FOALS: handling and care
[Catching] [Leading] [Tying up] [Vaccinations] [Worming] [Hoof care] [Weaning] [Feeding foals and weanlings]
On studs, where many foals are born each season, serious handling might not begin until after the foals are weaned at four to six months of age. They are caught a few times while still on their mothers, but only briefly for worming, vaccination and sometimes hoof trimming.
But foals are remarkably strong and seldom take initial handling without protest. They can easily injure people and themselves if restrained incorrectly. It is easier, kinder and less traumatic for them to be handled (or “gentled”) while still small.
Sometimes foals are imprinted, which means they are caught a couple of times and handled all over in their first 24 hours of life and may not be seriously touched again for some time. This method remains controversial, some authorities swear by it, others say that it can make the mare reject the foal. It is certainly known that too much human intervention in the first few hours of life, e.g. if the foal requires some treatment, can prevent proper formation of the maternal bond. Also there are reports of foals being wrongly imprinted and becoming very difficult to handle later on.
It is more conventional to begin handling foals once they are well bonded to the mare and are obviously healthy and normal. One person can catch a foal but it is easier with two people. One leads the mare and foal into a small safe area and manoeuvers them so that the foal is trapped between the mare and a solid panel of fencing or wall. The other person further squeezes up the foal and grasps him around the chest and rump as though going to lift him. The foal will struggle so keep a firm hold. Foals have been killed by rearing over backwards and hitting their heads.
Most mares calmly accept what humans do to their offspring, but always be aware that an occasional mare is ultra protective, especially of a very young foal or if the foal whinnies frantically with fear when first caught (most do not).
Once the foal accepts the restraint and settles, rub all over with your hands, including lightly scratching the neck and top of tail. Don’t pat, that will frighten him. Then simply release your hold and let him follow the mare back to the wherever they are to be let go.
On day two repeat the process, including down the legs and picking up all the feet. That will probably be enough for the lesson, foals do not cope with too much handling at the one time. They show this by ceasing to pay any attention at all to you, or by becoming sulky, even cranky and wanting to kick and bite.
The following day, the foal is handled all over as usual, then a halter is gently slipped on his head. A special foal-sized halter needs to be used and it must fit so that the noseband is halfway between eyes and nostrils and not tight under the jaw.
Give the foal another brief rub down then remove the halter and let him go with the mare. Although it is often done, it is dangerous to leave halters on foals in the paddock. They have been hung up by them in fences and severely injured, even killed by strangulation. Feet can easily be caught in halters when the foal lies down or scratches an ear.
From now on, rate of progress depends on the individual foal. Some might need lessons repeated, others will happily move on to the next stage.
By now you should be able to catch the foal beside his mother without having to squash him up into a small area. Once the halter is on and the usual rubbing down and feet picking up has been done, attach a lead to the halter, stand a few feet away at right angles to the foal’s head and pull. Once he takes a step to face you, stop pulling immediately and praise with voice and hands. Repeat the process on the other side. Exert only enough pressure to make the foal turn towards you, never should he be forcibly yanked off his feet. Most foals catch on very quickly and will turn to face you themselves after a few repeats, without any real pulling on the head.
The first couple of leading lessons simply involve someone leading the mare and the foal following while you hold onto his lead. Some foals will walk along quite placidly, others will want to fight the lead or jump about and play, so always keep a firm hold, but be prepared to go with the foal to some extent rather than exert too much restraint at this early stage. Once you have reached wherever the mare and foal are to be released, place the lead around the foal’s neck and see if he will respond to a tug by turning towards you. If not, simply slip the halter off and try again the next day. The idea is to teach the foal that if the lead is still around his neck, he cannot go rushing off as soon as the halter is removed. This can become a dangerous habit leading to injuries.
Next lesson you should be in the correct position at the nearside shoulder of the foal. Hold the lead fairly close to the halter and make sure none of it is dragging on the ground. Pull forward and cluck with your voice as your assistant leads the mare off. The foal should naturally follow, but now you direct his path to some extent, also stop and start him a couple of times. If he tries to pull away, prevent him by holding firm. If he stops and refuses to move, just wait awhile. He’ll soon want to catch up to his mother – but be prepared for a sudden take-off. Young foals can also be encouraged to lead by the handler reaching across and tapping them on the off side of the body or rump.
