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Nurse Mare and foal care

Nursing Mares Health Management and care

Lactation is a period of substantial physiological stress. The lactating horses nutrient needs are greater than those of any other life stage of the horse with the possible exception of the horse in intense training.  During this time the mare must recover from the stress of parturition, produce milk and re-breed. 

A normal healthy cared for mare will produce 3% of her body weight in milk per day, during the first three months of lactation and 2% in late lactation. 

This means a 1000 lb female will produce roughly 30 lb of milk per day during early lactation and roughly 20 lb per day during late lactation. 

Failure to meet and care for the mares’ nutrient needs during lactation milk production and re-breeding efficiency will both decrease. 

Some ways to manage and care for the nursing horses’ health are:

  • Vaccinations and foaling lactation: It is important that the foal receives the first milk or colostrum to protect it against infections. The mare should be vaccinated against tetanus and brought to the foaling location at least one month before foaling.

    This allows her to produce colostral antibodies and confer some immunity to organisms in the foaling environment that cause joint ill, scours and septicemia. The incidence of diarrhea in foals is up to 63% higher in foals born to mares bought to new locations for foaling, than it is in foals of resident mares.
  • Colostrum: The foal can only absorb this material for 12 to 18 hours after birth – after this, the gut cells change and even if it is given it cannot be taken up by the foal. If there is any doubt about the quality or quantity of this material , the foal should be given at least one liter of frozen colostrum before it is 6 hours old.

    If you freeze this material, it must be brought to room temperature slowly. Overheating with hot water and defrosting in a microwave damage the protective proteins. Some breeders routinely monitor the foals’ immunity at 12 hours of age and many insurance companies require documentation of adequate immunity before insuring a foal.
  • Running Milk: Anywhere between 3 and 25% of mares have reduced quantity or quality of colostrum. It is especially important to have a veterinarian assess this in mares that run milk prior to foaling. Running milk often occurs when mares are fed too heavily during pregnancy and after foaling.

    Mares must receive correctly balanced mineral, vitamin and essential amino acid intakes, but if the pasture is unusually lush and improved or excessive amounts of starch are fed, they may be at greater risk of running milk and over-producing milk. This can result in loss of colostrum and afterbirth; increase the risk of foal diarrheas. Strong healthy foals may get gastro-intestinal overload, which can lead to diarrhea.
  • Foal heat diarrhea: Milk over-load is often associated with foal heat. This can occur if the mare is fed too heavily during pregnancy and after foaling. This does not suggest complete removal of good feed, as this will result in loss of milk and /or reduced fertility.
  • A full udder and/or milk on the foals face: Examination of the udder and observing the foal at the teat are very important. A full udder may indicate a good milk supply, but it may also indicate that the foal has gone “off suck” – a sign that all is not well.

    Likewise, seeing a foal approach the udder and apparently suck is not conclusive evidence that it is drinking. Milk on the face and nose indicated that the foal is not actually attaching to the teat and ingesting milk. Such foals are often in the early stage of an impending illness.
  • Milk yield, diet and foal growth: For the first 3 months after birth, the growth and development of foals depends on the mares milk production and while this may appear sufficient to the owner, but it may not be for the foal.

    Milk yield – is determined by:
    • the innate ability of the mare;
    • the mares feed consumption during the latter stages of pregnancy;
    • the intake of energy and nutrients during lactation and water availability.

If calcium and phosphorus levels are inadequate, the mare must mobilize her bone reserves. Generally, a 16 – 17 % protein mix is suitable for pregnant and lactating mares.

Recent Question

Q - I really need to know when a horse starts producing milk and how long will it be till the mare starts to foal?

A - A mare’s mammary glands (udder with two teats) will enlarge and begin to secrete a milky material within a few days of labor.  There may some swelling of the abdominal wall near the udders about the same time as the mammary glands secretion begins, particularly in the first pregnancy.

 The vulva swells and usually a discharges a thick mucus.  Other signs include relaxation of the abdominal wall with sinking of the flanks, dropping of the belly and sinking of the rump on both sides of the tail head.

As the time of labor gets closer, the mare becomes restless, usually seeks seclusion, lies down and gets up frequently, attempts to urinate often, and then begins actual labor.

Milk is secretion begins at the time of labor so when the baby is born they can begin to get colostrum.  Suckling the teats by the baby is a stimulus for the milk let-down reflex.  This gets the milk flowing for the baby.



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