With the New Year comes new life. That's right, it's foaling season! Here are some important tips to keep in mind while preparing for your new arrival, as well as what to expect when the big day arrives!
4 - 6 Weeks Until Due Date
About one month prior to your mare's expected due date, she should receive a set of vaccine boosters to help ensure her colostrum is jam-packed with disease-preventing antibodies for her baby. In order to ensure that the foal is protected from ingesting harmful worms (yes, babies like to eat their mom's poo!), the mare should also be dewormed with Fenbendazole (Panacur or Safe-Guard). If your mare had a Caslick's procedure, it's time for the veterinarian to come and remove this.
2 - 3 Weeks Until Due Date
This is the time to begin watching your mare closely and to move her into a clean, safe and quiet place to foal. An open, grassy, mud-free area with foal-safe fencing is perfectly acceptable but some owners may prefer to keep their mares in a foaling stall at night for easier observation. The stall should be a minimum of 14 feet by 14 feet, immaculately clean, and bedded deeply with straw. This is also a great time to make sure you have your foaling kit put together and keep it near your mare's stall. Most mares prefer to foal in the middle of the night so it may be helpful to use a security camera or monitor to keep an eye on her as the day draws near. Be sure you have your veterinarian's phone number close at hand for when the foal arrives!
A mare's normal gestation length is between 320 and 360 days, with most mares averaging 340 days. If your mare foals within this range, that is perfectly normal so don't fret if they pass the 340 day mark with no sign of foaling!
Signs that a mare is getting ready to give birth are varied, and time to foaling is hard to predict. In most cases, the mare will begin to develop a fuller udder, although maiden mares often will not. Between 7 and 10 days before birth, the mare's pelvic ligaments will start to relax and she will get "mushy" around her tail head and her vulva will relax and elongate. As the day nears, you may see some swelling in front of the udder and she may begin to drip milk. Within a few days to hours before birth, this milk will turn to a sticky yellow, which is colostrum. Some mares, if they are not dripping milk, may develop what look like wax plugs over the end of their teats, frequently referred to as "waxing."
When arrival is imminent and the mare is in the first stage of labor, they will frequently become very restless, circling in her stall and getting up and down frequently. Some mares may even show colic-like symptoms such as looking at her sides and sweating on her neck and flanks. This stage can last anywhere from 1 to 4 hours and it is important to keep the area around her stall quiet so as to not disturb her or cause her stress.
When the "water breaks," this signals the end of the Stage I labor. Stage II, once started, is a fairly quick and explosive process. The time from the water breaking to the foal being on the ground typically takes 15 to 20 minutes and should take no more than 30 minutes. The mare may lie down and get up several times throughout the birth, which is completely normal. Within a few minutes after the water breaks, the amniotic sac will protrude from the mare's vulva followed shortly by the foal's front feet, which should be facing downward. Soon after, the tip of the foal's nose should be seen on top of the feet, as a normally positioned foal enters the world in a diving position. Once the foal is out, the mare and foal should lie quietly for 10 to 15 minutes. Once the foal is out, you should confirm that the amniotic sac, the thin, transparent, whitish membrane in which the foal was encased, has torn open during birth and that the foal's nostrils are clear. After confirming that the foal is breathing freely, it is important to then leave them alone so they can bond. Once the mare stands up, the umbilical cord will break naturally.
Signs of an Emergency
Most births are routine and uneventful but, when something is awry, time is of the essence to ensure both the mare and foal survive. Here are a few scenarios and what you should do:
Red Bag: A red, velvety bag appears at the mare's vulva without the water breaking. This means the placenta has prematurely separated from the uterus and the foal is no longer receiving oxygen. You do not have time to wait for your veterinarian; you must cut open the placenta immediately to allow the foal to breathe or it will suffocate. Carefully cut the bag a small amount and then tear it open the rest of the way with your hands. Help the foal out and clear the airways.
