Health & Development

Health & Development

"Now, with this foal at my side, each high step I take is done with gentle dignity and modest pride."
Horses of the Sun
Robert Vavra

This poem courtesy of Whispers of the Vagabond

A variety of plants and trees are poisonous to horses, including yew, privet, bracken, buttercups, nightshade, and most trees with berries. Ragwort may be the most dangerous because its toxins cause the destruction of the liver.

Pregnancy & Birth
Foal Development


The appearance of a healthy horse is unmistakable and so is the appearance of an unhealthy one. The state of health is apparent through the skin, muscle tone and eye expression as well as the manure. It can be further ascertained by the animal's temperature, pulse and respiration.

There are several principles to follow to keep your horse in good condition. A primary factor is a regular and sufficient diet incorporating, in proper proportion, the constituents of a balanced food intake and corresponding to the type of work that is required of the horse. In addition, a domestic horse should have access to shelter against the worst of the weather, a system of parasite control and the animal should be protected against a variety of diseases through vaccines. The teeth and hooves should be attended regularly. Finally, the animal should be constantly supervised.

In health, the eye is big and the membranes under the lids and those of the nostril are an even pink color. Redness denotes inflammation, white suggests debility, yellow is symptomatic of liver disorders and bright purple is indicative of blood aeration problems. The coat of a healthy horse lies flat and has a glossy sheen. A dry, staring coat can mean malnutrition and/or a heavy parasite infestation. If the hair can be pulled easily from the mane, other symptoms of ill-health will be found.

The skin should be clean and loose. Tightness may be due to the onset of disease, a parasite infestation or malnutrition. Lice may be found on horses in poor condition and will cause skin to tighten. A lice-ridden horse rubs continually and its coat appears blotched.

The limbs should be cool and free from swelling. Puffiness indicates sprains, poor circulation, parasitic irritation or a possible heart condition.

Manure varies in color and texture according to the state of health, although loose bowel movements are a normal occurrence when horses are on new grass. The droppings should be well formed, slightly moist and without any strong smell. The presence of mucus is the result of a digestive disorder. Strongly smelling, yellow droppings may be connected with a liver condition and/or indicate the presence of red worms.

The urine should be nearly colorless. If thick and highly colored, there may be kidney trouble. Bloody urine points to an inflammatory condition of that organ. Excessive urine flow can mean diabetes, and an obvious dribble accompanies bladder inflammation.

The horse in bad condition can be recognized by the poor covering of flesh over the pelvis. The bone structure can be clearly seen, the flanks are hollow, there is a deep cavity under the tail and no muscle between the hind legs. There are grooves in the quarters either side of the tail. The backbone is visible and the base of the neck lacks muscle on both sides, feeling narrow and slack. The neck itself is soft and without flesh.

The normal temperature of the horse is 100-101.5. Above this, one may suspect some general infrction. However, horses vary in their temperature and the normal, healthy temperature of your horse should be taken and noted for future comparison. The temperature is taken by inserting a clinical thermometer in the rectum. Temperatures vary through the day, so it is necessary to take two or three readings at different times.

A normal pulse rate is 32-44 beats per minute. An increase when at rest usually signifies some form of fever. The horse is in distress if the pulse rate reaches 50 beats per minute at rest. The pulse can be felt on the inner surface of the lower jaw, just behind the elbow and behind the eye. Obtain the pulse rate by counting the number of beats in 20 seconds on a stopwatch and then multiply by three. Respiration is normally 8 to 15 breaths a minute when the horse is at rest. A faster rate while a rest indicates pain and probably rise in temperature. Check to respiration by standing behind the horse and counting how often the flanks rise and fall in 60 seconds, or use a stopwatch in the manner suggested for pulse rate measurement. Each rise and fall is equal to one breath.

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Pregnancy & Birth

Mares usually reach puberty between 15 and 24 months but, occasionally, it may be later. It is possible to breed from 2 and 3 year olds, but 4 is more acceptable.

From early spring through autumn, mares come into season at regular intervals between 18 and 21 days. Each heat lasts five to seven days. During heat, a mare will accept a stallion. There are a number of unmistakable signs that indicate a mare is in season, although they do not all occur simultaneously. Mares may appear irritable and unsettled, and will seek the company of other horses more than usual. The tail is swished fairly constantly and the clitoris is protruded. Urine is passed frequently in small quantities and mucus is present around the lips of the vagina. It is possible to establish the phase of the mare's cycle by internal examination, but the most certain way of finding out whether she is ready to be mated is by trying her with a stallion - a practice known as "teasing". At stud farms, it is usual to have the mare brought to one side of a padded partition and the stallion to the other. The partition prevents either animal from being injured. If the mare is ready, she will adopt the mating posture and hold her tail to one side. If she is not, she will bare her teeth at the stallion and attempt to bite of kick him.

The average gestation period of the brood mare is 11 months and a few days. Obviously there are variations but, as a rule, a colt foal is carried longer than a filly. The term for colts is approximately 334 days and for fillies 332 1/2, but there is a possible variant of 9 1/2 days either way.

When full term is reached, hightly bred horses, like the Thoroughbred, require more attention than the self-reliant pony breeds. It is usual for highly bred mares to foal in a foaling stall with attendants keeping watch on closed-circuit television. Pony stock are nearly always allowed to foal outside and problems rarely occur. The pony mares give birth quickly, as they would under feral conditions where a protracted birth might attract the unwelcome attention of predators.

