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Kohnke's Own - Talking Horses - Breeding Hints


John Kohnke has made it his life’s work to help people care for their horses and to ensure that they stay healthy and well and able to meet the demands of they’re life with humans.  With the breeding season just a couple of months away, horse owners will be planning the matings for their mares and preparing for the birth of new life.  Here are some handy hints and you can find out more on the Kohnke’s Own web site HERE.

Handy Hint 1
Observe the Suckling Reflex in Every Newborn Foal
The neurological pathways and co-ordination, or reflex, to suckle and swallow (S-S) develops in the unborn foal in the last month of pregnancy. Most foals are able to locate the teats and co-ordinate their S-S reflex to drink within an hour after birth. However, a 2-3 week premature or sick foal is often unable to locate the teats and coordinate suckling and swallowing. It is at risk of inhaling the flooding milk from the teat(s) as it attempts to drink. Milk may run from one or both nostrils, with a ‘bubbly’ nose and cough after trying to suckle and milk and saliva will drool from its mouth. Although, there are numerous neurological and physical underlying causes of the inability to suckle and swallow, an affected foal must be identified early. Metabolic reserves of glycogen energy in the newborn foal’s liver are limited to 60 minutes and brown fat reserves in its body only last for up to 24-72 hours, with more rapid depletion under cold conditions as the metabolism strives to maintain body heat. Weak foals, foals born with systemic infections, those which experience a prolonged birth or oxygen deprivation during birth due to a twisted umbilical cord, too rapid severance of the cord after birth or early placental separation, which often results in the birth of a ‘dummy’ foal, may lack a co-ordinated S-S reflex. Seek prompt advice from your vet if you suspect that a newborn foal has a poor suckle-swallow reflex.

Did You Know That…
Natural instinctive behaviour by a mare after foaling is important to help ensure the well-being and survival of her newborn foal. Observations of maternal behaviours indicate that once a mare stands after delivery, she will quickly check her foal by licking off foetal fluids, carefully ‘sniff’ the whole of the foal’s body, often exhibiting the curled lip Flehmen response, nuzzle the foal to touch its nose once it gets to its feet - the first foal-mare greeting. It is thought that a foal seeks out the mare’s head to touch her nose, so it can ascertain the height along the body and flanks as it totters on its limbs to help guide it to the level of the mare’s udder. Mares rarely eat their afterbirth to avoid it attracting predators, as is common in carnivores and even cattle. Most mares will move away from the birth site as soon as a foal is standing on its legs so as to avoid predators, which are attracted to the smell of the birth fluids. Mares that foal down alone will often become very vigilant and show protective behaviour by standing close to their foal at all times, or encouraging the foal to hide under the belly area to protect it from predators. In a wild horse group, a stallion will shepherd his mare harem and foals carefully away from danger, and if necessary bring up the rear to allow him to fight off predators.

Natural Repositioning of a Foal Prior to Birth
During the last couple of months before birth, an unborn foal often becomes quite active inside the mare’s uterus, kicking and moving around in much the same way as an unborn human baby. It doubles in size and increases up to 4 times in weight during the last 3-4 months of pregnancy. The normal position during this time is a ‘C’ shaped position with its head up, legs facing forward and its back facing the pelvic canal low down in the mare’s abdominal cavity
The foal will often move its legs to the side, which can be seen in the flank area when a mare is standing to eat, or a short time after the mare scrambles to her feet after lying down to rest. During the last 2-3 weeks before birthing, a normal foal will cease the kicking movements as its size constricts its movement and cramps its body within the uterus. The heavily pregnant mare will also slow her activity, preferring to walk more slowly and carefully and take more time to lay down and struggle to pull herself up to stand. The normal foal will begin to reposition itself from lying on its back by rotating over a 24-48 hour period to locate its head below the birth canal during the last 7-10 days prior to birth. The mare’s croup will begin to relax and the ‘foal bulge’ in her abdomen will drop towards the rear of her belly as the foal repositions itself as it virtually rotates 180 degrees to face backwards.  During the 24-36 hours prior to birth, a foal will finally rotate to position its left front limb and nose at the entry to the birth canal, with its right front hoof and limb slightly behind the position of its nose.

