To many of us, a dream comes true when we finally breed our own foal. The journey from finding a mare or stallion all the way through to the final birth, revealing the perfect, cutest little creature you have ever laid eyes on can be magical, exciting, and fraught with unknowns.

For the professional breeders who go through this process regularly, it is no less magical, exciting and nerve wracking.

One of our goals as breeders is to have a foal that will grow up to meet certain athletic requirements once they are mature. We want them to be strong, agile, well-coordinated and sound and, of course, they must have a lovely temperament!

We put great amounts of thought, energy and effort into breeding horses to meet these goals, but once they are born we mostly hope and watch until they are of trainable age. There is so much more, however, that we can and should do.

The Birth

It is not a foreign idea to most of us that birth is traumatic, but we often don’t realise the extent of the trauma on foals. A recent study found that 19% of foals evaluated had rib fractures, with up to 69% showing evidence of a subluxation of their ribs. These were found on visual examination, as well as ultrasonographic and X-ray exams.

That is a lot of trauma with which to start a life! And it’s only the beginning. Chiropractors will tell you that there are often subluxations present after birth in a few of the key areas that take strain during the process – the poll of the foal, the lower cervical spine and the pelvis. All of these areas are essential to the adult athlete who needs to perform at his best.

The Effect 

We know that young animals, foals included, heal quickly – especially injuries to bone. At the same time, we know that a newborn foal is learning to use his body to walk, run, turn, maneuver and behave. Any injury or trauma they have at this point is going to have a strong impact on how they learn to move. The young foal is developing neurological pathways and patterns of movement in those first days and weeks – it happens so quickly – and those neurological pathways and movement patterns are there for life.

If your foal has an abnormal alignment of the poll, he will learn to move in an abnormal way to accommodate the abnormal alignment. This will have an impact on his movement, his muscle development and his soundness over time. This same principle holds true if there is a malalignment anywhere in the spine. The body is incredibly connected and integrated; one small change in one area will have an impact on the entire body, and that effect will be carried into adulthood.

Interestingly, the study cited above found that trauma was more likely to occur on the left side; 78% of fractures occurred there. Have you ever wondered why horses have a stronger side and a weaker side? Why they are able to turn more easily in one direction, and engage the contact better in one direction rather than another? Why they choose as foals to graze with one leg forward rather than the other? 

These are questions that might well be answered by the fact that horses develop their preference as newborn foals in response to a trauma in their spine, pelvis or ribs.

Our Response 

If this is indeed the case, then these performance inhibiting factors ought to be addressed as soon as possible after the foal is born. And they can be. We can address the neurological development of the foal, their movement patterns, their preferences, and their long-term athleticism by addressing any spinal malalignment and trauma in the first weeks of life.

Once the trauma of a rib fracture is healed, there is no need for the foal to continue to compensate in its movement. While a rib fracture will heal, a malalignment of the spine or pelvis won’t heal without intervention – it will continue to send abnormal movement signals to the brain, causing abnormal movement patterns. In the end, the malalignment will only worsen. All of this can, however, be corrected through mobilisation, manipulation and soft tissue release work – something your Vetrehab team are experts at.

What to look for

While it is a good idea to have every foal assessed, you might look out for some warning signs as you watch your newborn at play:

  • Is your foal drinking easily from both sides of the mare?
  • Does he run easily in both directions, changing his canter leads?
  • Does he transition from a walk to a canter and back again easily?
  • Does he turn and circle in both directions?
  • Is your foal friendly and eagerly looking for scratches?

If your foal is easily performing all of these functions at play in the pasture, that’s fantastic. If you notice that he has some trouble with one or more of these points, it may be well worth having him checked out.

It Goes Beyond the Cuteness

Our newborns are so very precious. The quality of their beginning will determine their end. Providing them with good nutrition and mental and physical stimulation through the correct kind of exercise and training, turnout, and overall care is the best way to ensure that your foal grows up to be the champion you intend him to be.

Having a Vetrehabber involved in the journey from newborn to weanling, yearling, backing, training and everything in-between will mean you have someone who is regularly assessing your foal’s progress towards your goals, guiding you in nutritional and exercise requirements, and helping you deal with the natural traumas, asymmetries and unexpected occurrences that life throws at your foal. 

If you had any doubt about the value of an early assessment by a veterinary rehabilitation therapist, I hope I have banished it. There are endless benefits to having a professional assess and treat your newborn, not only for his immediate wellbeing but for his journey into the athlete and champion he can become!

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