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Foaling, Foal Births, and Pregnant Mares: What to Expect

Three hundred days sounds like such a long time. When you first discover that one of your mares is pregnant, you’re sure you’ll have time to read all the books and watch the foaling videos and have the veterinarian answer all your questions.
It still seemed like you had plenty of time when she received her rhinopneumonitis vaccine in her fifth month and the veterinarian started discussing how to improve her nutrition during the last two trimesters.

The time passed quickly, and suddenly the seventh and ninth month vaccinations had passed. Perhaps you weren’t quite finished with the foaling stall, but at least you still had plenty of time to read all that information about foaling and predicting labor.

But now that winter is here, those three hundred days seem to have flown by. Most owners expecting their first foal tend to get a little nervous as the big event nears. This is normal, and it’s probably close to how your mare feels, too. Taking the time now to read up on abnormal foaling and labor predictors can help boost your confidence and let you and your mare enjoy this new experience.

Mares, like humans, are individuals, and each will react to the approach of foaling in her own way. Mares tend to behave similarly from year to year, so keeping track of how long your mare’s gestation was may help to predict her next foaling. Mares that have not foaled before (maiden mares) can foal a bit early or late. Also, mares that are nervous or high-strung can prolong gestation by resisting the normal process of delivery. When attempting to predict foaling dates, use the breeding dates, any history of the mare’s previous gestations and your veterinarian’s input to estimate.

Most mares will begin to “bag up” in the last month to month and a half of gestation. This means that her udder will begin to swell. Many mares will resist attempts to touch their udders or nipples, which can interfere with the foal’s nursing attempts. By helping your mare become accustomed to having her teats handled or cleaned with a warm cloth, it can help the foal to nurse after birth. Patience, a helper, and occasionally a tranquilizer are needed for this.

Once she is accustomed to having her udder and teats handled, regular checks can reveal when the udder begins to fill. This will first be felt near the belly, and then can be discerned in the mammary glands and nipples. As the mare gets closer to foaling, her nipples will thicken, hang down lower, and begin to develop a thick, waxy material. When the nipples “wax,” it is a fairly reliable indicator that the foal will be born within the next day or so.

Still, none of these indicators are absolute. Remember that mares approach foaling in their own individual ways. Some do not bag up at all, while others will produce copious amounts of milk and may even leak milk for days before the foal is born. Some mares will wax and others will not. Evaluate all the signs as an overall indicator of impending foaling, rather than relying on any one sign.

Other things to look for are signs of the rump and tailhead muscles softening. This helps to prepare the pelvic area to stretch during labor and foaling. The vulva may also become swollen and elongated. Be aware of changes in the mare’s behavior. This may indicate that foaling is imminent. Mares who behave more or less affectionately than usual, try to separate themselves from other horses, seem more nervous, may be nearing the start of labor. Also, loss of appetite is an indicator of approaching foaling. Foaling generally occurs between 10pm and 4am, so if a mare that normally eats well is uninterested in her dinner, she may be close to delivery.

If you wish to videotape the delivery, you should help the mare to become accustomed to the necessary light by leaving the stall lights on for a week prior to the delivery. Mares prefer to foal in a quiet, calm, dimly lit area.

Mares should foal on straw rather than bedding shavings. This is because the shavings can stick to the mare’s vulva, and can be drawn in as the mare struggles to push the foal out. They can also adhere to the wet newborn foal and permit bacteria to enter the umbilicus more easily. Dry, clean straw is preferred, and the mare and foal can be switched to shavings a few days after birth.

Most foals are born naturally, without human intervention. If at all possible, allow this process to happen naturally without attempting to help. The mare can usually deliver her foal, clean it, and begin the bonding process without assistance. Her owner should be nearby to help if needed, but should quietly watch unless help is required. Owners who are interested in early imprinting with the foal will still have plenty of time to do this after the mare has had her special time with her newborn.

Still, many owners worry they might not know when their assistance is needed or wonder what to do if they do need to help. The best idea is to formulate a foaling plan with your veterinarian well before foaling is imminent. Foaling usually lasts only an hour or so, so there is little extra time to look up extra information if problems arise.

Be familiar with the foaling plan before the mare is near foaling. Becoming familiar with the birth process can help if you have to assist your mare via phone instruction until the veterinarian arrives. Make sure that your vet has your phone number, as well as good, clear directions to your address and stable, with landmarks which are visible at night. Also, remember that keeping your veterinarian’s telephone numbers handy helps to prevent a panicked search for it. Make sure that the telephone extension in the stable works, or if you plan to use a cordless phone, that the signal reaches the stable clearly.

Before foaling starts, there are some things you should do to prepare. Wrap the mare’s tail and make sure the stable is clean and lined with dry, fresh hay. Dim the lights if you are not filming. Create a foaling kit and keep it well stocked and close at hand. Make sure you’re familiar with the normal foaling process and understand the points where problems are most likely to arise. Also, know when you can assist on your own and when you should call for help.

Foaling begins when the placental sac breaks, releasing a gush of amniotic fluid. This is called “breaking water.” The mare may lie down before this happens, and you will sometimes see a smooth sac protrude between the mare’s vulva. The pressure of the mare lying down usually ruptures the sac. The fluid released when the mare’s water breaks will lubricate the birth canal and the foal. The mare will then lie on her side and begin to push.