Abnormal Positioning
Over 95% of foals will rotate and become correctly positioned to allow a quick, easy birthing process within the last week prior to birth. However, a sick foal, a very large foal, or a foal of a grossly over-weight mare, may not be able to reposition normally to prepare for birthing. Mares grazing on very hilly country with minimal flat grazing areas may also have difficulties at foaling due to the inability of the foal to reposition properly prior to foaling. Only very few mares suffer from a ‘breech’ birth which usually suggests an abnormal positioning.

A mare grazing pastures contaminated with endophyte fungus on predominately tall fescue grass may suffer a lack of muscle strength and tone to deliver her foal. She has a higher risk of aborting in late term as a result of ingesting the toxic fungus contamination on the grass pasture. Any foal that is born less than 310 days of pregnancy should be classed as having aborted, even if the foal lives only for a short time after being delivered. Unfortunately, there is a very low chance for any foal born before 320 days to survive despite intensive care. Production of lung surfactants in the foal’s developing lungs to facilitate efficient breathing and adequate blood oxygenation is not completed prior to 320 days of pregnancy in mares. Consult your vet for immediate advice if a late term mare aborts her foal. 
Please note: We have discussed placentitis or inflamed/infected or separated foaling membranes as a cause of abortion or reduced viability of a foal at birth (refer to Talking Horses Breeding Issue #9). This back issue is available by emailing Gary at, or downloading from the website by selecting the ‘Newsletters’ button.


Signs Associated with Possible Abnormal Positioning
If an unborn foal is not positioned correctly for birthing, the mare may have difficulty in delivering her foal, causing her to strain excessively and compress the foal in the uterus, reducing its blood supply through the cord and increasing the overall physical stress of the foal. This is referred to as ‘dystocia’ or difficult birth. This was reviewed in Talking Breeding Issue #8. However, it is difficult to recognise an abnormally positioned foal until the last 24-48 hours before delivery. It is important to carefully monitor the behaviour of a mare during the last 7 days before her due foaling date. 
Signs of abnormal positioning include an unusually ‘bulging flank foal bump’ on one side, as the foal is not aligned with its body facing the rear of the mare’s abdominal cavity, but it may actually be positioned sideways. The ‘bulge’ should disappear during the last 24-36 hours before the mare starts her birthing contractions. A mare that exhibits colic-like signs or frequently gets up and down, or rolls more than once each 1-2 hours, may have an abnormally positioned foal. In this case, repeated rolling or colic-like behaviour should be investigated by a vet as soon as possible. The vet may examine the foal’s position by rectal palpation to locate the position of the foal’s head. 

Breech births with the hind limbs first are not common and if a breech presentation is suspected as the mare is straining without a front leg or head appearing within a few minutes after continuous birthing contractions commence, then you should arrange that your vet is on call if your mare starts to deliver her foal. 
If you suspect a breech birth, contact your vet immediately.  If the mare is straining excessively, get her up and walk her around to delay the uterine contractions until your vet arrives.  The foal’s head will be immersed in uterine fluid as the rear part of the body is pushed through the pelvic canal.  As the rib cage passes through the canal, the chest will be compressed.  The ribs will spring out again and expand, creating a vacuum in the lungs and fluid can be drawn into the foal’s lungs. This is in contrast to a normal foaling, where the front hooves and nose protrude out initially, the rib cage is then compressed as it passes through the pelvic canal to force out any excess fluid from the lungs, then expands again. Providing the membranes are not covering the foal’s nostrils, its first breath of air is drawn in as the rib cage expands. If a foal is being delivered breech, call your vet immediately for advice.

Handy Hint 2
Estimating the Day of Foaling
On average a mare carries her foal for 340 days from conception, or 11 months and one week. The expected foaling date can be calculated by adding 12 months to the date of last service, minus 1 month and add 7 days. Signs of foaling near the due date include increased udder development, ‘waxing up ’of the teats as colostrum milk is produced and the udder fills, drop in the croup and relaxation of the vulva. In most cases, a mare will foal within 24 hours after the disappearance of the small white ‘dots’ on the sides of the teats.  Keep the mare under observation 24/7 during the last week before the expected foaling date. Up to 80% of mares foal at night. Eighty percent of these mares foal between 10pm and 4am, with 60% of these mares between 1am and 3am in the morning. Often first foal mares foal up to 7 days early and aged mares up to 4-7 days later than expected.

