by Karen Tharp on 05/15/12
The birth of a foal is a highly anticipated event for many horse owners. Good management practices are very important for successful breeding program. A live, healthy foal represents the investment of a lot time, money and effort. Management is especially important prior to the time the foal is weaned. The mare and foal should be on a regular worming, exercise, vaccination schedule along with an adequate nutritional program.
If you’re new to the breeding process, it is also best to establish a relationship with a veterinarian who will be available for advice and/or emergency calls. Early management can impact future health throughout the foal's life.
The gestation period of individual mares can change from one year to the next. The "normal" length of gestation is 340 days; however this is an average, "normal "pregnancies range from 315 to 375 days.
Preparing For Foaling
Approximately four to six weeks prior to the anticipated foaling date, the mare should be boosted with vaccines to provide high levels of antibodies in her colostrums (first milk). Consult your veterinarian for recommendations on which vaccines to administer, but as a minimum, the mare should be boosted with tetanus toxic
Preparing the Foaling Area or Stall
A foaling stall can be used but here at Rising Sun Stables we move the mare to a foaling area outside. We feel foaling outside creates a healthier foal. We move the mare two to three weeks before her foaling due date. This lets the mare settle in and become acquainted with her new surroundings. If using a foaling stall, the stall should be prepared well in advance. It should be at least 12 feet by 14 feet, clean, located in a quiet area of the barn and maintained at a comfortable temperature. The stall should be checked over very closely for protruding nails, splintering wood or anything else that could damage the newly born foal. Feed and water containers should be positioned in such a way that they cannot interfere with foaling or injure the newborn foal as it struggles to its feet and learns to walk.
During the last month of pregnancy the signs observed will help determine when to change feeding practices and when to move prepare foaling area or stall.
Signs of Approaching Foaling
Mares may exhibit all or none of the following signs:
• Musculature around the tail head becomes soft and flaccid 2 to 4 weeks before foaling.
• The genitalia relaxes
• The udder begins to fill during the same period.
• The mare may show signs of uneasiness during the last two weeks of gestation
• Waxing of the teats (sticky droplets on the ends of the teats) occurs 24 to 28 hours before giving birth.
• Milky fluid may leak from the teats for hours or days before the labor onset.
• Protrusion of "Milk Veins" along the lower side of the abdomen.
• Some mares, especially maiden mares, might not produce milk until after foaling.
• Tail or Hindquarters rubbing.
One or Two Weeks before Expected Foaling
Move the mare to a foaling area or stall and change the feed ration. It is recommended that the grain be reduced and a more bulky ration be fed. A mare should be switched to a ration which includes bran at least 1 week before foaling. This ration will also discourage heavy milk flow, thereby decreasing the chance of scours in the foal and mastitis in the mare. After foaling, the grain can be increased gradually over a ten day period until a full grain ration is resumed.
Keep the mare in the foaling area or stall. If possible, an experienced person should attend her. This attendant can be helpful if problems arise but must know his or her limitations and call a veterinarian without delay when problem signs appear. Please look at our list of commonly used items to have on hand at foaling. Wash the mare's the udder and genitalia with a mild soap. A wrap on the mares tail can be used, but her at Rising Sun Stables we don’t use one. We make sure the mares tail is kept clean. We try to keep everything as close to natural as possible. We believe this makes for a strong healthy foal. If you choose to wrap the tail, wrap the tail and readjust wrap (remove and reapply) several times each day until foaling is complete.
The Three Stages of Labor
STAGE 1 - During the first stage of labor which will last from 2 to 24 hours, the muscles of the pelvic girdle relax, allowing the bones to spread so the foal can be positioned toward the birth canal. Movement is often noticeable as the foal turns into position. The abdominal wall above the flank and behind the ribs becomes concave, and the trailhead becomes more prominent.
Uterine contractions cause nervousness, erratic eating, and sweating, pacing, tail switching and frequent urination. Colic can also cause these signs, and it is possible for a mare to become colicky from constipation prior to foaling. If the colic signs become severe or the signs continue for hours, call a veterinarian.
STAGE 2 - The second stage of labor can last from a few to 30 minutes and include contractions and delivery. It is important to leave the mare alone at this point if birth is progressing normally. Disturbances may interrupt or prolong the birth process. The mare has very powerful uterine contractions, and when the unborn foal is positioned in the birth canal properly, delivery can occur in a relatively short period of time (10 to 15 minutes). Birth usually occurs shortly after the outer water bag ruptures.
If birth does not occur within a reasonable length of time (20 to 30 minutes) after strong contractions begin or shortly after the rupture of the water bag, malpositioning may be present, and a veterinarian should be notified. Presentation of the foal's front feet occurs first in a normal delivery, soles down, relatively close together, one slightly more advanced than the other to help reduce the circumference of the foal's shoulders and easing passage through the pelvis, the nose of the foal should be tucked between the extended forelegs near the knees.
Most mares position themselves on their sides, with their legs fully extended during the delivery of the foal; however, some insist on standing. Standing mares should be held to prevent excessive walking. If the mare delivers standing, someone should catch the foal and gently lower it to the ground to prevent injuring the newborn foal and to prevent the tearing of the umbilical opening in the abdominal wall and predispose the foal to a hernia. The urachus (tube leading to the urinary bladder) may also tear, causing urine leakage into the foals abdomen. If the mare lies down next to a wall or fence, make sure there is plenty of room for the foal's delivery, or cause the mare to rise and allow her to select another location not so close to an obstacle.
