Friday, October 30, 2009

Raising Horses - An Introduction

My wife and I have raised horses for several years. We started first on a five acre parcel down along the Gulf Coast, and then an 11-1/2 acre farm up here in Central Texas. Our goal has always been quality not quantity. We wanted to ensure well behaved foals with good manners and conformation so we didn’t look to be being a large operation. Some of the larger ranches specialize in just turning out foals & horses and let someone else worry about training them. Our foals have been sent to Michigan, Louisiana, California, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. They are involved in everything from ranch work to show work and even the Border Patrol.

The cost of keeping a horse can run $1,000.00 a year or more, depending on acreage or stable costs. Therefore, it is almost mandatory to ensure the horse you get has a good attitude and training.

To our way of thinking, it’s better to acclimate foals to people and what’s expected in good behavior while they are small and manageable rather than wait two years and try to train the basics when they are large and can severely hurt you through a rebellious attitude.

We have several brood mares that double as riding horses of very good bloodlines and conformation. We carefully pick the studs to breed these mares to, in order to ensure intelligent, well conformed foals.

Once the mare is in foal, we regulate the diet and exercise of the mare to ensure an easy natural childbirth. Most births happen in the wee hours of the night although a mare may exhibit signs of labor hours before the main event. Most of our mares have been pretty considerate and foaled while we were able to be there.

Raising Horses - Foaling

At approximately two weeks before an impending birth we place the mare in a small paddock or corral with shelter and the ability to communicate with the rest of the herd “over the fence”. This allows the mare to adjust to her new surroundings and limits her options for birthing. Usually a covered area is included for weather and seclusion. In the wild, a mare will go off by herself or with just her herd buddy when she starts feeling labor pains. This is to ensure the foal doesn’t get hurt by the other horses. The mare won’t go very far from the herd for protection. We perform the same service in a controlled environment.

During the birthing process, the foal is arranged with one forefoot extended ahead of the other and the head lies extended and tucked between the legs. It’s really important not to interfere with the birthing process unless something drastic is happening. As the mare proceeds, she may get up and down several times and pace around a lot and may even refuse food. Endorphins are flooding her system and the
labor contractions are making her uncomfortable. This is natural and should be closely observed without interference. Observation will allow you to see the forefeet emerge from the vulva as well as the “breaking of the water”. Ensure the feet are emerging with the soles down, with one foot slightly behind the other. Anything else could signal a breech birth or other serious complication requiring the services of a veterinarian.

Human interaction is really not required during a normal birth and can even be harmful to the mare, foal or yourself. Best to just stand back and monitor for complications while observing the process.

Once the foal has completely slipped from the mare, the
umbilical cord is still attached to the placenta inside the mare. The placenta drains the remaining blood through the umbilical cord into the foal at this point and slowly collapses. So don’t do anything to interrupt this process.

Don’t be surprised if mare and foal rest for a short while as the umbilical cord collapses. After the mare has rested, she will probably get up and the cord will break off naturally. The mare will then smell and lick the foal to clean it of the amniotic fluid, blood and other residue. She will also nuzzle the foal to get it to stand. This may take a couple of hours as the foal gets its balance and discovers where the faucet for the milk is. During this time, the mare will slip the placenta. Gather up the placenta and take it away to a place and examine it. It’s not going to be light weight. A five gallon bucket is handy for this.

The placenta should be spread out without folds or twists into two “wings”. One “wing” will exhibit a tear where the foal emerged while the other “wing” is not torn and exhibits a gray, robust appearance. Any missing pieces should be identified and looked for as they may still be inside the mare and will cause septicemia. If in doubt, call the vet.

After the foal has had a chance to nurse for the first time, it is advisable to sterilize the umbilical stump with a Betadine or Providine solution. This is simply a very weak solution of iodine and prevents transmission of bacteria through the stump into the foal. The umbilical stump should collapse into a “string” within a matter of hours with just a slight “bump” next to the belly of the foal. As the area muscles develop, this will become the “belly button” and the “string” will fall off.

Now is the time to acquaint the new foal with people. Some people cal this “imprinting” the foal. Be careful of the mare at this point as some mares can be very aggressive and protective. It’s best to place a halter and lead rope on the mare and have a helper to watch the mare closely. When in doubt, tie the mare with a quick release knot. All actions you take will be right at the mare’s side so she can see what you do. Don’t get aggressive and remain calm and confident.

Take an old towel, the larger the better and wipe the foal down like you were drying it. This gives you the smell of the foal. Don’t be surprised if the foal attempts to elude you. It may even walk under the mare to the other side. If you exhibit patience and even humor, it will de-stress the mare. Take it slow and easy. If you or your helper has to restrain the foal, place your arms around the foal. One arm wrapping the foal in front and one arm wrapping the foal behind the rear. Just hug the foal lightly as the mare constrained it feels, the more terrified it will become. You don’t want a battle here; you just want to make friends. Rub you hands all over the foal while talking to it in soft gentle tones. It doesn’t matter what you say, just say it in soft gentle reassuring tones. The quieter you remain, the quieter the foal will be.

After a couple of minutes of handling the foal, release it and walk away. Repeat this during the next 72 hours, every few hours. The foal is experiencing the world and is open to new ideas so keep it gentle and it will come to identify you as a friend instead of as a predator.

You will want to “make friends” with the foal for at least 72 hours or even the first week before moving on to the next step of introducing the halter. We will cover this next time.


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