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Almost every proud owner of a beautiful mare dreams of having their own foal one day. To ensure a good start in life, you have to take care of much more than just finding the right stallion.

A broodmare needs other broodmares, a foal needs other foals

One of the biggest mistakes in preparation is to leave the mare in the old riding stable. Horses are herd animals and a dam is never alone in the wild. There are many “aunties”, i.e. other mares with or without foals, who also look after the offspring. This allows the mare to rest from time to time and recover from the stress of pregnancy and birth. The foal also requires companions of its own age. At the latest, by weaning, these companions become an important support for the young horse, facilitating its separation from its mother without trauma. In the group, foals also acquire social behaviours, physical skills, and learn to assert themselves playfully against their peers. Older horses alone do not suffice as company in this context.

White Lippizzaner mares with dark foals in a meadow
At the latest, by weaning, these companions become an important reference point for the young horse. © Adobe Stock / Reimar

Therefore, ensure you relocate your mare to a breeding stable in good time, where she will be housed with other broodmares in a group. The sooner this transition occurs, the more seamlessly the mare will integrate and already have her place in the group at the time of birth, making it easier for the mother and foal in the following weeks and months. Furthermore, the mare is typically under professional care in such stables, where immediate action can be taken in case of complications during pregnancy or birth. These stables are also optimally equipped in terms of their facilities. Once the foal is born, indoor riding arenas or horse walkers are no longer necessary. Instead, spacious turnouts, paddocks, and pens or foaling boxes become essential. These facilities must be constructed with safety in mind, particularly to prevent accidents or injuries for curious foals.

Feeding and nutritional supply before and after birth

Owners often feel uncertain when it comes to feeding their broodmares. How much protein is required? And how much energy? Which concentrated feed is the right one before and after birth? In essence, feeding a broodmare is not significantly different from feeding any other horse. She requires an ample amount of high-quality hay (either ad libitum or 2-3kg per 100kg body weight), which must meet stringent standards for hygiene and nutritional value. What does that mean? The hay must be free from mould, as it poses risks not only to the mare’s respiratory tract but also to the developing foal in the womb, potentially leading to abortion. The hay should have moderate sugar content (< 10%), be rich in protein (approximately 9-12%), and possess an average fat content (approximately 2%). A hay analysis provides information about the nutritional values and microbiological status of the primary feed.

If the hay quality is very poor, it is essential to supplement the feed. A mixture of soaked hay pellets and sainfoin pellets is particularly suitable in this case. Above all, they also provide energy from fibres, which is ideal for horses. In addition, sainfoin has a very good protein pattern for horses. It is perfectly acceptable to provide a moderate amount of oats or crushed barley to heavy-feeding warmbloods and thoroughbreds, as these horses generally have a higher basic energy requirement. However, it is advisable for all other breeds to avoid large amounts of fast energy from sugar and starch sources such as grains, muesli, pellets, etc.

These foods can lead to elevated blood sugar levels that cannot be promptly reduced through exercise. Instead, they place significant stress on the kidneys and elevate the risk of laminitis—both of which should be avoided, especially in pregnant mares. There is also suspicion of a form of ‘gestational diabetes’ in horses, which can result in foals being born with a significant predisposition to insulin resistance and EMS.

Especially in the first three months after giving birth, it is crucial to ensure that the mare receives an adequate supply of lysine, methionine, and threonine, as these essential amino acids are abundant in the mother’s milk. In the event of a deficiency in the feed, the mare breaks down her own muscle mass to supply these amino acids for the production of the mother’s milk. The foal requires these essential amino acids to build its own body proteins, facilitating growth and thriving. The mare should always have access to hay and pasture grass. Pasture grass, in particular, is an invaluable source of nutrients for broodmares and cannot be substituted by any other feed.

It is crucial to ensure that the mare always has access to roughage around the clock. Extended breaks between feedings elevate the risk of colic and dysbiosis, disrupting the balance of the intestinal flora in the large intestine. This imbalance negatively impacts the foal, which relies on the mare’s faeces to establish its own intestinal flora. The better the health of the mother’s intestines, the more favourable the start in life for the foal. Maintaining a healthy gut primarily involves providing a consistent supply of high-quality roughage in the form of hay and pasture grass.

