The Stables

Foals and Foaling

With common sense, it should be easy for anyone to produce a well mannered and safe young horse or pony that will be a pleasure to own.


At conception, the cell that will develop into a foal is no bigger than a pinprick. At 40 days the limb buds and head can be seen on the foetus which is approximately 5cm long. By the 80th day of pregnancy, the foetus is approximately 15cm long, it even has discernable hooves. By 120 days all of the physical features of the foal are present, but it is still very small. After this time the foetus grows rapidly, but the major growth period is in the final weeks of pregnancy. At this time the foetus grows a coat, mane, and tail and its internal organs mature in preparation for birth. The length of a mare’s pregnancy is 340 days.


One of the earliest signs of foaling is the development of the udder. At first, this will be hardly visible until three to four weeks before foaling when the udder will become hard and shiny. During the last few days of pregnancy, the dorsal muscles around her tail will slacken. When viewed from behind the tail head will stand proud, well above the rest of the muscles of the quarters. Quite obvious hollows appear on each side of the spine above the base of the tail.

Between 24-48 hours before foaling, a globule of a waxy substance will appear on the end of each teat. This eventually drops off and milk may begin to run, this indicates that foaling is imminent.  Foaling will usually take place in the early hours of the morning. It is preferable to leave the mare alone while she is foaling, but look in on her from time to time to ensure that all is well if the mare is foaling in a stable.  

The first sign that foaling is imminent is that the mare will seem uncomfortable and unsettled and may sweat.  The water bag is the first thing to appear, followed by the foal’s forelegs and then its nose. At this stage, the mare may lie down and get up again a few times, but this is quite normal and is no cause for alarm. If the front legs and nose are not visible, it is probable that the foal may be coming in the wrong position. This requires immediate veterinary assistance. Fortunately, such problems are rare in the horse; most births take place quickly and easily. Once the head is out the rest of the foal will quickly follow.  Shortly after delivery the foal will struggle and will break the water bag if this has not already happened. If the bag has not broken then it is essential to break it to let out the amnionic fluid, otherwise, as the foal takes his first breaths he may inhale some of this liquid and damage his lungs. The umbilical cord will rupture as the foal struggles, or when the mare rises a short while after the birth. It is not necessary to dust the umbilical cord with antibiotic powder as this closes naturally against germs, but no harm will be done if you prefer to do this.

Shortly after birth, the foal will begin its first struggles to get to its feet.  It may take a considerable effort and the foal may appear to suffer many falls and bumps as it tries to get to its feet, but this is natures way of warming the foal and getting it to use its limbs. Leave the foal to rise alone unless it is in danger of falling into fences or other dangers. Most mares have a strong maternal instinct and will lick and nuzzle their foals, but just occasionally the mare will actively dislike her foal and may try to attack him. In this case, it is necessary to separate the mare from the foal and call the vet immediately as it is essential to give the foal the mare’s colostrum and then hand feed him to ensure his survival. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence and the worst that will happen is that the mare, usually one that has just had her first foal, maybe ticklish and may squeal and threaten to kick when the foal tries to drink. In this case, the mare may have to be restrained for a few days while the foal suckles.

The first few hours

Once the foal is on its feet it will soon be thinking about finding its first drink. The foal will start to nuzzle the mare at first in every place other than the right one. Before too long though the foal will locate the right place and take its all essential first drink of colostrum, which contains many of the antibodies that help provide disease resistance. Within a few hours of the foal having its first drink, it should pass its first droppings which are known as the meconium. These should be dark brown in colour and the consistency of thick cream.

Common health problems

If the foal has problems passing the meconium and is seen to be straining without result then the vet should be called immediately as newborn foals can quickly weaken and the impaction may worsen if it continues.  Another problem is that the mare may fail to expel the afterbirth either partially or fully. This is not an immediate concern and on no account should any attempt be made to remove it by pulling. If the afterbirth has not come away within four to six hours the vet should be called. Keep a close eye on the mare and foal for the first ten days. If the mare begins to appear listless and off her food it may be that a small portion of the afterbirth has remained and infection is beginning.

Check that the foal is drinking, by inspecting the mare’s udder. If it is hard and shiny the foal is probably not drinking which is an indication that all is not well. Be wary of a foal that is listless and does not bother to feed, or one that goes constantly from one side of the mare to the other to try to drink, which may indicate a shortage of milk. Most foals go through the early days of life without problems, but one common problem is scouring. This can occur when the mare comes back into season approximately nine days after giving birth when the consistency of her milk will alter.  Careful and regular observation of the mare and foal are necessary for the early awareness of a problem which may require veterinary attention.

Handling your foal

Early handling of the foal is essential to produce a well mannered horse. Time spent getting the foal used to being stroked all over and having its head and legs touched will pay off in the long run. Teach to foal to pick up its feet, holding them up for short periods of time at first in preparation for farrier’s attention. The foal has no reason to be afraid of you, but it is essential for later handling, to keep it that way. Always be calm, firm and gentle.

It is good practice for the foal to learn to lead, rather than to run loose behind the mare. It is easy to teach a foal to lead by using a soft rope around his neck and by putting a hand on his quarters to help to encourage the foal to move forwards. When the foal is about a month old it is a good idea to fit a foal slip and to teach it to lead properly. Never leave the foal slip on while the foal is in the field as foals are extremely curious and could get caught somewhere no matter how cautious you are about safety. When leading always loop the lead rope through the foal slip rather than attach it, foals will often play up and could pull away from the leader.

At least if the lead rope is free it will fall off and not frighten the foal by dangling around its legs or become caught up somewhere. The foal should be taught to lead, striding freely beside you, not rushing off in front or pulling back. If it is necessary to catch the foal never try to make a grab for its head, as this will only lead to head shyness later on, rather start by scratching the foal’s rump and gradually work your way towards his head.

Foals, especially colts can be quite obnoxious and if left unchecked can become quite dangerous. Any naughty habits must be sharply discouraged, especially nipping and kicking. Whilst everyone in the family will be delighted by the new arrival it is important to remember that the foal is not a cuddly toy and should never be treated that way. Over petting the foal and feeding it titbits will cause problems in later life.

A young horse that has no respect can be difficult to train when the time comes to break him in. However, it is equally important that the youngster is not afraid of you, as this causes a different set of problems. With commonsense, it should be easy for anyone to produce a well mannered and safe young horse or pony that will be a pleasure to own.

by Jacqui Broderick

Image credit: Pixabay