The foal will nurse up to twenty times an hour during the first week of life. As the foal grows nursing will become less frequent but more milk will be ingested with each feeding. It is important to monitor the mare’s body condition during this time as lactating for a 1-2 month old foal will require more calories. Within the first month, you will note the foal beginning to mimic the dam by grazing or even trying to share her feed. Sharing of grazing is beneficial to establishing normal gut bacteria in the foal. You may also note coprophagia (eating fecal balls). This is normal and also believed to help establish normal gut bacteria. Sharing of grain between the mare and foal should be avoided. This may cause growth problems and epiphysitis (inflammation of the growth plates of the bones).
Begin deworming with Safe-Guard or Panacur at 6 weeks of age. This is a very safe dewormer and pleasantly apple flavored. Continue deworming every 4-6 weeks until at least 6 months of age. Foals can develop a lethal worm burden in a very short period, therefore deworming strategies in foals are very aggressive.
Vaccinations will begin at 4-6 months of age. At this age immunity acquired from the dam will be waning and the foal’s immune system is beginning to develop. Exact timing will depend on each foal, vaccination history of the dam and whether the foal received adequate colostrum or had a troubled start. In most cases, two sets of vaccinations will be given. In rare cases, three sets will be given to ensure appropriate immunity.
Generally, foals should be turned out to bond with the mare for the first few weeks and will need very little handling. This will allow the foal to grow and become stronger. Handling, halter breaking, leading and learning to tie are all basic ground manners that can be taught quite early. It is important to work with your foal to introduce these basic manners as it greatly reduces stress as the foal grows and is handled for general care, farrier care and veterinary care.
“Imprinting” right after birth is not recommended. Behavioral research has not shown any benefit to imprinting.
Do not leave a halter on the foal unattended. Foals often scratch their face with a hind foot and could easily become entangled in a halter if left unattended.
Too much handling can make a foal too intrusive and although adorable as a newborn, can produce dangers as he/she grows to become an adult 1,000 lb animal. Handling for 5-10 minutes 3-4 days a week is very effective in teaching manners. During this time, catch the foal, gently run your hands over the foal and down the legs. Eventually, begin picking up the feet and holding them for just a few seconds. Do not force or fight the foal, but slowly increase the interval that you are able to hold the foot. Once a halter has been introduced you may begin lead training.
The best time to wean will depend on each individual (mom’s body condition, housing, foal’s immune status). Weaning is best completed by allowing the foal to socialize and develop relationships with other horses. Turnout with a small group of docile geldings is generally safe, but will obviously depend on the individuals. As the foal develops confidence, you will see the foal spending more time away from mom and venturing out to spend time with herdmates. This behavior will depend on each individual but usually occurs between 4 and 6 months of age. At least one set of vaccinations should be given prior to weaning.
Exercise is important to allow proper growth and development. However, too much exercise can be damaging and overstress tendons. Recommendations will depend on the individual foal and whether any contracted tendons or tendon laxity was present at birth.
Contrary to popular opinion, testicles are present at the time of birth. If you do not wish to maintain the foal as a stallion there is no proven advantage to leaving the foal intact until a certain age. Testosterone actually influences closure of the growth plates. Therefore, early castration may actually result in a slightly taller horse. Of course, genetics play the primary role in overall build and height.
Castration may be completed before 1 year of age and before puberty. In most cases we prefer to castrate between 4-6 months of age. At least one round of vaccinations should be given prior to castration. Foals castrated prior to puberty generally do not show any signs of sexual behavior as the testosterone influence is removed prior development of sexual behavior.