A Horse’s First Year: 50 Fun Facts About Foals
After learning about how foals survive their first year, you may be surprised that so many grow up to be strong, healthy horses.
A Horse’s First Year: 50 Fun Facts About Foals
There is nothing quite like seeing a newborn foal come into this world. The equine at birth is quite unique, and to watch one grow is an experience you will never forget.
After learning about how foals survive their development, birth and first year, you may be surprised that so many make it safely into this world and grow up to be strong, healthy horses. Here are 50 fascinating facts about foals.
A Foal Can Be a Filly or a Colt
Often, you hear people using foal, colt and filly interchangeably. But are they the same thing? Not exactly.
A foal is a baby horse under the age of one year, and it can be either sex. Whereas a colt is a young, ungelded male horse, and a filly is a young female horse.
Mares Gestate for 11 Months
If you think being pregnant for 9 months is tough, try 11! The average mare gestates for 340 days, or just over 11 months.
However, a birth any time after 320 days is generally considered “safe.” Some mares will carry later and go as far as 360 days, just shy of a full year!
Ultrasounds Are Performed From Within the Mare
While we humans enjoy rather non-invasive ultrasounds, a mare’s thick layers of muscle, fat, tissue and bone make it impossible to ultrasound the growing foal from the outside.
So, a veterinarian must reach inside with the camera to confirm pregnancy, check for twins and detect a heartbeat.
Determining the Sex of the Foal Before Birth Is Tricky
While it’s easy for humans to know what they are having before the big day, it’s a lot trickier with horses. There is a small window around the 60-day mark when a skilled veterinarian with a good ultrasound may be able to tell the gender.
After that, the foal moves into a position that makes it almost impossible to tell.
A Heartbeat Can’t Be Detected Until Day 24
While most vets can confirm whether a mare is pregnant around 12 to 14 days after breeding, a heartbeat cannot be detected until day 24, almost a month into the pregnancy.
A Foal Grows Exponentially During the 11 Months Gestation
During the first month, the fetus grows to just .75 inches long and weighs almost nothing. By the fourth month, it will grow to nine inches and weigh around 3 pounds.
During the ninth month, however, it gains a pound a day, so by the time it’s reached it’s 11 month, the foal is full-sized, weighing as much as 132 pounds!
Foals Don’t Develop Hair Until the Third Trimester
While the color your foal is going to be is determined at conception, the ultra-soft foal hair doesn’t start growing until their eighth month.
When it does, it grows first on their poll (the spot right between and slightly behind the ears) as well as on their ears, throat, muzzle and chin. In the ninth month, they grow hair over the rest of their body.
You Can Predict When a Mare Is Close to Delivering by Her Milk
While the foaling window is large, breeders are able to guess when most mares are ready by her milk’s pH and/or calcium levels. As a mare gets closer to foaling, the pH and calcium levels rise in her milk.
Breeders use test strips to tell when a mare will foal and can get as accurate as a 12-hour window.
Foals Are Born With Hair, a Mane and a Tail
While some animals are born hairless, the foal comes into this world with a super soft coat, wispy mane and a short tail, sometimes referred to as a “bottle brush,” due to its resemblance to the cleaning utensil.
There is nothing cuter than a foal switching its little, curly tail as it nurses.
Foals Are Born With Foal Slippers
Foal slippers is the cute name given to the rubbery covering over the foal’s hooves, which protects the mare’s uterine linings from them during birth.
As the foal stands and begins to walk around, the foal slippers harden and disappear, usually within three days. Some also call them golden slippers or fairy fingers.
Breeders Try Hard to Be Present at Birth to Imprint
While horses may be domesticated, foals are not “born tame.” Imprinting is the act of handling a foal within the first few hours of its life, to get them used to human handling.
While different trainers and vets all have different views on exactly what this should look like, the objective is the same: to create a horse that has a bond with humans and does not see them as a threat. This will make training the horse easier for the rest of their life.
Foals Don’t Get Immunity Protection From Dam in Utero
One of the things that sets foals apart from other mammals is that they are born without any immune protection. While other species receive important immunity from their mothers in utero, foals do not.
This makes newborn foals at high risk for developing infections.