Significant quantities of straw heightens the risk of constipation colic, particularly towards the end of pregnancy. Haylage can lead to significant intestinal dysbiosis and should therefore not be fed to any horse, particularly broodmares and their foals. The harm inflicted on the foal’s intestines by feeding haylage in the initial months of life cannot be remedied through subsequent therapy. Chopped roughage, such as ‘structured muesli,’ grain-free muesli, and lucerne chaff, should also be avoided at all costs. These fibre lengths cannot be optimally chewed by horses. If poorly chewed, they can impede peristalsis in the large intestine, causing food to remain there for up to a week.

This leads to dysbiosis, i.e. incorrect fermentation, and can promote the development of gas colic, Free Faecal Water Syndrome, and other digestive disorders. Even if nothing can be seen in the mother’s faeces, incorrect fermentation processes in the intestine always ensure that the natural microbiological balance is disturbed, and the foal absorbs the wrong composition of intestinal flora via the mother’s faeces. If these pathogens settle in the young intestine, they will remain there for the horse’s entire life, potentially leading to metabolic disorders and diseases such as sweet itch, laminitis, cryptopyrroluria, and many others from a young age. This damage is irreversible.

Two pony foals and a mare in the background
The foal acquires its intestinal flora composition from the mother’s faeces. © Adobe Stock / Ingairis

Mineral and trace element supply for foal and mother

As foals are not yet able to utilize supplementary feed sufficiently, it is essential that the broodmare is supplied with minerals and trace elements. It is assumed that foals get everything they need for the first 4-5 months of life from their mother, especially in the last two months of pregnancy. This is why the consequences of mineral or trace element deficiencies can often be observed in broodmares, particularly during this phase. A broodmare should therefore always be fed a good quality mineral supplement to ensure a basic supply. In the last two months of pregnancy, additional copper and zinc should also be included in the diet.

An underlying deficiency of these trace elements is one of the most common reasons why the broodmare may experience poor health during pregnancy, and the foal may initially suffer from developmental difficulties, especially in the musculoskeletal system. As copper and zinc can interfere with each other’s absorption, it’s recommended to administer them alternately. So one week copper, one week zinc… It’s also advisable to administer copper and zinc supplements separately from the mineral feed to avoid any interference with absorption due to the presence of these minerals in the feed Experience shows, that providing the mare with adequate levels of copper and zinc in the last two months of pregnancy can contribute to her overall health and recovery post-birth. This supplementation may help reduce signs of exhaustion and support her recovery process.

The foals’ musculoskeletal system becomes stable more quickly, they get through the first coat change more easily and the hoof horn is also of better quality. Foals are already allowed to lick the salt stone, as long as they don’t do it out of boredom. Foals are also permitted to explore and taste the mare’s mineral feed. But first and foremost, prenatal care is essential. If you have missed this, you should at least make sure that the mare’s body reserves are replenished quickly after giving birth by alternating zinc and copper every week for two months. She will then get pregnant again much more easily the next time and recover more quickly from the last foal.

Deworming before birth

You often hear that a mare should definitely be dewormed shortly before giving birth – even if the faecal sample is negative. This is due to the dwarf threadworm. Foals are particularly sensitive to this and it is one of the most common causes of severe diarrhoea in the first few weeks of life. Because diarrhoea is potentially life-threatening for a foal, you should take precautions. Every horse carries these worms. However, this does not affect a healthy horse, as they typically develop immunity to it within a few weeks or months after birth.

This means that the immune system controls the worms, preventing them from multiplying excessively. However, at birth, the foal’s immune system does not yet recognize these worms. They enter the foal via the mother’s milk and through areas of thin, delicate skin, such as on the face, when the foal sleeps in the bedding or on the pasture. Their migration through the horse’s body, particularly through the intestinal walls, causes significant tissue damage, leading to severe diarrhoea once they have returned to the intestine. Administering deworming treatment to the mother shortly before the expected date of birth reduces the number of worms excreted by the mare. After deworming, the stable should be thoroughly cleaned, with old bedding completely replaced with fresh bedding.