Handy Hint 3
Carefully Observe Maiden Mares
A maiden mare preparing to birth her first foal may exhibit normal physical signs of udder development, teat distension for the last 4-6 days prior to foaling, oozing of colostrum milk or ‘pre-lactation’, as well as relaxation of the pelvic and croup muscles in the last 7-10 days prior to delivery.  Usually the mare’s vulva will relax and become slightly swollen in the last 3-4 days before foaling.  However, occasionally a maiden mare may not exhibit any of these signs, although her expected delivery time (average 336-344 days) is reached.  It is important to observe any mare, especially a maiden mare, to monitor for signs that delivery of her foal is progressing within a 10-15 minute period after the waters break.   Alert your vet immediately if the mare is straining excessively or no part of her foal is exiting the vulva, or she stops pushing during birthing, or no progress is made after the front legs and head appear. In this case, get the mare up onto her feet and walk her around to help delay the foaling process for a few minutes until you can re-evaluate the situation and seek advice from your vet.

Handy Hint 4
Normal or Breech Birth?
A breech birth, especially in a mare that has foaled previously, is due to abnormal positioning in the last 7 days prior to foaling. However, in a mare that has had a foal(s) without complications previously, or a large ‘roomy’ mare, or mare not in excessive condition, a breech birth may not cause undue complications at foaling if the breech position is recognised as soon as the hooves appear.  Once the lower limb appears, in the normal foaling position, the foal’s front hooves face and flex downwards towards the mare’s hocks.  In a breech presentation, the hooves will appear upside down and only flex upwards towards the mare’s tail.  The delivery may be more difficult, especially for a maiden mare, as the hips are the largest part of the body and a less flexible portion of the foal’s body to pass through the pelvic canal. If you note that the tail starts to appear, after the hind hooves, then there is a high risk of complications, especially in a young maiden mare.

Handy Hint 5
What to Prepare for a Dystocia Problem
It is an emergency situation. Call your vet immediately. Walk the mare as you would for a mild colic, which may reduce her contractions and allow the foal to reposition itself as it falls back within the uterus into the abdominal cavity. Prepare 2x15 litre buckets of warm water. Your vet will add a non-irritant, safe disinfectant on arrival. Collect 4-5 clean towels on a tray. Wrap the mare’s tail with a conforming elastic or polo bandage and carefully wash around the mare’s, anus, vulva and buttocks (perineal) area with warm water and mild soap. Have another head stall and lead rope handy. Lead other mares away to a safe distance. Lock up the dog(s). Monitor the signs to advise your vet on arrival. If at night, arrange lighting and a strong torch. Have at least two adults ready to assist the vet if necessary. An overseas study found that if your vet cannot manipulate the foal or correct a retained limb within 15 minutes, usually attempted when the mare is standing as her contractions will be reduced, then the mare should be taken to a clinic for surgery. Prepare your float in case you have to transport the mare to the clinic for caesarean surgery.

Neonatal  Foal Nutrition
The newborn foal enters a highly contaminated and often cold environment, as most mares birth their foals in the early hours of the morning. The newborn foal has to be able to adapt quickly to feed and survive.  Observations indicate that once a newborn foal starts to breathe efficiently after fluids clear from its nose, a healthy foal will instinctively struggle to its feet and then makes feeding a priority to obtain energy to provide blood glucose for metabolism and immunoglobulin protection against environmental microbes. The average time from standing to first drink in a normal healthy foal is 90-120 minutes.  The change from intrauterine warmth, umbilical feeding and oxygen supply affects many body systems as the foal’s body becomes independent of uterine life support at birth.  The gastro-intestinal tract has to adapt within hours to digest its first feed to obtain energy, protein, immunoglobulins and vital fluid from colostrum milk.

Normal healthy foals will suckle regularly to consume milk for fluid, energy, protein, calcium and other vital nutrients. During the first 3 weeks, colostrum for the first 3 days and then milk thereafter, contains IgA antibodies which are not absorbed into the body to establish immune defence, but bath the intestines to provide direct immune protection against microbes taken in with pasture and hard feed as a young foal starts to nibble grass and share the mare’s hard feed.

