While horses are obviously capable of conceiving, carrying and birthing new life all on their own, educating yourself about the blessed event will help optimize the outcome for your own mare. Complications do not usually mar the foaling scenario, but when they do occur the situation can quickly become life threatening for both the foal and the mare. The process of producing a live, healthy foal is time consuming, expensive and full of challenges. For purposes of this article, we’ll assume that your mare has been monitored, vaccinated, de-wormed and managed appropriately throughout her pregnancy and now it’s nearing show time. You will have already created a partnership with your veterinarian and a plan for welcoming the newborn.
Let’s say that your mare will foal at home. How will you know when foaling time is near? The normal gestation of a mare ranges from 320 to 380 days, shorter than 320 days is considered premature. Actual foaling time is influenced by external factors like season (amount of daylight) and by numerous maternal and fetal circumstances that affect the rate of fetal maturation. Accurate breeding records facilitate the prediction of a foaling date but, since it’s the foal who initiates birth, the one thing you can count on is some degree of uncertainty for the exact timing. What’s an anxious owner to do during the, sometimes excruciating, waiting period? As your mare comes close to her due date, there are some fairly reliable physical changes that occur. As you read on, keep in mind the big disclaimer that each mare and each situation is different, limiting even the best of predictive tools and assessments. Maiden mares, those having their first foal, can be even less predictable.
PHYSICAL OBSERVATIONS LEADING UP TO FOALING
2 – 4 weeks prior to foaling Udder development, pendulous abdomen (shape changes)
30 days, give or take Increasing relaxation of the pelvic area.
24 – 72 hours prior Milk in udder & teats, “waxing up” or waxy secretions
indicative of colostrum may or may not appear on teats.
48 hours prior Increased concentration of calcium in the milk.
12 – 24 hours prior Elongation & relaxation of the vulva & tail head.
By now your mare should be housed separately in an area protected from the elements. ideal stabling for observing foaling is a roomy, clean stall, with indirect lighting. It should be bedded with large particle materials like straw. Avoid dusty or small particle materials that may stick to a newborn’s nostrils. Cleanliness of the foaling area reduces disease complications for both mare and foal. Many mares prefer a dark, quiet environment and a large percentage foal at night, so expect to have your sleep disrupted if you plan to be present for the event.
THE PROCESS OF GIVING BIRTH, IN THREE STAGES
Stage One begins with the onset of uterine contractions. During this stage, the muscles around the pelvis relax to facilitate the upcoming push through the birth canal and the bony pelvic girdle. The mare may appear nervous, intermittently anxious or agitated and restless. She may show similar signs as with mild colic, kicking at her belly, getting up and down, looking back at her flank, sweating. She may frequently raise her tail and urinate small amounts. This stage should progress to vigorous labor within a few hours. (Duration of stage one may be slightly longer in maiden mares.)
Stage Two is “go time” and describes expulsion of the foal. This stage normally moves quickly, with delivery occurring in 15 to 20 minutes. After the “water breaks” (rupture of the chorioallantoic membrane) expect complete delivery of the foal within 30 minutes. In this stage, the mare may go down and get up and roll several times in response to contractions as the foal is positioned for its dive through the birth canal. Ideally the mare gives birth laying down. Strong contractions often first push a bubble of pearly white amniotic membrane through the vulva. The membrane may stay intact or it may tear as the front feet are presented, one ahead of the other followed by the nose. If the amnion still covers the foal, free it from the foal’s nose and mouth. Once the membranes are clear and the foal is breathing normally, allow the mare and foal to lie quietly until pulsations in the umbilical cord stop. If it hasn’t already broken, crush the cord about 3 inches from the foal’s belly, dipping it in antiseptic as directed by your veterinarian. When everything is on track, a foal will stand within 1 hour after birth, will nurse within 2 hours and will pass meconium (first feces) within 3 hours. Human interference should be minimized to allow the mare and newborn to bond appropriately.
Special considerations during the critical period of second stage labor include an understanding of the normal position of the foal during delivery. Normal positioning is forelimbs and head first like a diver heading over a cliff. One foot is slightly ahead of the other with the nose, head, neck, shoulders and finally the hips and hind limbs following. Normal positioning is critical to an uncomplicated birth. Abnormal positioning may be indicated if you see only one foot, if more than two feet are visible, if the feet are upside down, if the nose doesn’t appear or if the nose appears alone without the feet first. Dystocia caused by abnormal positioning can be life threatening for both foal and mare and knowledgeable assistance will be required to reposition the foal for delivery.
Stage Three, no, you’re not done yet. Expulsion of the afterbirth is a vital stage for the mare. The placenta is normally delivered intact along with the foal, or within 1 to 3 hours post foaling. Retention of even small bits of placenta can cause serious problems including sepsis, laminitis and even death of the mare. The afterbirth should be inspected thoroughly to be sure that it is passed completely and to check for abnormalities in the membranes that may indicate intra uterine problems that may have affected the foal.
PLANNING AND PREPARATION
As you might expect there are many things that can complicate the miracle of birth. Planning and preparing ahead will increase the chances of a successful outcome even if disaster strikes or Murphy works overtime. Here are a few suggestions for preparation.
1. Make a foaling plan, pre-arranged with your veterinarian. Keep emergency phone numbers and a charged cell phone at the ready.
2. Have a foaling kit on hand. Include items like a flashlight, clean towels, antiseptic for the umbilicus, a timepiece to time the birth process, a tail wrap for the mare and to tie up the placenta, a bucket or bag for the expelled afterbirth, gauze or roll cotton, a camera, etc.
TEN REASONS TO CALL FOR HELP
1. If signs of stage one labor do not progress within a couple of hours.
2. If active labor suddenly stops.
3. If the water breaks and the foal is not delivered within 30 minutes or less.
4. If you see a red membrane coming through the vulva instead of the white, pearlescent
amnion, this sack should be opened and the foal delivered ASAP.
5. If you notice ANY abnormal positioning of the foal.
6. If the mare becomes unexpectedly painful.
7. If the foal does not follow the 1-2-3 hour rule of standing, nursing, passing meconium.
8. If the mare won’t allow the foal to nurse or she dripped significant colostrum prior to foaling.
9. If the afterbirth is not expelled completely within 3 hours of birth.
10. If you’re just not sure about something…. when in doubt check in with your veterinarian.
Wow! Bringing new life into the world, there is nothing like it! Each circumstance is miraculous and unique, we’d love to hear your stories! How did your mare tell you she was ready to foal? What do you wish you’d known about the process that you didn’t know ahead of time?
A good online educational resource is Colorado State University’s Equine Reproductive Laboratory.
RPeterson, DVM (2018) for 3HVet