Foals Must Nurse Quickly to Get Important Antibodies
In order to get those all-important antibodies, a newborn foal must nurse — and quickly. A mare’s early milk contains colostrum, which is what gives the foals those antibodies and also helps them poop for the first time.
The colostrum is only in the milk for the first 24 hours, so owners are careful to make sure foals are nursing sufficiently during that time.
Owners Look for the ‘1-2-3 Rule’ to Ensure All Is Well after Foaling
Once a foal is born, it should stand within one hour, be nursing within two hours and the mare should have dispelled her entire afterbirth by hour three.
If all of the 1-2-3 Rule happens, owners can breathe a sigh of relief.
Fillies Tend to Stand Quicker Than Colts
One study published in Applied Animal Ethology found that fillies tend to stand quicker than colts.
They found that most female foals stood at around 56 minutes, while male foals took an average of 70 minutes (which would definitely make owners who follow the 1-2-3 Rule nervous!).
Foals Need to Be Tested to Make Sure They Got Enough Antibodies
Most foals see the vet their first or second day on Earth. This important vet visit makes sure the mare is fine and the foal is healthy. The vet will conduct an IgG test to make sure the foal received enough immunoglobulins through the mare’s milk.
If they fail, they will need to be given supplementation to get their IgG levels up to ensure they are protected against infections and other pathogens.
Foals Sleep Lying Down
During their first three months, you will see foals sleeping a lot. They sleep up to 12 hours a day. All this sleep helps them grow and develop. A lot of foals spend their waking hours running when they are not eating, so it makes sense they would need frequent naps!
Although most adult horses nap standing up and only require about four hours of REM sleep, foals always sleep lying down, often flat out on their side.
Foals Eat Poop
Although not very appetizing to us, it’s perfectly normal for foals to eat poop, starting at about one week up until around two months of age.
Vets believe it’s most likely to get beneficial bacteria that aids in digestion.
Foals Are Quick to Stand, Walk and Run
Like most prey animals, foals need to be quick on their feet.
Most foals are standing within an hour, can walk and trot within two and canter within just 24 hours of being born.
Foals Drink a Lot of Milk
By just a week old, foals are drinking about 25 percent of their body weight in milk a day.
If you are around a foal, you will notice they nurse, run a bit, sleep, nurse, repeat.
A Foal Is Born With Poor Eyesight
Although a foal’s eyes are open at birth, unlike some mammals, their eyesight is poor.
They have trouble seeing for the first three days of life, which is why it’s important to have them in a safe, contained space until they can see better to help avoid injuries.
A Foal’s Eye Color Does Not Change
While human babies have blue eyes that change as they age, a foal’s eyes will not change dramatically. Thus, a foal whose eyes are blue at birth will remain blue for its entire life.
Blue is a more unusual color for horses, as most have a shade of brown.
The ‘Foal Coat’ Will Change Color as It Sheds Out
Although their eyes may not change color, their coat almost always does. Most foals are not born the color they will be as adults.
For example, greys will start a dark color, such as black or red, and will fade as they get older. Black foals are often a shade of brown that darkens as they lose their soft, fluffy foal coat.
Genetic Testing Can Tell Breeders a Foal’s Color
Since a foal’s coat is not an accurate representation of it’s true color, breeders rely on genetic testing to know what color their foal will be when fully mature.
A sample of hair from the dock of the foal’s tail is sent to a lab that can tell them not only a foal’s color, but also any genetic diseases it may have received from its parents.
A Mare’s Milk Loses Nutrition Fairly Quickly
While a mare’s milk is vital during those first 24 hours for colostrum, their milk quickly starts to lose nutritional value after that.
By three to four months, it holds almost no nutritional value for the foal.
Foals Start to Eat Solid Foods Within a Week
Foals are naturally curious, and they use their mouths to find out about things. Within the first week, most foals are trying to eat hay or grass, after watching their dams eat.
Within two weeks, they are trying grain as well.
You Can Guess a Foal’s Adult Height by Measuring Their Cannon Bone
Breeders guesstimate how big a foal is going to be by measuring their cannon bone — the long bone beneath the foal’s knee (horses only have knees on their front legs). To measure, you take a string and run it from the middle of the knee to the hairline at the coronet band (at the top of the hoof).
The number in inches corresponds to the number of hands the horse will be when grown. So, if it’s 14 inches, the horse will be about 14 hands tall.
