Long-term benefits in foal management

The birth of a healthy foal is a relief for everyone; in addition to the joy, there is the knowledge that the events of the first year are decisive, and can have lifelong consequences. Healthy, well-socialized and properly managed foals should grow into confident and easy-going adults. It is human nature to strive for improvement, which is why new ideas have emerged on how to deal with that fateful first year-but is there scientific evidence to support certain claims?

Sharon Smith MSc BHSAP, Equine Consultant

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Handling the foal within hours of birth is a suggested means of helping young horses cope with and get used to humans. This phenomenon is called “Imprinting,” and is a term used to describe an instantaneous attraction to the first thing detected after hatching or birth. In fact, it takes 2 weeks for the foal to bond with the mare, and a few hours for the mare to bond with the foal [1]. Studies show that handling newborn foals does not lead to lasting behavioral benefits [2]. Attempts at imprinting on our part may even risk breaking the mare’s bond with the foal.

Alternatively, good daily contact with the mare (gentle grooming, hand feeding) is certainly helpful to the foal. Fifteen minutes of handling per day in the first 2 weeks can improve the foal’s reaction to handling, objects and people [3].

Of course, if the mare is stressed by attention (no matter how well-intentioned) the opposite effect can occur. Also, once the mare has spent a day or two with her foal, we can begin to accustom her to new people and experiences without risk of rejection, while keeping the sessions short and respecting the bond that is developing between the foal and her mother.

foal management benefits

Newborn foals should have to deal with friendly horses in the pasture as soon as possible. In fact, wild mares choose to stay with other females to share parenting duties, and the foal becomes less concerned about distance from its mother, finding greater independence as it grows [4]. This can work even in home environments, if there is an established relationship between the adults before the foal is born, and enough space for no one to feel crowded [5].

The stomach wall of the newborn foal is very thin, and in the first few weeks it is suitable only for milk; before the immune system is fully developed, the foal will be susceptible to infections and ulcers at the maximum age of 2-3 months [6]. Also from the age of 2 months, they also begin to gnaw the mother’s feed to start. Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) before weaning is found in twice as many domestic foals (45%) as wild foals, and grain-based feeds only increase the risk. In addition, unlike hay, foals eating alfalfa-based Alfalfa Chaff were found to have a higher incidence of ulcers in the deeper, glandular part of the stomach [7]. Indeed, the authors of this study suggested that the fiber length and coarseness of Alfalfa Chaff mechanically damage the foal’s stomach lining. Steam purification of hay is a scientifically proven method to soften the plant matter, and should further soften the hay for the foal’s delicate intestines.

foal management benefits

After weaning, more than 90% of domestic foals develop ulcers within two weeks. Domestic foals are usually weaned at 6 months (180 days), but it is not unusual for this to happen even before 4 months [8]. It takes 4 months for the foal’s stomach walls to thicken like those of a 1-year-old foal; abrupt weaning before 4 months of age may therefore hinder stomach development, which could impact the foal’s entire life [9]. Forced weaning is stressful at any age, and increases the risk of biting [10] and the development of EGUS [7, 11].

Wild foals can nurse for more than 12 months, although they usually stop at 9-10 months. We already know that as the stomach is maturing, the mare’s milk promotes the development of mucous-producing cells [6]. From a nutritional and clinical point of view, the mare’s milk quality decreases significantly after 3 to 4 months of lactation. However, non-protein nitrogen (NPN), known to be beneficial against gut bacteria in ruminants, increases in milk until at least 6 months [12]: does this mean that occasional breastfeeding beyond 6 months helps stabilize/strengthen a healthy gut? Even if no such benefit is found, the other risks of forced weaning should be enough to make us reconsider the practice-especially with fillies. Trust the mare: if forced weaning is necessary, leaving the foal in a familiar environment and in the company of other horses should provide some comfort when the mother is removed, and a diet of grass and hay should mediate against the resulting stress [10].

How can Haygain help?

Feeding the foals Steamed hay with Haygain as soon as they start gnawing on the forage is a great way to make sure they get everything they need from the hay (and nothing that isn’t good for them). Steam purification eliminates 99 percent of dust, bacteria, fungi and mold, and this will ensure that foals have good respiratory and digestive health. ComfortStall is the ideal orthopedic surface for foal stalls. Foam padding provides superior comfort and eliminates the need for deep, dusty straw beds, making cleaning easier.

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[1] Houpt, K. A. (2002). Formation and dissolution of the bond between mare and foal. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 78(2-4), 319-328.

[2] Lansade, L., Bertrand, M., & Bouissou, M. F. (2005). Effects of neonatal handling on the subsequent manageability, responsiveness and learning ability of foals. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 92(1-2), 143-158.

[3] Henry, S., Hemery, D., Richard, M. A., & Hausberger, M. (2005). Human-horse relationships and behavior of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behavioral Science, 93(3-4), 341-362.

[4] Berger, J. (1986). Wild horses of the Great Basin: social competition and population size. University of Chicago Press.

[5] Kiley-Worthington, M. (1997). Horse behavior: in relation to management and training. JA Allen.

[6] Okai, K., Taharaguchi, S., Orita, Y., Yokota, H., & Taniyama, H. (2015). Comparative endoscopic evaluation of normal and ulcerated gastric mucosa in thoroughbred foals. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 77(4), 449-453.

[7] Fedtke, A., Pfaff, M., Volquardsen, J., Venner, M., & Vervuert, I. (2015). Effects of feeding different bran diets on gastric mucosa after weaning in warm-blooded foals. Pferdedheilkunde, 31, 596-602.

[8] Waters, A. J., Nicol, C. J., C. J., & French, N. P. (2002). Factors influencing the development of stereotyped and redirected behaviors in young horses: results of a four-year prospective epidemiological study. Equine veterinary journal, 34(6), 572-579.

[9] Metcalf, J. L., S. L., S. J., Song, S. J., Morton, J. T., Weiss, S., Seguin-Orlando, A., Joly, F., … & Willerslev, E. (2017). Evaluation of the impact of domestication and captivity on the gut microbiome of the horse. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 15497.

[10] Nicol, C. J., Badnell-Waters, A. J., Bice, R., Kelland, A., Wilson, A. D., & Harris, P. A. (2005). The effects of diet and weaning method on the behavior of young horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95(3-4), 205-221.

[11] Luthersson, N., Nielsen, K. H., Harris, P., & Parkin, T. D. H. (2009). Risk factors associated with equine gastric ulceration syndrome (EGUS) in 201 horses in Denmark. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41(7), 625-630.

[12] Doreau, M., & Boulot, S. (1989). Recent knowledge on mare’s milk production: a review. Science of livestock production, 22(3-4), 213-235.

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