Overcoming a bad start in life

After going through the breeding process, nothing is better than seeing a proud mother foal birthwith her healthy foal. However, despite the best management, problems can and do occur. In the case of a weak or a wonky newborn, the race is on to nurse the foal through the crucial early days when the chances of survival can be slim. But if the initial – and often costly – treatment is successful, what about the future? Can an ill or injured foal become a sound athlete, or must a shaky start mean problems later in life?

Counting the cost

When making decisions about treating a sick foal, owners need to have some understanding of the long-term consequences of the disease or condition – especially in the current economic climate. Most research into the subject has focused on thoroughbreds and whether foals that have been sick in the early months of their lives are less likely to fulfill their potential on the racecourse.

A study carried out at Anglesey Lodge Equine in Co Kildare in 2010, however, took a slightly different tack. It sought to assess whether hospitalisation of thoroughbred foals in the first four months of life would adversely affect future sales performance. The study involved 63 foals, 53% of which were admitted to hospital in the first week of life with common conditions including diarrhoea, septic joints and pneumonia.

Of the group, 30% went to auction as foals, 62% as yearlings and the remainder were sold as two-year-olds. Their sale prices were compared with 378 control animals of similar pedigree going through the ring at the same time. The previously sick foals reached comparable sale prices to animals with no history of early sickness. This indicates that poorly foals are not necessarily disadvantaged in later life.

The study did not look at whether hospitalised foals were likely to reach public auction. We can glean some indication of the chances of a sickly foal fulfilling early potential from previous research carried out in the USA. Studies there revealed that 6% of foals formerly hospitalised remained unregistered following discharge, compared with a population average in the region of 1%.

Most studies involving breeds of all kinds look at even shorter-term outcomes – that is, whether the foal survives until hospital discharge. Few consider the long-term outlook for sport horses, as opposed to thoroughbreds. In part, this is due to the fact that most thoroughbreds are destined for the racecourse. Their history at sales and in racing can be traced easily through Weatherbys. For sport and pleasure horses, however, intended use is diverse and performance and sale results are not readily available. This makes obtaining reliable, objective long-term data much more difficult.

The critical early days

The first weeks of a horse’s life is considered to carry the highest risk of mortality. the newborn foal is susceptible to a range of potentially life-threatening diseases including septic arthritis (joint ill), septicaemia – often associated with inadequate ingestion of antibodies from the first rich milk or colostrum – and congenital conditions such as severe limb deformity. The bones of a foal can heal surprisingly well and early fractures do not necessarily limit the future performance. The outlook is much worse, however, when the fracture extends on to the weight-bearing area of a joint or infection damages the joint cartilage.

Septic arthritis and the bone infection osteomyelitis can carry long-term implications. While aggressive treatment early in the condition can significantly affect outcome, a UK study indicated that even a single infected joint can adversely affect the long-term athletic potential of racehorses.

Some diseases produce alarming symptoms, as in the case of perinatal asphyxia syndrome, which can cause problems such as convulsions, diarrhoea and an inability to stand and suckle. As long as the case is uncomplicated by infection, howeverm around 80% of foals affected are successfully discharged from hospital. The condition is though to have little impact on the foal’s long-term prospects.

A difficult decision

Foals are remarkably resilient, the downside being that health problems can be difficult to spot. The horse’s evolution as a prey species means that the foal – the most vulnerable member of the herd – will rarely show obvious signs of illness until a disease process is relatively advanced.

Vigilance is key. Long-term prospects are greatly improved if a problem is detected in its early stages and appropriate treatment started as soon as possible. As this can also influence the size of the vet bill, it pays to act immediately if something seems amiss.

Although advances in veterinary and surgical techniques are giving many of these foals better chances, a particular vet’s experience with foal problems can play a crucial role. More complicated cases tend to fare better at equine hospitals with experience staff, so an early referral will help.

Deciding whether or not to persevere with a sick foal is not easy, Treatment is often labour-intensive and costly, with the added risk of complications. Foals are rarely insured for vets’ fees and there are strict conditions for a mortality claim. Consider, too, whether you can provide the facilities for convalescent care, such as an exercise pen or nursery paddock, and specialised farriery or physiotherapy where necessary.

While there’s certainly potential for a poorly foal to grow up into a fit and healthy adult, its wise to know what’s involved before embarking on the journey.


Hope you enjoyed this article, I previously knew little about breeding so it was interesting for me to look into. More next week 🙂

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