Foals Are Born With Teeth
According to “Blessed Are The Foals” by M. Phyllis Lose, VMD, most foals are born with their baby incisors.
Some foals do have pink gums covering their incisors, but they erupt within a week or so. Molars also quickly erupt, within the first week.
Weanlings Are Foals That Are No Longer Nursing
The term “weanling” is used for a foal that has been weaned from its dam (or mother).
Like the term foal, a weanling can be either a filly or a colt.
Foals Are Weaned Between 3 and 6 Months of Age
There is some debate on when the “best” time to wean a foal is. Some vets will swear that three months produces an exceptional foal, while others claim it’s best to wait until they are six months, with others in-between.
Most breeders decide what’s best for each mare and foal on an individual basis. Others plan to wean all their foals at the same time, so that they can be weaned together.
Foals Can Be Weaned Gradually or ‘Cold Turkey’
Methods for weaning are as varied as the timeframe. Many believe weaning “cold turkey,” with an abrupt, immediate separation, is easiest on mare and foal.
Others believe a gradual weaning, in which a foal is removed for longer and longer periods of time but is brought back in-between, is best. Again, most breeders make this decision based on their individual mares’ personalities.
Foals Gain as Much as 3 Pounds a Day
A foal may seem like all it does is sleep and eat, and that’s all it should do!
While the foal gained a pound a day for the last month of gestation, once born, foal growth triples to up to 3 pounds a day.
Foals Should Learn Manners Early
Responsible breeders start handling their foal immediately, which includes getting them used to a halter, having their feet picked up, grooming utensils, getting in and out of a trailer and more.
The more a foal is exposed to, the better they will be as an adult.
Most Foals Reach 50 Percent of Their Body Weight by 6 Months
Horses grow faster during their first six months of life than any other time. Most breeds of foal will reach 50 percent of their adult body weight by the time they are around six months old. After that, it will take an additional 2.5 to four years to reach full maturity. Draft breeds are slower to mature and may take even longer.
It’s important to not overfeed a foal so they do not develop too quickly, which can cause permanent bone, muscle and joint issues.
After a Year, a Horse Is No Longer Considered a Foal
Foals do a lot of growing, maturing and learning within their first year of life. The terms "foal" and "weanling" are just used for a horse’s first year of life.
When they reach one year, they are now referred to as a yearling, or a filly or colt. It seems fitting to have a new word to call this young horse that has changed so much from its foal stage.
At Birth, a Foal’s Legs Are up to 90 Percent Fully Grown
In captivity, being able to get up and run isn’t a big deal. In the wild, however, being able to keep up with the herd is essential to survival.
Foals are born with almost fully grown legs to make it easier to stay near their mother and other members of the herd while on the move.
It also makes it easier for them to outrun predators.
Foals Are Born Mostly at Night
It is common for mares to give birth to foals during the early morning or at night. Between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. is the most popular time for foals to make their debut, and it’s for a logical reason.
Mares feel most secure in the dark, when it’s harder for predators to spot them. Giving birth leaves them at their most vulnerable, and the cover of darkness offers some protection.
Even domesticated horses follow this pattern, despite being safe in a stable.
Foals 'Baby Talk' to Other Horses
When foals are introduced to unfamiliar horses, they don’t communicate in the same way adult horses do. Foals actually communicate in "baby talk," using sounds unique to young horses.
The "baby talk" sound effects are made with their teeth, as if they’re chewing. Foals use this to indicate to another horse that they are not a threat and only a baby, and also to hand over the dominance reins to the older horse.
Foals Are Usually Born In Spring
It is more common for mares to give birth to foals during the spring, although sometimes they wait until early summer. This gives the mare access to the most nutritious, rich grass, helping her to produce plenty of nutrient-packed milk for her foal.
Being born during the spring and early summers gives foals a better chance at survival as well. So they don't have to endure cold winters where access to food in the wild can be a challenge.
In captivity, horses are also bred to have the foals born during spring and summer.
All Foals Undergo a Period of Dependence
The period of dependence is the first month after a foal is born into the world. This time period is when the foal is most dependent on the mare for its protection and food.
The foal doesn’t stray more than 16 feet from its mother, both to bond and for safety. Very young foals don’t usually play with other foals at this stage, but it's not uncommon to horse around with their mother. As much as she’ll tolerate it, that is.