Dystocia: The mare is actively straining but no feet are visible within ten minutes of the water breaking, the feet are present but the soles are not facing downward, only one leg is visible, or both legs are visible but the nose is not. The foal may be positioned incorrectly and needs to be repositioned in order to be delivered. Your veterinarian should be called immediately if forward progress is not being seen during foaling, and they will guide you through what you should do.
Umbilical Bleeding: The umbilical cord ruptures too quickly and there is a lot of blood coming from the foal. Clamp or tie the cord with umbilical tape, a clean shoelace or cotton string and call your vet for advice.
The Baby Has Arrived
The most important thing to remember after the birth is the 1-2-3 Rule. That is:
1. The foal should be able to stand within ONE hour.
2. The foal should be nursing within TWO hours.
3. The mare should pass the placenta within THREE hours.
Usually the foal will sit up within a few minutes of birth, gather its bearings, and bond with mom. The mare typically will examine the new arrival, frequently licking and talking to her baby. It is important to give them this bonding time and we only recommend interfering if the mare is putting the baby at risk. Some mares, especially maidens, can be aggressive towards people until she has had sufficient time with her foal, so use caution!
If it is cold out, the foal may benefit from a brisk toweling off. This is also a good time to dip their umbilicus with dilute chlorhexidine solution to help prevent infection. We recommend dipping their umbilicus at least twice a day for the first two to three days of life.
Once the foal has stood, they should begin to try to nurse, and will also pass their first manure, or meconium, a thick, black, tarry poo. If the foal seems to be straining greatly, your veterinarian may recommend administering a Fleet enema to ease the passage.
If it takes the foal more than 3 hours to nurse, this is abnormal and you should call your vet to have them examine the foal and administer colostrum through a nasogastric tube. If the colostrum is not ingested by the foal within 6 to 8 hours of birth, the absorption of the antibodies is decreased dramatically and the foal may not have enough protection against infectious diseases.
Within 3 hours the mare should have passed the placenta, which is stage III of labor. We usually recommend tying it back up on itself using baling twine. This keeps the mare from stepping on it and ripping it as well as providing additional weight to encourage passage. The placenta may pass anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours following birth. Once the placenta has passed, place it in a bucket or garbage bag so that your vet can examine it and make sure it is complete. If the placenta does not pass within 3 hours, you need to call your veterinarian right away. A retained placenta, or even a small piece of retained placenta, can cause potentially life-threatening illness.
Some mares may show mild colic symptoms when they are passing the placenta, and this is normal. However, if she starts to show severe signs of colic or loses interest in her foal, this is a medical emergency and your vet should be called right away!
The baby is up and nursing, and the mare has passed her placenta - now what?! It's time to set up an appointment to have your vet come out and examine the happy pair. They should be seen within 10 to 12 hours following birth. Your vet will examine the foal to identify any potential health problems and to get some new baby snuggles! They will draw blood from the foal to run an IgG test, which checks the amount of antibodies the foal absorbed from the mare's colostrum. This test is time-sensitive as the foal's small intestine has a severely limited ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum after 18 hours. If the foal has low antibody levels after 18 hours, they would require an intravenous plasma transfusion instead of oral administration of colostrum.
The vet will also examine the mare to make sure that she is healthy following the birth. At this time they will examine the placenta to make sure it was passed intact. If it wasn't, the mare will need to receive medical treatment.
Your vet should be able to provide you with a healthcare schedule for your new foal, which includes a deworming and vaccination schedule, as well as other information about how to care for your new addition.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of births are perfectly routine and normal with no need for intervention. It is best to be aware of the potential complications that can arise so you can act on them quickly, but know that most often things will go just fine!
Remember these numbers:
A birth within 30 mins of the water breaking.
Standing foal within 1 hour of birth.
Nursing foal within 2 hours of birth.
Placenta passed within 3 hours of birth.
Watch a routine foaling (Warning: some people may consider this graphic)
Looking for more in-depth information? Check out this video from Colorado State University's Veterinary College
*The resources and links listed are only suggested as sources for further education. They do not necessarily imply endorsement.*