Horse owners find the prospect of foaling exciting and nerve-racking every time, for every mare. But if this is your first experience, you may find being on foal watch even more anxiety-ridden. You’ve invested a lot of time, emotion and expense in getting your mare to this point, and you want everything to go just fine.
Fortunately, the foaling process is uneventful for most mares, requiring little, if any, intervention. However, it’s always important to be prepared, and to know what to watch for before, during and after birth. You’ll also want to know how to care for mother and foal.
Countdown the Last Month
During the last month of pregnancy, the foal is growing very rapidly and will eventually begin to move into the correct position for foaling. Because of her large, heavy uterus, the mare usually becomes considerably less active. She may prefer to stand rather than lie down to sleep because pressure from her full abdomen makes it difficult to breathe.
Her appetite may be off as well. Keep an eye on her food intake and let your vet know if it drops by more than 10% or so. You may need to make adjustments to be sure she’s getting enough protein, minerals and calories to keep her weight and maintain normal growth of the foal.
Also consult with your vet or nutritionist about changes necessary after she foals and starts producing milk. Obviously, she will need more calories, but her needs for water, protein, salt and minerals will jump even more.
During this last month, your mare’s hormone levels will change dramatically to prepare the foal and her body for birth. You’ll notice some physical changes that indicate she is getting close to foaling. In mares that have had foals previously, these changes may begin to occur as early as four weeks before foaling. However, with first-timers, you usually won’t see any changes until about two weeks out, and some may not be obvious at all.
Changes to look for include:
• Edema/filling in front of the udder, followed by gradual enlargement of the udder.
• Abdomen looks more tucked up, less saggy, and when viewed from the front, the belly is not projecting out to the side as much. These changes occur when the foal begins to move into the birthing position.
• The croup, viewed from behind, becomes very soft and relaxed, making the tail base look more prominent.
• The vagina will elongate.
Though edema in the udder is normal, many mares will show edema or “stocking up” in their hind legs as well. In extreme cases, the swelling will also occur along the belly, sometimes even extending along the lower chest. This is probably caused by pressure from the uterus on the veins and lymphatic system. There is no treatment, and it will resolve on its own after she foals. In some cases, movement of the foal to a new position solves the problem before foaling.
Owner’s Action List for the Last Month
• Be sure to schedule any pre-foaling vaccinations four weeks away from anticipated foaling date.
• Decide which areas the mare will use for turnout in the last month and where she will foal. Then move her there if it’s different from her current location.
• Assemble your foaling kit.
• Post contact phone numbers in the barn for you, your vet, and a back-up person experienced with foaling in case your mare decides to go into labor when you aren’t around.
• If this is your mare’s first foal, start getting her used to the idea of being touched in her vaginal area and udder by gently wiping them with a cloth moistened in warm water.
• Decide how you will be monitoring the mare for foaling and get the equipment/supplies you need. If you are planning to keep someone always in attendance, make a schedule and involve as many family members and friends as you can to share the duty.
• Locate a nearby source of frozen colostrum, or make sure your vet has a commercial product on hand, in case your mare does not produce enough or high-quality colostrum, or the foal does not drink enough of it.
Your mare may also go off her grain, kick at her belly, and look back at her belly, which may indicate a colic problem. Since the mare can’t tell us, we’re really not sure why she is uncomfortable. It could be related to tension on the uterus, movement of the foal, even mild uterine contractions as the hormones begin to change.
As long as she continues to drink well, pass manure, and eat her hay, just keep a close eye on her and maybe give your vet a “heads up” call. Most of these episodes resolve on their own. Call the vet if she seems more than mildly uncomfortable or irritated, or if her pulse climbs over 40.
Impactions can also occur, which will require a vet visit. Suspect an intestinal problem if the amount of manure decreases, becomes drier, or has a coating of mucus, or if the mare’s drinking and appetite for hay drop. You’ll also want your vet to look at her if you observe her rolling a lot. This indicates more significant abdominal pain, which could mean a problem with the intestinal tract or a twist in the uterus.
In addition to keeping a watchful eye on your mare, you need to do several other things. At least a month in advance, move your mare to the area where she will be turned out and where she will foal. She needs enough time to develop antibodies to the bacteria and other organisms common in that area. These antibodies will be passed on to her foal in her colostrum.
Most people foal their mares in stalls because it’s easier to check on them at night. A foaling stall should be at least 12’x 15′ with smooth walls free of projections. Bedding should be straw, since this is less likely to stick to the wet foal. Flooring should be dirt or rubber mats.
Except for weather considerations and greater difficulty in keeping tabs on the mare prior to foaling, there are advantages to foaling outside. No matter how clean you keep a stall, it will always have more bacteria than clean grass. Mares can also become cast in a stall during foaling, or go down with their hindquarters too close to a corner so that there is no room to work behind the mare or for the foal to emerge. Foaling in a paddock rather than a field can be a good compromise.