A Foal’s Sleep Schedule Is Similar to That of a Newborn Baby
Much like human babies, foals don’t sleep a full eight-hour stretch at night. Foals frequently lie down and take naps throughout the day, resting and relaxing in the sun.
Contrary to popular belief, a foal lying down is totally normal, not a sign of illness or distress. They will nap up about 50 percent of their day until they are around three months old. Following the three-month mark, they prefer stand dozing like adult horses.
A Foal and a Pony Are Not One and the Same
A pony can be a foal, but not all foals are ponies. Foals are just young horses, while ponies are horses that remain smaller than a full-sized horse.
The difference between a foal and a pony is usually apparent. Ponies have the same proportions as horses, just on a smaller scale. Ponies typically do not exceed the height of 14.2 hands (58 inches or 4 feet, 8 inches). Foals are usually thinner, building muscle as they grow.
Newborn Foals Occasionally Have Bowed Legs
Newborn foals sometimes have bowed legs. This is known as being "windswept."
The issue can occur when a small mare gives birth to a larger than average foal. Since a newborn foal lacks the tendons and muscle development that solidify their build, the issue usually resolves on its own within a few days of birth.
If there are still lingering issues, a vet can assist or determine if it will be a permanent problem.
It's Tough for a Foal to Eat Grass
It seems like eating grass should be instinctive to a grazing animal, but foals take a while to get the hang of it.
Foals’ legs are slightly longer than their neck, forcing them to widen their stance to reach the ground. The resulting posture is pretty comical.
Who knew trying to eat grass was so hard?
A Newborn Foal Weighs as Much as a Full-Grown Man
While the size of a newborn foal depends on its genetics, including how large its parents were and its breed, all foals are big babies.
The average newborn foal weighs between 150 and 200 pounds, or about 10 percent of their mother's weight. That would be the equivalent of a 130-pound woman giving birth to a 13-pound baby.
Thousands of Thoroughbred Foals Are Born Each Year
According to one 2018 study, approximately 20,000 thoroughbred foals are born every year. This may be good news for anyone hoping to buy a horse of their own, but for the horses, it's not great.
Many thoroughbreds are destined for the racetrack, often pushed to begin racing before their bones are fully developed. If they lack racing potential, suffer an injury or retire, they often end up slaughtered for meat in horrible conditions.
The Number of Wild Foals Being Born Is a Problem
Not all horses are domesticated. There are thousands of wild horses in Western states, with up to 18,000 wild foals born each year.
The problem is that they lack natural predators to keep their population in check. But there's not enough greenery to support both them and other regional wildlife. They can also take over rangelands that were intended for cattle raising, leaving too little grass behind for the cows.
Land management experts are trying new sterilization methods and trying to place more wild foals in adoptive homes to combat the issue.
Technically, Not All Foals Are Horses
Isn't that the definition of a foal? A baby horse? Actually, no. A foal is the name of a baby horse, but it's also the name of a baby donkey and a baby zebra.
If you're planning on adding a horse to the family, make sure not to tell your kid to go pick out their favorite foal. They might come back with a zebra.
One Foal Was Born Two Months Early and Survived
The average horse pregnancy lasts 342 days. Much like human pregnancy, however, nature doesn't always go according to plan. One foal named Sannman Miracle was born a full 62 days early, on Jan. 30 instead of her due date of April 2.
Horses born that early have a very slim chance of survival. Their lungs are usually the last organ to develop in utero, so most premature horses can't breathe on their own. Sandi's lungs were, miraculously, working just fine. Her bones were too soft to support her weight, however, so her caretakers tracked her bone density and supported her legs with splints for months.
As of December 2020, Sandi was walking all on her own and thriving. Just see for yourself.
Twin Foals Are Extremely Rare, But They Do Happen
Foals are big, even by horse standards. A mare carrying twins could be housing up to 600 pounds of baby horse in utero if they went full-term.
That's an issue for a number of reasons, the main one being that there simply isn't enough room for them to develop normally. Most often, the mare gives birth very prematurely, resulting in the loss of both twins.
Healthy twin births aren't unheard of, however. In extremely rare instances, even triplets can be carried to term. The chance of conceiving triplets, however, is only 1 in 300,000.