This reduces the number of worms infesting the foal. As a result, the immune system can develop immunity as normal without the foal being weakened by an excessive infestation. Young horses are particularly susceptible to worm infections until they are around 6 years old because their immune system needs time to become familiar with all types of worms and develop effective defenses against them. For this reason, it’s important to frequently examine faecal samples from young horses and be vigilant for symptoms of worm infestation, including: a distended belly, excessive pot belly, diarrhoea, recurring mild signs of colic, dull coat, developmental delay, and the presence of worms in the faeces. If worms are detected, it’s crucial to deworm the horse promptly to prevent permanent damage caused by a heavy worm infestation. After deworming, it’s important to assist the mare’s intestines in rebalancing. Bitter herbs and herbs with calming effects on the intestines have been found to be effective in this regard.

Birth: stable or pasture?

The decision of whether to allow a horse to foal in the stable or in the pasture can be seen as a philosophical one — if the mare even allows humans to influence her at all. Flight animals have the ability to delay the onset of birth by several hours if they feel stressed. Spending the night in front of the stable and excessive worry from the owner can cause more stress than is beneficial for the mare. In essence, it makes little difference to the foal whether it is born in a stable or on pasture, as both options have their own advantages and disadvantages.

In the pasture, the advantage lies in the ample space available for the mare, and there is no risk of complications arising from a stable wall, such as the mare getting stuck or the foal being unable to slide out completely. Furthermore, hygienic conditions in the pasture are often superior to those in the stable. On the other hand, installing a camera in the stable, especially for a mare giving birth to her first foal, allows for quick intervention if complications arise during the birth. In addition, foaling in a stable provides protection from the weather, which can be especially beneficial during early births amidst changeable spring weather.

Ensuring that the foal is not born directly into a heavy thunderstorm or forced to lie in a mud puddle during its first hour is crucial for its health and comfort. Mares with a strong bond to humans often find comfort in having a human present during the birthing process, particularly if it is their first foal. Experienced broodmares, on the other hand, often prefer to give birth when there is no one present in the stable. In short, there is no such thing as the ideal preparation for labour. It always depends on the individual case. Camera monitoring is certainly a good idea for first births, but locking the mare in a foaling box weeks before the due date is definitely counterproductive.

Under no circumstances should the horse be taken to an equine clinic shortly before birth. It’s a very human way of thinking, as we usually have our children in hospital too. Transport and hospitalisation is not only a huge stress factor for the mare, but the foal is also exposed to much worse germs in the clinic than at home – after all, it is a place for sick horses. So it’s better to have a “home birth” and the vet should be informed of the foaling date anyway so that they can be there quickly in case of complications.

Imprinting on humans: yes or no?

There are many horse owners who want to imprint the foal on themselves from the very first breath of life. Ideally, they would like to sit next to it when it slips out of its mother’s womb and rub, cuddle and love it from the very first moment. Even if this is very understandable human behaviour, you should exercise restraint here – in the interests of the horse. If you intervene too much immediately after the birth, the relationship between the broodmare and foal can be severely disrupted to the extent that the mother does not accept the foal. Then you are suddenly left with an “orphan foal” that you are allowed to bottle feed every 1.5 hours day and night and is only focussed on humans.

Even if the mother accepts the foal, humans have a completely different (social) behaviour to horses. Interacting with the foal too early will ensure that the horse has no respect for humans later on and that you end up with a horse that is downright unbearable. Because no human can educate a horse as well as a herd of horses. This is something we observe time and time again with foals that were raised in human hands as bottle-fed and also with foals that had a lot of interaction with humans from day one as an “only child”: they are completely maladjusted, often have problems with social behaviour in the group and are mercilessly prancing around on people’s noses. This is still cute in a foal a few weeks or months old, but no longer in a four-year-old stallion.

The argument that the foal should learn everything straight away – from giving hooves to being led by the owner – is completely absurd. Firstly, foals should not be haltered because their skull bones and neck are not yet fully ossified. If you hold the foal by the halter or even tie it up, this can lead to permanent damage, including severe ataxia or paraplegia. Yearlings and even older horses can learn to be haltered without any problems. It is also possible to teach a three-year-old to pick up its hooves. These are not things that need to be trained from day one. Especially at the age of 3-4 years, horses are incredibly curious and eager to learn. It is the perfect age to teach them everything from sense to nonsense.