Horses experience powerful contractions and will often groan or vocalize as they push to expel the seventy to ninety pounds of foal through the birth canal. As the mare pushes, you will see another sac appear. This smooth, thin, clear or white sac covers the foal, and you can see the foal within it.

Normally, the foal’s front hooves are delivered first, usually with one slightly ahead of the other. The hooves are covered by a rubbery protective coating. The nose and head should appear once the front legs are out to around the knees.

This point is the first one where problems can occur. Help should be sought if the mare strains for more than twenty minutes without the feet appearing, if only one foot appears, or if two feet appear but the head does not follow.

If the veterinarian is not far away and these conditions occur, make the mare stand and walk. This will help the foal to slide back into the mare’s womb and make repositioning attempts easier. If the veterinarian cannot aid your mare quickly, you may have to help her with directions over the phone. You may need to wash and lubricate your arm to gently slide it inside the mare’s birth canal. Generally, you will follow the protruding leg until you find the foal’s chest, and then you will be able to find the other leg, nose, or head.

However, it is unusual that you will need to actually attempt to reposition the foal. Most of the time, the only help that is needed is to help to gently pull the foal out.

Normally, the most difficult part of the delivery is the head and shoulders. The mare may rest briefly after the shoulders are expelled. If she seems to be having trouble getting the head, shoulders, or chest out, she may need you to help her by gently pulling on the foal’s front feet.

You should use a dry towel to grasp the foal’s feet, as it will be wet and slick. If the sac covering the foal has not already broken, you should carefully break it at this time with sharp scissors. Gently pull the foal’s front feet down toward the mare’s hind hooves, not out—this helps to rotate the foal’s head through the birth canal. Once the head and shoulders have passed through the birth canal, pull straight out along the line of the mare’s spine.

Again, if the mare seems to be struggling when the foal’s hips are in the birth canal, the foal’s feet should again be pulled gently down toward the mare’s hooves. This helps to rotate the foal’s hips so they can pass through the birth canal.

Whether the mare delivers naturally or the owner helps by pulling, the foal’s rear feet will often remain in the birth canal as the mare and the newborn foal rest. If you remove the foal’s feet from the mare, make sure to leave the foal close beside its mother. While the mare and foal rest, the umbilical cord is still attached and transferring a large, vital amount of blood from mare to foal. This five to fifteen minute rest period is crucial.

After this rest period, the mare will stand and break the umbilical cord. There is very little bleeding at this point. Sometimes, the foal will stand too. If either stand or pull away too early, the umbilical cord can snap prematurely. This results in bleeding from both horses that must be quickly controlled. Clamps, sutures, sterilized fishing line, or even boiled shoelaces can be used to tie the ends and stop the bleeding.

You should dip the foal’s navel in an iodine solution, coating the umbilicus and sealing the tissue to prevent infection. While seven percent iodine used to be the solution of choice, recent research has shown that it may be too harsh and may actually damage tissue, increasing the risk of infection. Current guidelines recommend a diluted Nolvasan mixture, which you can get from your veterinarian.

An easy way to accomplish this is to pour a small amount of the solution into a syringe case or a small glass. Place this over the umbilicus and press it against the foal’s belly, then shake the container so that the entire stump is well coated. Repeat this process two or three times a day for the first forty-eight hours.

Foals can also be born in the breech position—hind-feet first. This is not the normal foaling position, but it can occur without complications. Breech births are more difficult for the mare and it is more likely that help will be needed than with a normal birth. You should call your veterinarian as soon as you determine the foal is in the breech position. You will likely not need to help your mare, but it is better to notify the veterinarian and be aware of what to do just in case.

In a breech delivery, you will see the hocks after the hooves are delivered. You can also tell that the foal is breech by the flexion of the foal’s hind feet. A foal’s front feet will flex down toward the mare’s hooves, but in a breech delivery, the hooves flex upward toward the mare’s tail.

After the hocks are delivered, the foal’s hips and tail follow. This is usually the hardest part of the delivery because the hips are the foal’s widest portion when delivered this way. Again, the owner may need to grasp the foal’s feet and pull gently down toward the mare’s hooves to rotate the foal’s pelvis so it can pass through the birth canal.

Whether normal or breech, after the foal’s birth, the next steps are the delivery of the placenta and the foal’s first attempts to nurse.
Your first glimpse of the placenta will be a large mass of red and white tissue protruding from the mare’s vulva. The placenta should be delivered within two to four hours after the foal is born. If it is retained much longer than that, it can increase the risk of infection. Even if the rest of the foaling proceeded normally, a retained placenta requires veterinary help.

The foal should stand and begin to nurse within four to six hours after birth. Most foals will accomplish this within one hour. A newborn foal can be somewhat weak or have difficulty standing—after all, they’ve never had to bear their own weight before—and can also have a little trouble latching on to the teat. You can gently help guide the foal to the nipple, and your veterinarian can teach you some tricks to make it easier to work with the newborn foal.

Read the next horse breeding article on Hand Raising a Foal.
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