Assemble a Foaling Kit
• Mild liquid soap (like pHisoDerm)
• Lubricant jelly, several large tubes (K-Y)
• Tail wraps
• Several large towels
• Small towel for cleaning the udder
• Iodine solution for dipping the naval (get this from your vet)
• Small plastic cup to hold the iodine
A month prior to foaling, your mare also needs additional vaccinations. The mare’s tetanus definitely needs to be up-to-date, but beyond that, your vet may advise certain vaccines to boost antibody levels in her colostrum to provide good protection for the foal.
Colostrum is the milk a mare produces for about the first 24 hours after foaling. It’s a thick, sticky, yellowish substance that contains high levels of antibodies. Because there is no transfer of antibodies from the mare’s blood across the placenta, the foal is born with no protection against infections. However, for the first 24 hours of life, his intestinal tract is able to absorb the large, complex antibodies in colostrum that will help protect him against the disease organisms and bacteria normally present in the environment. Drinking that first milk is critically important to the foal’s survival.
The average length of pregnancy is 340 days, but this can vary by as much as 20 to 25 days in either direction and still be normal. Unless a mare has a history of early or late foalings, you should begin monitoring her two weeks before her “due date.”
The changes listed above are the earliest signs, but they may be obvious for a month beforehand, or never obvious at all. “Waxing,” the appearance of a whitish coating on the ends of the mare’s teats, usually occurs 24 to 48 hours before foaling. But in some mares this may be present for a month before foaling or only be seen in the few hours before she foals.
It used to be that the only good option was to have someone stay with the mare at all times, especially overnight, but this is very labor-intensive. Also, having someone near her may cause the mare to delay foaling. (Yes, they can do this.)
Monitoring rectal temperature can help predict birth. A 1989 study done at Cornell University found that mares in late pregnancy showed the lowest body temperature at 7 a.m., with a slight rise in the midafternoon and evening readings. The day prior to foaling, all 22 mares in the study failed to show the temperature rise late in the day.
If you can afford the more expensive labor monitors and remote TV/surveillance systems, great. Otherwise, a combination of twice-daily temperature taking, milk test kits, and use of a baby monitor in the barn will help you zero in on foaling time. If you see a rapid color change and high calcium reading using a milk testing, wrap the mare’s tail.
Stages of Labor
Stage I is early labor and can last several hours. Some mares show virtually no signs at all during this stage, while others show variable amounts of pacing, mild agitation, frequent passage of manure, sweating, blowing, looking back at the flanks, and kicking at the belly. They may refuse to eat, pick at food, or eat normally. Milk may start to leak or stream from the udder.
You should wrap the mare’s tail at this point, before she becomes too uncomfortable to stand still. Also, gently wash and rinse her genital area and udder using mild soap and pat dry.
Stage II is strong labor and lasts 20 to 30 minutes. By this point, contractions are obviously uncomfortable. The mare is agitated and usually sweating. She will lie down with strong contractions and begin pushing. Many mares will get up and pace between contractions, and inexperienced mares often resist the urge to lie down and push, “fighting” the labor.
If the mare wants to roll, do not interfere. It’s often an instinctive way to reposition the foal for easier delivery. However, if she rolls nearly continuously for several minutes, get her up, walk her, and call the vet.
You’ll see the foal’s feet protruding from the vagina as delivery begins. They may still be inside the fluid-filled amniotic sac at this point, or the sac may have ruptured already, releasing the fluid in a strong gush.
As the mare pushes, the feet may actually protrude up to knee level or higher, and you will see the nose resting on the front legs. When the contraction stops, the feet may retract back into the mare’s body a bit. This is normal and no reason for concern as long as the mare is making steady progress with her contractions.
If the mare has three or four very strong contractions without the foal advancing, someone experienced with foaling can grasp the front feet during a contraction and gently rotate the foal a bit from side to side, then put traction on the feet, pulling a line parallel with the upper line of the mare’s hocks (about a 45-degree angle to the ground). This will often help the foal’s pelvis pass through the birth canal easier. Once the nose is visible, check to be sure it is clear of any membranes or mucus.
Although it is rare, some mares may stand during labor and may even deliver the foal that way. If the mare is obviously strongly contracting but not willing to lie down, leave the stall if you are in it, or get out of her sight for a few minutes if you are outside the stall. Being observed can make some mares too anxious to lie down.
If that doesn’t work and the mare is set on delivering the foal standing, you will have to catch the foal to break his fall and prevent injury, premature tearing of the umbilical cord, or a ruptured bladder. This can be a two-person job. Most foals weigh about 100 pounds. Cradle the foal’s body in towels as it emerges (it will be wet and slippery), gently lowering it to the ground as delivery progresses. But always keep an eye on the umbilical cord to make sure it is not being pulled tight.