Foals are best left completely alone until they are weaned at around 9 months. When they are weaned, you can practise a few things like putting the halter on and taking it off again straight away and picking up their feet. After that, it’s time to move to the pasture and let the horse be a “child” for a few years. From 3-4 years of age, the “school years” begin and there is still enough time to teach them everything that humans demand of them. If you start round pen work etc. too early, this often results in the horses getting “angry” at a young age, becoming unmotivated or “switching off”. You can then call up all the exercises at the push of a button, but these horses have no fun at all with humans. You should ask yourself whether you want a partner in the stable or a machine.

brown pony foal sniffing a hand
It is important that the foal can move freely, run, race and jump around. © Adobe Stock / Nadine Haase

Putting the foal out on the pastures from day one

Especially when foals are born very early in the year, there is often concern that they will catch a cold or get stuck in the mud. So is it better to leave them in the box for a few weeks? Absolutely not! The exercise and ground conditions in the first few weeks of life ensure that the musculoskeletal system is adapting accordingly. It is important that the foal can move freely, walk, run and jump around. Changing and different ground qualities such as a paved yard, sandy path to the paddock, meadow ground, soft riding arena or indoor arena ground provide different information to the nervous system so that leg position and hoof quality are adapted accordingly.

If the foal only ever stands on a paved turnout, the fetlock may be too flat/soft (better suspension on hard surfaces). If it only stands in the deep bedding and is allowed to dash around for an hour in the deep riding arena floor, it may have too steep a position (less tendon strain on deep surfaces). The foal’s legs should therefore get to know different surfaces, which ensures a good position and optimum hoof quality. In addition, foals that grow up mainly in the stable lag well behind those that live outside.

When they come together in a herd of young horses, you can always recognise the ” stabled foals” from afar: they are puny, have little balance, hardly know how to sort their feet if there is a stone or tree trunk in the way and usually have a stunted social behaviour towards their peers. They quickly become the “whipping boy” of the group. Therefore: out, out, out with the foals, they must be allowed to move freely and play with their peers from day one. Then you will later have a horse that knows where its four feet are and that can balance itself effortlessly under the rider, even in difficult ground conditions.

Healthy feeding / gut of the mother = healthy start in life

One point that is far too underestimated in breeding is the intestinal health of the broodmares. It’s a misconception to assume that as long as the mare isn’t experiencing frequent colic episodes, everything is fine. Nothing could be more wrong than that. In reality, the health of the mare’s intestines directly impacts the health and development of the foal. A horse is absolutely dependent on its intestinal flora for healthy survival. The intestinal flora, which comprises various microorganisms in the large intestine, plays a crucial role in digesting the horse’s basic feed and providing essential nutrients like vitamins, amino acids, and fatty acids. Any disruption to this delicate balance can have significant repercussions for the foal’s health and overall well-being.

The (large) intestine serves as the cornerstone of a horse’s health. A foal is born with a predominantly sterile intestine, meaning no microorganisms are present initially. However, the foal acquires intestinal symbionts by consuming fresh faeces from the broodmare. The faeces of a healthy horse typically comprise around 50% microorganisms (in dry matter), constituting the precise intestinal flora necessary for digesting the local forage. This mechanism, orchestrated by nature, enables the foal to develop the ideal intestinal microorganisms essential for maximizing the utilization of its basic diet.

However, this mechanism is effective only when the foal has a mother with a healthy intestinal flora. Unfortunately, feeding practices in our region have evolved over the past few decades to favor feedstuffs and feeding management practices that significantly disrupt the intestinal flora. These include ensiled feedstuffs (such as haylage, silage), many fermented feedstuffs (containing lactic acid bacteria, brewer’s yeast), structured chaff (labeled “grain-free” or “structured muesli” and alfalfa chaff), the administration of large quantities of pectins (e.g., beet pulp, also demelassed, apple pomace, carrots, apples), generous amounts of concentrated feed or oil feed (oils and starch, as well as large amounts of proteins, can be toxic for the intestinal flora), and the common problem of providing insufficient roughage with long intervals between feedings. It’s important to remember that horses are primarily fiber digesters.

The widespread belief among many experts that one can extrapolate digestion principles from humans to horses, and that easily digestible feedstuffs (such as starch, protein, and fat) are therefore superior to those that are difficult to digest (such as cellulose), is unfortunately entirely mistaken. In horses, the small intestine serves as a kind of “detoxification function” for the food mash, preparing it for microbial utilization in the large intestine. While horses are highly efficient at extracting nutrients from the mash in the small intestine, their mechanisms for further nutrient utilization are relatively underdeveloped. Therefore, when feeding horses—especially broodmares—it is essential to ensure they have 24-hour access to adequate roughage, such as grazing in summer and hay year-round whenever possible.