The mare will usually rest after the passage of the shoulders and again after the passage of the hips. Do not pull on a foal progressing slowly through the vagina. If birth progress stops for more than ten minutes in one spot, apply gentle traction times with the contractions. If the foal feels "locked in," rotate the body one way, then the other; this might allow the hips to slip through the pelvic opening of the mare. Call a veterinarian if this technique is not immediately successful. Walk the mare until the veterinarian arrives.
Suspect malposition of the foal and call a veterinarian when:
• only one foot is present
• more than two feet are visible
• feet are upside down
• the nose does not appear
• The nose appears without the front feet.
As the foal emerges, the inner sac usually breaks. If the sac does not break, free the foal from the sac and wipe the nose and mouth. Foals not breathing well should be rubbed vigorously with a towel to stimulate breathing. Allow the foal to lie quietly behind the mare for 10 to 25 minutes until the pulsations in the umbilical cord cease. This allows the foal to receive the blood remaining in the placenta still attached to the uterus. Then crush or cut the navel cord and separate it three inches from the body and dip in antiseptic to destroy bacteria, help dry up the stump, and prevent infections. Dip the stump again in a few hours. Some individuals also dip the feet (a possible portal of entry for bacteria). Caution should be used as a mare’s disposition can change quickly from friendly to aggressive at this time due to maternal instinct.
STAGE 3 - The afterbirth is expelled during the final stage of labor with the aid of uterine contractions. This process usually occurs within 1 hour, with normal range from 10 minutes to 3 hours.
Once the membranes are expelled, these contractions continue to decrease the size of the uterus. Colicky symptoms may also appear at these times which are caused by contractions of the uterine muscles. The placenta is expelled inside out. Membranes which are not expelled within four hours are considered retained. A veterinarian should treat a mare with retained afterbirth to prevent possible uterine infection and founder (laminitis). Membranes which are passed should be saved in the plastic bag for the veterinarian to examine. Self examination can be performed, you can fill the placenta with water, any tears or missing parts may indicate the mare has retained a portion of the placenta. Retained placenta, even small pieces, could impair future breeding ability.
During this time, the mare will clean the foal which should be trying to stand. Foals not standing within the first 2 to 4 hours after birth may be weak or abnormal and may require special treatment. The mare should be "milked out" and the foal fed 4 to 8 ounces. This will stimulate most of the slow starters. The foal also needs first milk (colostrums) before 6 hours pass to help combat disease and to aid in eliminating fecal material which has built up in the intestinal tract.
"Milking out" a small amount of milk by hand will open and clean the tear ducts. Check the teats for soreness. Some mares will not accept their foal readily if their udder is inflamed. Once on his feet, the foal will generally find his way to the udder. Let the foal find the teat himself; to help him by forcing his head is futile. Maiden mares should be held during this first nursing in the event they become anxious and kick at the foal.
An enema to help the foal pass meconium (sticky feces in the rectum and colon) is a preventive step because retained meconium in the intestine can harden and become impacted, causing the foal to strain to defecate and flag his tail back and forth. A word of warning regarding the enema: lubricate the tip and gently place no more than 1 inch inside the anus and all care should be taken to prevent the perforation of the intestine. The foal usually passes pieces of yellow-yellow brown manure (meconium). If the foal fails to defecate, becomes constipated or colicky, call a veterinarian.
Soon after parturition a veterinarian should examine the mare and foal for abnormalities such as cleft palate, heart defects, cataracts and musculoskeletal disorders. At this time, the veterinarian can also vaccinate against tetanus and administer any appropriate antibiotics. He should also examine the mare for damage to the reproductive tract and palpate the udder to check for mastitis. The mare should receive a tetanus toxoid injection at this time. The placenta should be examined to make sure it is completely intact.
The foaling process is lots of work, but the rewards of a heath foal make it all worthwhile. I don’t want anyone to think after the foaling process is done the work stops, it doesn’t. Raising a healthy foal with lots of ground manners can be fun. One needs to remember, these babies are so cute and it’s fun to play with them. Remember the way you play with them can become bad habits in a full size horse. Babies should be handled just as you would a grown horse.
Immediately following birth:
• A bright flashlight, for visibility.
• Two one-foot-long pieces of clean cotton string, for tying off your foal's umbilical stump--if and only if it bleeds excessively. If bleeding isn’t excessive do nothing.
• Two three-foot-long pieces of clean cotton string, for tying up the afterbirth
• Scissors to trim the string.
• A clean squeeze bottle filled with umbilical-stump disinfectant. I use a solution of iodine and peroxide). Consult your vet for his/her preference.
A few hours after foaling up to 1 day:
a foal bottle
A pre-warmed Fleet enema. (To warm, place it in a water bath that's 95 degrees Fahrenheit, then keep it in an insulated Thermos bottle or coffee carafe.)
A woven-plastic feed sack (which won't weaken when it gets wet) for the afterbirth