Intestinal Adaptation
The small intestine grows in length and diameter relative to the large intestine or hind gut in the first month of life, as it is the primary site for digestion of milk sugars, milk casein protein and calcium as well as trace-minerals and vitamins, on a liquid milk diet. The peak of lactation in a mare occurs between 4 and10 weeks after foaling and mares can produce up to 4 litres per 100kg body weight, triggering the need for the small intestine surface to increase and adapt to the predominately milk diet. The small intestine provides the digestive site for colostrum digestion, fluid uptake and absorption of the macro-molecule protein antibodies (immunoglobulins) within the first 16 hours of life.  After this time, the ability to absorb large protein molecules decreases and is superseded by gastric acid hydrolysis of smaller milk casein protein to provide essential amino acids for liver function and tissue growth. In fact, the small intestine increases its internal surface area by 20 fold as leaf-like villi grow out from the lining cells.
Once young foals start to nibble at grass or hard food from 3-4 weeks of age, the hind gut begins to develop its digestive flora and it too increases in volume to facilitate fermentation.

Initial Energy Digestion
The ability of the pancreas to secrete the milk sugar digesting enzyme (lactase) develops just prior to birth, but the enzyme to digest longer complex carbohydrate and grain starch and sugars (amylase) does not take a major role initially until the young foal begins to nibble pasture and hard feed. The small intestinal lining cells (brush border) quickly increase the surface area by 20 fold by developing large projecting villi to secrete disaccharide digesting enzymes. Increased secretion of lactase digests milk lactose, with maltose and sucrose enzyme activity also increasing as the foal nibbles on its mothers hard feed sources of sugars which are ingested from solid foods

The healthy foal is able to utilise almost 100% of the energy available from milk lactose, fat and proteins during the first month of life.
A foal still relies on milk lactose, protein and other nutrients for primary nutrition, but its dependency starts to decline after 10-12 weeks as the large intestine develops a greater volume and establishes microbial flora to ferment and digest fibre. 
The newborn foal actually becomes hypoglycaemic as its blood sugar reserves transferred from the placenta at a rate of 6.8mg/kg per minute or 340mg/min for a 50kg unborn foal cease after the umbilical cord is detached.  Soon after birth, whilst the foal is getting to its feet and seeking its first drink, the foal’s liver breaks down glycogen stores to provide blood sugars for metabolism to maintain warmth and energy for muscle activity.  It is thought that the drop in blood sugar as liver glycogens are depleted, stimulates the hypoglycaemic condition which may drive the young foal’s natural instinct to seek a milk feed within the first hour or so after birth.
The young foal is also born with a supply of brown fat, which is a special high energy density fat that can be recycled from body stores to maintain a steady flow of aerobic energy to fuel body functions and exercise needs for the first 3 days of life. Unfortunately, cold weather will deplete brown fat reserves more rapidly as it is metabolised to provide core body warmth, so that it is essential to provide protection from cold overnight and early morning temperatures, particularly if there is an increased wind chill under paddock conditions. A paddock sheltered area for the mare and her foal, or a large roomy stable with a warm bedding of de-dusted wood shavings, during wet or freezing overnight conditions, away from the wind or cold early morning inversion layers in a hollow, will reduce cold stress and its direct effect on the growth rate, viability and disease resistance of a young foal.

Did You Know That...
The young foal’s stomach starts to produce gastric acid within minutes of birth, even before it has its first drink of colostrum in preparation to curdle milk so that it can be efficiently digested.  The gastric fluid acidity drops between drinks to an average of 3.2 - 3.7 pH units.  However, if a foal lays down for more than 20 minutes at a time, gastric acidity increases to drop the pH to below 2.5 due to rapid gastric emptying and the lack of natural buffering of milk as it does not regularly suckle and secrete gastric acid buffering  saliva.  After feeding, often only for 30 seconds at a time, gastric pH rises rapidly due to the alkaline salts in milk and saliva.  Therefore, frequent small feeds, (up to 80mL at a time) 6-8 times per hour during the daytime (or between 105-120 times total per day) during the first week of life, helps to maintain a higher gastric pH (more alkaline) and acts to limit gastric acid burn and ulceration to the delicate stomach lining as well as provide IgA antibodies.
Foals that are deprived of milk for more than 4 hours due to separation from their mother or inability to drink because of injury or infection, have a high risk of developing gastric ulcers, which then result in loss of the desire to drink and buffer the stomach, leading to further gastric ulceration and pain.