The next stage is to lead the foal independently of the mare, though she should be nearby and in sight. A rump or tail rope of soft cotton is looped around the foal’s hindquarters and held with the right hand. The handler gives the foal the signal to move forward as usual, but if he refuses, a pull on the tail rope will provide encouragement.
Most handlers agree that the advantages of being able to tie up a horse safely and without fuss far outweigh the small risk of injury.
It is much easier to teach horses to tie up while they are still small. Even so, young foals are quite strong and it is very important to use an unbreakable halter and lead and tie them to a solid post in an area free of hazards. If they have a bad initial tying up experience, it can stay with them for life.
An alternative method to tying with the halter alone is to fold a sack lengthwise and place it as high up as possible around the foal’s neck and tie the ends together under the jaw with cotton rope, the free end of which is then passed through the chin strap of the halter before being tied to the post. This method spreads the pressure over a wider area of the foal’s neck.
The mare must be within sight and sound of the foal. Ensure that the tying up point is at least the height of the foal’s wither and that a bowline or similar quick release knot is used. Alternatively, the lead can be half-hitched around or through the tying up point while the handler continues to hold onto the end. In this way, some slack can be given to the foal immediately if there is a problem.
The foal might stand for awhile and do nothing, but sooner or later will realise he can’t just walk away. He will begin pulling back quite hard on the lead in an effort to break free. He might keep up the pressure for a while, but before long will step forward to relieve the strain on his head. Your moving towards him will probably provoke another episode of pulling back, but for a shorter time. He will soon get the idea that it is easier just to stand and not pull back at all, even if activity is going on all around.
Foal and weanling care
In Australia, horses are routinely vaccinated only against tetanus and strangles. Very valuable and/or high risk horses can also be vaccinated against the viruses that cause colds (‘the virus’) and abortion.
Horses are particularly susceptible to tetanus. Vaccination with tetanus toxoid provides lasting protection, though two injections four to six weeks apart are necessary before sufficient immunity develops. Foals are born with immunity from their mother’s milk and usually are given their first vaccination at three months of age, the second at four months or so, then a booster 12 months later. Pregnant mares should be vaccinated a month before foaling to ensure adequate antibodies in their milk.
Strangles is a highly contagious respiratory disease which can spread very rapidly through a group of young horses, though all ages are susceptible. Strangles vaccination does not give complete protection but does greatly cut down the incidence. It comprises three injections a fortnight to four weeks apart. Two of them can be made coincide with the tetanus vaccinations, in fact there is now a product combining both vaccines. Annual boosters are required.
Foals can acquire intestinal threadworm through the mother’s milk. It causes scouring which can be confused with foal heat scours, but in situations where this worm is a problem, the mare is treated rather than the foal at such an early age.
The commonest internal parasite in foals is roundworm, as it is in most species. Foals pick up eggs soon after birth and it takes 10 to 12 weeks for the lifecycle to be completed and the eggs of adult worms to pass out into the environment again.
Tapeworms can infest foals from two months of age. They are not killed by the ‘mectin’ wormers.
Redworms or strongyles are picked up by foals as soon as they start grazing. The earliest that the eggs of mature large redworms are seen in the faeces of foals is six to seven months, but the migrating larvae do damage in the meantime. But because ivermectin wormers are so effective against all stages of large redworms, they are not considered to be as big a problem now as small redworms. There are some 50 species of these, their lifecycles are highly variable in length and their encysted larval stages are resistant to ivermectin (but not to moxidectin). Foals as young as six weeks can have mature small strongyles and be passing eggs in their faeces.
Therefore treatment and control of worms may need to start from four to six weeks of age. The frequency after that depends on the product and the manufacturer’s recommendations. The commonest wormers are oral pastes and some, such as the very effective and long dosing interval Equest or Equest Plus Tape, cannot be used on foals under four months. Foals should be dosed according to approximate body weight. Insufficient dosing contributes to continued pasture contamination and the development of resistance. Faecal worm egg counts can be done to check efficiency of the worming program and avoid unnecessary treatments.
The most important additional control measure is daily manure removal where practical. Harrowing manure to break it up, rotational grazing with other species, low stocking rates, feeding off the ground and resting paddocks will also help.
