You paid your stud fee, ensured that your mare is pregnant, gave her the best medical care and nutrition during her pregnancy and patiently waited almost a year. Now the time has come for her to foal. What should you know and do to make sure that all of her (and your) hard work results in a healthy and safely delivered foal?
There are many foaling alarms and monitoring systems, in addition to old-fashioned checking on the mare, to know when your mare is about to deliver. It is best to get the mare acclimated to lights on in the foaling stall and whatever else you plan to have on when the time arrives so that you don’t startle her. A mare can stop stage one labor if she feels threatened. Have a clean, large foaling area prepared. The mare should be acclimated to the stall as well. Signs of impending parturition include development of the udder (can occur as early as 2 weeks prior to foaling), waxing of the teats (usually within 36 hours of foaling), relaxation of the ligaments around the tail head, and lengthening of the vulva.
In preparation for foaling, be sure to have a few items on hand. A tail wrap or clean roll gauze should be used to wrap your mare’s tail and a bucket of warm water and roll cotton to clean the vulva. Have lots of clean towels to help dry the foal if necessary. And have your veterinarian’s phone number nearby, just in case there are any concerns.
Mares have a gestational length of 335-342 days. Some go a little earlier, some go a little longer. Previous gestational length is a strong indicator of future pregnancy length. So if your mare foaled at 335 days last year, she will likely deliver at 335 days this year. Any foal delivered at 320 days or earlier is considered premature and should receive immediate veterinary care.
In order to fully understand the foaling process, it is important to understand the anatomy of the equine placenta. The placenta consists of three layers. There is the amniotic layer that surrounds the foal. The other two layers are attached and called the chorioallantois. The chorionic surface attaches to the uterus via microvilli that give it a red velvety appearance. There are no villi at the cervical star, the area where the chorioallantois apposes the cervix. The allantois has a whitish/blue shiny appearance. When the foal breaks through the placenta, usually at the cervical star, and the normal birthing process continues, the placenta will become everted as it is pulled behind the foal by the umbilical cord.
Parturition (foaling) is divided into three stages. Stage I usually lasts 1 to 4 hours. During this stage the uterus begins contracting and the foal is positioned for delivery. The mare may act restless, pace the stall, get up and down frequently, urinate frequently, and sweat. Stage I ends when the chroioallantois ruptures, i.e. water breaks. Some mares don’t show outward signs and Stage I is only recognized when the chorioallantois ruptures. If the mare will tolerate it, now is the time to prepare the her by foaling. Wrap her tail and wash her perineum and udder.
Stage II is the actual delivery of the foal. It is a very swift and explosive stage and should last no more than 30 minutes. The mare will experience strong contractions and the amnion will rupture at this point. The foal should begin to be delivered head and front feet first. It is best to let the mare manage this stage on her own as long as there are no complications. Occasionally it is necessary to gently assist the delivery by pulling the foal in a downward direction when the mare is pushing. If stage two lasts more than 30 minutes, or you recognize that the foal is not positioned correctly, it is time to get your veterinarian out. Another sign that requires immediate veterinary attention is a “red bag” delivery. If instead of seeing the water filled amniotic sac or the foal’s nose or feet, you see the red velvety allantois, the placenta has separated from the uterus and the blood supply (i.e. oxygen supply to the foal) is compromised. Call your veterinarian to come out immediately and advice on what to do until she arrives. You may be instructed to rupture the membranes and assist the delivery. In most cases, however, all will go well and the foal will be delivered without incidence. Once the foal is out, resist the temptation to jump right in. This may startle the mare and cause her to jump up and rupture the umbilical cord prematurely. The foal receives several liters of blood through the umbilical cord right after birth. Stage II ends when the umbilical cord ruptures. Once the foal is up, dip the umbilical cord with 7% iodine. Repeat several times over the next few days to help to prevent umbilical cord infections.
Stage III if the final stage of parturition. During Stage III the placenta is delivered. This usually occurs within 4 hours of the foal’s delivery. The mare may begin to cramp and appear to go into labor again. Do not attempt to pull the placenta out. It can tear and leave pieces within the uterus. This can lead to life-threatening uterine infections and laminitis. If the placenta has not passed after 4 hours, call your veterinarian. She will provide treatments such as oxytocin to stimulate uterine contractions, flush the uterus with saline, and administer antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to combat infection and toxemia.
Let your mare bond with her foal before you jump in to start handling it. She will clean it and lick it dry and encourage it to stand and nurse. If it is extremely cold when the foal is born, it is all right to help dry it off more quickly to help keep it warm. Most foals stand and nurse within an hour of birth. Call your veterinarian if the foal does not stand or attempt to stand within an hour, doesn’t latch on and nurse, has any limb deformities (contracted tendons, lax tendons), you see milk come out its nostrils, or starts out strong but then fades and won’t get up after a few hours.
Watching your mare foal can be an exciting and wonderful experience. Knowing what to expect will help you recognize when something is not going right and assistance is needed and also allow you to relax and enjoy the foaling process.
Registered 2014 Equestrian Collections; Author: Sallie S. Hyman, VMD, DACVIM, CVA
Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian for their horses’ medical care.