Handy Hint 6
Protect the Stomach Lining Against Acid ‘Burn’.
If a young foal is orphaned; a foal unable to suckle efficiently (e.g. a ‘dummy‘ foal, a foal injured during birthing, or a foal with a hare-lip abnormality) or where a mare does not have adequate milk, then the foal may have to be supplemented with colostrum initially until 24 hours of age and then milk.  Feeding a carefully mixed mare milk replacer prepared under clean conditions by either a nose-tube, flat teat on a bottle, or a bucket feed, may be necessary. In this case, because feeding may not be as regular as occurs naturally, there is a risk of developing a gastric acid ‘burn’ on the delicate, immature stomach upper lining. If the foal is not sucking and salivates on a teat to drink, it is a good idea to provide a slurry of Kohnke’s Own® Gastro-Coat® by syringe over the tongue just prior to tubing or bucket feeding a young foal.  Mix 2 scoopsful of Gastro-Coat in 50mL of warmed milk, adjusting the amount of milk to make a paste-like slurry.  Then administer this over the foal’s tongue 5 minutes before offering the milk.  This slurry mix provides natural mucilages and phospholipids normally provided by saliva to help maintain the stomach lining before the milk feed is offered.  Consult your vet for advice.

Handy Hint 7
Cow Colostrum
Colostrum from a newly calved cow can be safely given by nose tube to a newly born foal at 10mL per kg bwt to provide short term immune protection to an orphan or colostrum deprived foal.  Mare colostrum provides more specific and longer lasting antibody levels than cow colostrum.
Please Note:  The importance of colostrum milk and its critical 16 hour window after birth for absorption of macro-molecules of immunoglobulin antibodies was discussed in Talking Breeding Issue 4.  You can obtain this back copy by emailing Gary at, or downloading it from under the Newsletters button.

Handy Hint 8
Collect Colostrum if a Mare Pre-lactates 
If a mare bags up and starts to drip colostrum for a few days before her due date, then it is best to milk her out two or three times a day as the colostrum accumulates and drips from her teats.  Wash the mare’s teats and glands thoroughly with warm water and collect the colostrum by stripping the teat into hygienically sterilised (eg boiled) 600mL soft drink bottles.  The colostrum can be frozen to prevent it souring, just in case the mare does not foal for 2-3 days.  As soon as the mare foals, slowly thaw the bottle(s) of colostrum in lukewarm water.  The newborn foal should be provided with 100mL of colostrum within 1-2 hours after birth at hourly intervals by bottle as soon as it attempts to suckle. The foal should receive a total of 10-15mL per kg bwt of colostrum by bottle in the first 16 hours after it is born.  If the foal is not able/will not, drink from the bottle, a vet can administer the colostrum via a stomach tube.  Consult your vet for advice.
Handy Hint 9
Colostrum is Vital for Energy
Although the emphasis is placed on the intake of colostrum milk during the first 12-16 hours of life to provide protective antibodies from the mare to the otherwise blood antibody deficient foal at birth, colostrum milk also provides an essential ‘kick-start’ of energy.  Colostrum provides twice the amount of energy per litre compared with milk, and is essential to maintain a foal’s blood glucose for the first 24 hours of life.  If a newborn foal cannot obtain colostrum from the mare during the critical 6-12 hours after birth to fuel its energy requirement, then a source of frozen mare colostrum or even colostrum from a newly calved cow will provide the essential antibodies, energy, other protein and a fluid source to the young foal.  This colostrum can be administered slowly by stomach tube at the rate of 10mL per kg body weight of the foal over its first 2 feeds. This will reduce risk of overloading the digestive system.  Do not provide normal milk or plain water during the critical 16 hours after birth as immunoglobulin uptake will shut down and the foal will not receive adequate immune protection until its own immune system starts to respond at 4-6 weeks of age.  Consult your vet for advice.
Handy Hint 10
Allow Adequate Antibody Response Time
Antibodies are generated by a healthy mare’s immune system in response to the presence of microbes taken in with food and water from the mare’s grazing or stable environment. The immune system is challenged by foreign microbes and the spleen and bone marrow antigen sensing sites produce blood-borne antibodies and immune white cells in response to the specific strains or types of environmental microbes. Antibody generation takes 2-4 weeks to enable immune protection to be synthesised and then secreted into the colostrum milk to ensure that the newborn foal is provided with specific antibodies to environmental antigens, microbes and potential pathogens. Often an aged or sick mare with a compromised or waning immune system may not be able to produce an adequate immune response in this time frame. An immune active supplement, such as Kohnke’s Own® Activ-8™, will provide specific immune active nutrients to help facilitate a normal immune response in the last month leading up to foaling. If you are sending a mare to another property out of your immediate area, it is wise to transport her at least 3-4 weeks before her due foaling date.

Kohkne Foal Chart