

      Begin feeding S. boulardii to the mare 60 days prior to foaling for maximum effect.

    1. Add MOS in the form of prebiotics for horses to your mare’s feed.

      Derived from the walls of the Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, equine prebiotics are a natural nutritional supplement that has been used for decades in human medicine to reduce the risk of pathogen overpopulation in the horse’s intestinal tract and to inhibit Salmonella infections.

      A study conducted by scientists in the Dept. of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida showed that pregnant mares receiving a very particular strain of prebiotics in their feed 56 days prior to the foal’s birth showed higher levels of immunoglobulin concentration in their colostrum than did the mares not getting the supplement.

      When supplementation continued 28 days past birth, both lactating mares and their foals showed higher serum immunoglobulin levels than non-treated horses, raising the immune response against disease.

      Begin feeding selected prebiotics 60 days prior to foaling. 

    1. Supplement your mare’s feed with natural Vitamin E.

      Research conducted at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found that Vitamin E supplementation in the mare becomes a critical element in building the foal’s immune system within the first few days of life.

      As the most important antioxidant to protect cells, Vitamin E is necessary for growth and strengthening cellular walls against pathogens.

      Using the natural form of Vitamin E, rather than the synthetic form, has been shown to increase d-alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) concentrations in mares’ milk and in foal serum. Concentrations were highest and most effective at the 9- and 12-hour mark post dosing allowing for increased newborn foal immunity.

      Provide the natural best form of Vitamin E to the mare 60 days prior to foaling.

    1. Cleaning and disinfection should be a top priority with foal scours.

      Foals that have recovered clinically from an episode of scours or foals that continue to pass soft feces may potentially shed infectious organisms in their feces and should be handled with care to avoid spreading or carrying infected feces from the area of isolation to other animals.

      Foal feces and contaminated bedding material should not be spread on pastures where other horses or farm animals may come in contact and potentially consume the material.

      Ideally, feces and contaminated bedding should be discarded at a landfill, or if composting, the compost material needs to reach temperatures high enough to kill contaminants. Anyone handling feces and contaminated bedding should wear protective clothing, including boot covers and gloves.

      Stall cleaning begins with removing all bedding and scrubbing walls and floors with detergent and water. After a thorough cleaning, the walls and floor should be sprayed with a specific disinfectant (dilute bleach 1:8 works well if all dirt and manure have been removed) developed to kill the suspected pathogen causing the scours.

      Returning affected foals to the normal farm population depends on the infectious agent. Most foals should be isolated from other youngsters for a minimum of 14 days.

    Back in the foaling shed

    As Jeff, his wife and I make our way down the long breezeway of their barn, I see all the horse heads bob in and out of the stall doors looking for attention or a snack.

    The worn wood of the stalls is brown and smooth as a testament to the years of use. I can feel the love and care that has permeated this place for decades.

    Jeff finishes going over the FullBucket foaling program he has implemented for his entire breeding operation “to get a head start on a disease that could knock out a potential champion.”

    “You know, we can’t protect these baby foals from everything.” Jeff says to me, “But it’s our duty as their caretaker to try.”

    FullBucket was created by veterinarians to make a difference

    FullBucket supplements contain the highest concentration of S. boulardii, prebiotics, L-glutamine and natural vitamin E available in any commercial mare and foal supplement.

    It is used daily by the top breeding farms, equine veterinary clinics, equine veterinarians and universities in the US. 

    For every FullBucket you buy, we give one to animals in need.

    You can watch the mini-documentary here…


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