Premature Foals (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Equine First Aid by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from

Normal gestation in a mare lasts anywhere from 320 to 360 days. The average is about 341 days. A foal born at less than 320 days will display immature characteristics such as silky hair coat, overly pliable ears, weak or lax flexor tendons, and small size. Another term used to describe foals which may be of normal gestational age but are in fact immature, is dysmature. This is why records of a mare's previous pregnancies are so important.

Foals can be born prematurely for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons for a premature delivery are infection of the placenta (placentitis) or long-standing placental insufficiency. Other causes include severe stress on the mare from illness such as pneumonia, diarrhea, or colic. Placentitis can be identified by noticing a vaginal discharge from the mare. This indicates infection of the placenta and your veterinarian should evaluate the mare immediately to begin treatment.

Premature foals are much more likely to survive than foals that are "aborted" by their very sick mothers or foals taken by Caesarean section. The foals born spontaneously often are more immature due to chronic stress. The prognosis for premature foals varies depending on the cause and the ease of the delivery.

What to do? When faced with the premature foal, your veterinarian should be called to examine the foal immediately. Some premature foals have great difficulty maintaining their body temperature, so keep the foal warm and dry. If the foal is tooweak to stand and nurse, milk colostrum from the mare, if she has any, to bottle-feed to the foal. Or ask your veterinarian to feed the foal colostrum via a naso-gastric tube. Save the placenta for the veterinarian to examine. It can help greatly in determining the cause of the premature delivery. A tissue sample from the placenta can be cultured to determine its bacterial components.

Many premature foals will need intensive care at a veterinary hospital for their first few days of life. The mare and foal usually share a stall in the hospital. You can help the foal's chances by getting it veterinary attention as quickly as possible. 

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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