Stage III is delivery of the placenta. The uterus continues to contract after the foal is born, causing the placenta to be expelled. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
If the mare gets up and there is placenta hanging down from her vagina that has not fallen free, do not pull on it. Tie a knot in the placenta and let it detach at its own rate. If the placenta is not delivered by an hour after birth, call the vet if you haven’t done so already.
Alert your vet to an emergency if:
• The mare has been having strong contractions for 10 to 15 minutes with no sign of any part of the foal.
• The mare has delivered part of the foal, but is not making any progress after three to four strong contractions.
• You see red tissue protruding from the vagina.
• You see the foal’s hooves positioned with the sole up toward the ceiling, two hooves up to and above the knee but no nose, or more than two feet.
Your vet will instruct you on any steps he may want you to take until he can get there. This may include gently placing your hand inside the mare’s vagina to feel for what body parts are there, which is where the K-Y lubricant in your foaling kit comes in handy.
Unless your vet is very close by, or the mare shows unmistakable signs of early labor soon enough for the vet to get there, your mare will probably foal with only you in attendance. You should still call your vet, though, so that he can be on the way if a problem develops. Even if things go smoothly, the vet still should examine the placenta to make sure none is left inside the mare, do a quick check of the foal, and examine the mare for any foaling-related injury to her reproductive tract and to make sure she is not showing signs of internal bleeding.
If everything has progressed normally, your vet may wait until the next day to come see the mare and foal. By then, the foal will have nursed several times, and the vet can also check the foal’s blood to make sure it is receiving sufficient antibodies from the colostrum.
Once the foal’s body and pelvis are outside the mare, delivery is complete. If the lower hindlegs remain inside her for a few minutes, no harm will be done. They’ll easily come out as the foal or mare move.
Allow the mare and foal to rest quietly for 20 minutes or so. During that time, the umbilical cord will still be attached and pumping the remaining blood from the placenta into the foal. Do not cut the umbilical cord. It will separate on its own as the mare and foal begin to move around. Once that happens, dip the stump of the umbilical cord in your iodine solution. A small plastic cup is handy for this.
Do not towel the foal dry unless he is obviously shivering from cold. Licking the foal clean will be your mare’s first official motherly act, which is very important to the bonding process.
While down and resting, the foal will begin to squirm around and explore his mother’s body with his nose. The mare will nicker to him in a voice you’ve probably never heard from her before. She will raise her head to look at the foal, eventually roll up onto her belly, and reach for him.
The mare and foal should be alone in the stall during this process. However, if either of them is not showing signs of recovery and more activity within the first five to 10 minutes, go into the stall, check the color of the gums, and give your vet a call.
If the mare hasn’t passed her placenta yet, she usually will after she gets up and moves around. Once the placenta has been passed, put it into a plastic trash bag and save it for the vet to examine. If any pieces are left inside the mare, she is at high risk of a severe uterine infection and founder. Take the mare’s tail wrap off after she is up.
The mare usually stands before the foal does, but the foal will sometimes beat her to it. Most foals take several attempts at standing before they find their balance. The mare will talk to the foal and encourage him to keep trying. Efforts get more vigorous with every try, although the foal may rest a bit between attempts.
If the foal is not standing within an hour or so, call your vet. Check to see if the foal tries to strongly suck when you put your fingers in his mouth. If he does, but seems to be weak when he’s trying to stand, milk 4 to 8 ounces of colostrum from the mare into the baby bottle from your foaling kit and offer it to the foal. This is usually enough of an energy boost to get many weak foals going.
Warning: Once the mare has recovered from foaling and gotten to her feet, she may turn extremely protective of the foal, and chase even you, her best friend, from the stall. If the mare shows any signs of threatening behavior, don’t underestimate her likelihood of attacking you. Leave the stall, even if you think she or the foal may have a problem. Your vet can sedate the mare after he gets there.
Once the foal is on his feet, you’re almost home free. Watch until you see the foal pass urine and feces, and nurse. If the foal is straining to pass manure, give him an enema. If a foal is straining but only passing a few drops of urine, especially if it’s a colt, call the vet.
Nursing is what often takes a bit of time to get coordinated. First-time mares may be nervous about the foal nursing, and the foal himself has to find the udder and then figure out how to balance as he nurses. Don’t be in any rush to “help.” They’ll usually figure it out for themselves over the next hour or so. If the foal seems weak, disoriented or sluggish in any way, and does not persistently try to nurse, call the vet.
Once the foal has nursed, you can relax, get some sleep, and decide on a name for your new foal.