Horses and foals running on acres of natural terrain keep their own hooves in good shape, but others in more confined areas of mainly soft grass will need regular hoof attention.
Once fully accustomed to handling and leading, it is usually quite easy to pick up a foal’s feet. Never tie them up to do this though, at least not initially, because almost invariably they will pull back. Instead get an assistant to hold the head, standing on the same side as you. Facing in the direction of the foal’s tail, pick up the near side fore with your left hand, the off fore with your right, then near hind with your left hand again and off hind with your right. The feet can be cleaned out and the wall lightly rasped if necessary to remove any uneven edges.
But before laying a hand on the foal’s feet, stand him up squarely on all four legs and look from a few paces away for any obvious limb conformation faults. Many of these can be corrected by proper hoof trimming when young.
It is not difficult to assess correct conformation if you keep in mind that an imaginary vertical plumb line should equally bisect each limb when viewed from in front or behind. This is also true of the side view of the forelegs as far down as the pasterns. In the side view of the hindlimbs, a plumb line suspended from the point of buttock should just brush the back of the hock and fetlock. If a deviation is very mild, an experienced horse person may be able to correct it, but corrective hoof trimming is a specialist job and best left to a qualified farrier.
Weaning generally occurs when foals are between four and six months of age. In the stud situation, all foals are weaned together unless one is very much younger than the others. There are various method, but one that works as well as any other with minimal stress to both mare and foal is simply to separate them by the distance of a very safe fence. They can still touch noses but the foals cannot get their heads through to continue suckling the mares. There will be some upset at first, with whinnying and fence running, but the foals usually keep eating because their mothers are nearby. Within a few days the mares start to wander further away and the foals seem to forget about them. It is very important that abundant fresh water is available to the foals.
Feeding foals and weanlings
Foals begin nibbling at their mother’s feed very early in life. By the time they are two months old, they need their own supply and a proper creep feeder works best. This is a small yard foals can get into but not their mothers - at least in theory. Some mares become very clever at working out ways to get into creep feeders.
There are various types, some just an area enclosed by a single rail which only foals can get under, others are small enclosures which have foal-sized openings at either end. Some are built to be moveable so that they can be pulled by tractor from one paddock to another. But whatever the design, the creep needs to be solidly constructed, with no sharp angles or projections and definitely no wire or steel posts. Also it should have at least two entry/exit points. Tractor tyres cut in half make excellent feeders to place in the middle. Protection from the weather is ideal, but often difficult because of safety considerations. Wet feed needs to be removed and replaced. Lucerne or lucerne/grass hay is provided in a rack.
Creep feeds are basically a mixture of grain with a protein supplement containing all the essential amino acids, particularly lysine, which is often deficient. Soybean or canola meal fit this requirement, whereas cottonseed and linseed meal do not. These meals are also used to achieve adequate total protein of the ration, which is not possible using grain/hay alone (grains are 7% - 9% protein, the best lucerne about 12%).
More of the creep will be eaten with age, a rough allowance being about 0.7 of grain/soybean meal mixture per day per month of age, plus access to good quality lucerne hay. Ponies require less, about 0.25-0.30 kg per day per month of age. The total protein of the ration should be 16%-18% in young foals decreasing to 14% by six months. This is achieved by decreasing the protein meals in relation to grain.
A calcium supplement may be needed in older foals and weanlings, depending on quantity of grain (high phosphorus) versus lucerne chaff/hay (high calcium) being eaten. Sometimes additional phosphorus is required if the intake is mainly lucerne/legume hay.
Unimproved native pasture does not provide sufficient energy or protein to sustain steady growth in young horses even in spring. Therefore weanlings, which are mostly being weaned in autumn, need to continue to be maintained on grain and hay, though intake/kg of body weight will decrease proportionately with age. If they are getting too fat, the high energy grain intake must be reduced. Weanlings need ample room to exercise naturally and should be confined as little as possible. Overweight, over-confined and under-exercised or wrongly exercised young horses are prime candidates for developmental orthopedic disease (DOD).
The total protein should be down to about 12% by the time the weanlings become yearlings. Their energy requirements per kg of body weight will also decrease proportionately with maturity, until they are broken in and begin working.
Note: Written for Australian conditions. Compiled December 2006.
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