The foundation of a healthy large intestine is crucial. Even though a mare may still be able to compensate for disruptions in the fermentation process within her large intestine, such dysbiosis ensures that the foal ingests substantial quantities of harmful microorganisms from the outset, which then colonize its large intestine. A horse retains the colonization established in the first 4-5 months of life for the duration of its life. Therefore, if issues arise during this critical period, they can lead to metabolic problems that persist throughout the horse’s life. Such horses often exhibit noticeable signs at a young age, such as laminitis, eczema, heightened sensitivity to various stimuli, and a weakened immune system. They become ‘permanent patients,’ and even the most effective therapies may not fully reverse these conditions.

What is the best foal feed?

The supply of nutrients through the mother’s milk is immensely important for the foal’s undisturbed development, as it cannot fully utilize supplementary feed at this stage. The feeding of the increasingly popular ‘foal muesli’ should be approached with caution. Typically, these mueslis comprise readily available carbohydrates, such as flaked cereals primarily composed of partially digested starch, and sometimes include cow’s milk-based milk powder, essentially resulting in powdered milk mixed with sugar.

The consumption of fast carbohydrates at this early age heightens the risk of the horse encountering obesity, insulin resistance, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) later in life. Moreover, such foals tend to gain weight rapidly, adversely affecting the musculoskeletal system and potentially fostering the development of joint issues like osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), ‘chips,’ and subchondral bone cysts, as well as growth and mineralization disorders in the bones, along with tendon/ligament problems. A foal receives sufficient nutrition from mother’s milk, as well as from the hay and pasture grass it nibbles on. Minerals, vitamins, and trace elements are already acquired and stored in adequate quantities via the umbilical cord before birth, ensuring adequate supply until the foal begins to autonomously utilize nutrients at around 4-5 months of age.

Occasional licking of the salt lick is acceptable as long as it is not excessively used out of boredom. Around 4 months of age, it’s advisable to regularly offer the foal a high-quality mineral feed to ensure adequate supply of minerals and trace elements. Additionally, also foals that still drink from their mother may require significant amounts of water. A foal can consume up to 10 liters of water per day, so ensuring access to the water trough is important. If the trough is too high, a water bucket should be provided at a reachable height. With this balanced diet comprising mother’s milk, hay, grass, salt lick, and water, supplemented later with mineral feed, the foal receives all necessary nutrients. There is no need to worry about deficiency symptoms.

Diarrhoea and other ‘childhood diseases’

Foals are born with a relatively immature immune system, akin to being “blind”, which must gradually learn to recognize and combat foreign pathogens such as bacteria or viruses. Consequently, foals, much like young children, are highly susceptible to various illnesses circulating within the stable environment, ranging from respiratory infections to worm infestations. It’s essential to note that this susceptibility doesn’t warrant immediate administration of antibiotics at the first sign of a cough. Respiratory infections, worm infestations, diarrhea, and strangles, in particular, are inherent parts of a foal’s development, akin to childhood illnesses in humans.

The immune system requires a certain period to acquaint itself with potential pathogens. Therefore, if a foal falls ill—displaying symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, cough, exhaustion, or reluctance to move—it’s crucial to monitor its condition closely and promptly inform the veterinarian. However, administering medication for every ailment immediately may not always be beneficial. It’s advisable to consult the veterinarian to determine the most appropriate course of action.

In the case of a cough, providing cough tea for a few days or feeding the mother with cough herbs can be beneficial. Their active ingredients are transmitted to the foal through the milk, aiding in its natural healing process. Similarly, herbs or homeopathic remedies can offer initial support for mild cases of diarrhea, helping to soothe the intestines. If the veterinarian determines that the foal requires intervention, medication should be administered accordingly. Foals that successfully navigate various illnesses during their early years tend to develop greater resilience against infections later in life and handle illnesses more effectively.


As you can see, raising a foal is both straightforward and intricately complex. If you have any questions, worries, or concerns, we’re here to offer expert advice to assist you in guiding your new foal during those first steps in its life.