After the waters break, the mare lies down and strains as the labor pangs increase in strength. She will often grunt loudly and will sweat noticeably as the birth sequence approaches its climax. In a normal presentation, the front hooves of the foal are the first to appear between the distended lips of the vulva. They are covered in transparent membranes, the caul, which burst as the birth progresses. The head lies on the extended forelegs and appears after the hooves. Once the shoulders appear, the heaviest part has been delivered and the rest follows swiftly. As this happens, the membranes over the nose break and breathing starts. The foal kicks free from the mare, at which point the umbilical cord may be broken off. Nature's "blood valve" will close, precluding the exit of blood from the foal while allowing an inward flow from the placenta. Within a short time of birth, the mare will have gotten to her feet, breaking the umbilical cord if it has not already been severed. Within half an hour or so, the mare will lick the foal. By doing so, she warms her new offspring. After half an hour, the foal will muzzle the mare. The colostrum, the first mile the foal receives, is essential to its well-being. It acts as an antibiotic and ensures the passing of the meconium from the system in the first bowel movement.

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Foal Development

A new foal wil be on its feet and suckling its dam within half an hour after birth. Foals born inside can be turned out with the mare on the second day, so long as the weather conditions are not harsh. If it is cold and wet, the mare and foal must be brought in at night.

The foal's relationship with humans begins almost as soon as it is born. In some instances, it is necessary to clear the mucus and membranes from around the nostrils at the time of birth, and during the first 24 hourse of life it will need to be injected against joint-ill and tetanus. Initially, the mare may act defensively toward her foal, placing herself between the attendant and her helpless youngster. A good-tempered, kindly mare will soon get over this understandable apprehension, and if she demonstrates her confidence in humans, the foal will quickly do the same.

It is best to begin handling the foal in the stable rather than outside, and the mare should be brought in for a short period each day. At this stage, the foal will naturally follow its dam without outside encouragement.

When the foal is no more than three days old, it should be possible to handle it with the help of someone holding the mare. The mare is placed alongside the stable wall and the foal needs no persuasion to come up along the nearside of his mother. The trainer or owner can then place the right arm around the foal's rump and the left around the chest. In a few days, the young animal will consent to stand quietly within the embracing arms so long as it is allowed be close to its dam, his flank touching her side to give him confidence.

The next step should be to teach the foal to lead in hand and that, too, begins within the confines of the stall. The mare is led quietly around and the foal will instinctively seek to follow her. It can be encouraged to do so by being pushed gently forward with the right arm, while the left arm is held ready to restrain any violent forward plunge the foal might take.

Within a few days after birth, the foal can be fitted with a soft leather halter and by then should submit happily to being led around by the attendant, so long as it is not too far from its dam. The slip is first put on in the stable, the foal being gently pushed into it from behind, rather than risking a battle and possible injury by trying to pull the slip over the foal's nose. In a day or so, a soft halter can be placed around the foal's head and, in a short while, it will be possible to lead it in this fashion both to and from the paddock and stable. The foal can be ressured by the attendant scratching its chest, withers and quarters in simulation of its dam's affectionate "love-nibbles" which she gives him in those places.

From the second week of its life, it is advisable to make the foal used to being touched and stroked by humans. Its hooves can be picked up for a second or so as well. This exercise will prepare the young animal for the time when the farrier will first trim its hooves - when he is about three months.

At three or four months, the foal learns to load into a trailer with its mother. The technique for trouble-free loading is to load the mare first. The foal, anxious not to be separated from its mother, then will follow quickly into the trailer.

If the grazing is good and the mare has been fed well, her mile and the grass will be ample food for the foal up to the age of two months. Toward the end of that time, the foal should be sharing its dam's grain. As a guide, a foal requires 1lb of grain per day for every month of its age up to five to six months. In addition to oats, boiled linseed and barley, the feed could also include powdered mile, 2oz rising to 8oz per day, and cod-lover oil to promote bone growth. In winter, the foal needs an ample supply of soft, meadow hay, which will not overtax its immature teeth nor its digestion. Apart from nutrition, a foal's other basic needs are plenty of sleep as well as the company of other horses and plenty of space to romp in.

It is usual for colts, other than those intended for use a stallions, to be gelded before weaning takes place. Gelding can be carried out later but yearling colts can become unacceptable boisterous if left ungelded. Deworming is an essential measure to be taken before weaning.

The weaning of foals from their dams usually takes place between 4 1/2 and 6 months, when the milk hairs have darkened and the foal is able to feed on its own. In practical terms, this is an unavoidable step. However, weaning can cause stress to both mare and foal and, therefore, the owner must help to minimize distress to the animals by handling them sympathetically.

Foals can be prepared for the final separation by being kept away from the dam for short periods. The mare can be exercised, for instance, while the foal remains in the stall with a companion and with food available. The eventual, full separation must be total for at least four weeks, the mare being kept off the premises if possible while the foal is kept in a deeply bedded and very secure stall. After a week the foal can be turned out for short periods in the paddock so long as the mare can be neither seen nor heard.

Good feeding for young stock is essential to good health, as is the freedom that allows them to develop naturally. By the time the foal is a yearling, it should be having no less than 7lb concentrate feed a day, plus salt, an appropriate mineral supplement, cod-liver oil and so on. Hay should be fed ad lib and ample supplies of clean, fresh water must be constantly available.

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Reference: The Ultimate Horse Book; Elwyn Hartley Edwards; 1991


Color photo of mare and foal courtesy of Kim McElroy

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