Prepare for Your Mare's Safe and Successful Delivery of Her Foal
Foal Speed Ahead
By Dr. Barbara Delvescovo, DVM, MRCVS, DACVIM
The checklist for evaluating and caring for a newborn foal is extensive, with many things to look out for both during and after the birth. An understanding of what is normal and what is abnormal is crucial to being able to help our horses begin what will hopefully be a healthy and happy life.
Horse gestation typically lasts around 342 days, with colt pregnancies lasting slightly longer than those of fillies. A foal delivered before day 320 is considered premature and may suffer health problems, and foals that go beyond 360 days of gestation may also have problems from being in the womb too long.
Signs that a mare is about to give birth include her udder filling with milk about two to four weeks before foaling, and secretions of small amounts of colostrum one to four days before labour.
The length of gestation is approximately 342 days, with filly pregnancies slightly shorter than those of colts. Mares typically foal at night when they feel safest from intruders. Photo: Dreamstime/Dtfoxfoto
Preparing for the Big Moment
Mares typically foal at night. Being prey animals, horses are trying to find the time of day when they feel the safest with the least intrusions. This makes veterinary monitoring during pregnancy very important. Talk to your vet even before you decide to breed your mare, but especially during pregnancy, because the vet exam can highlight and detect high-risk pregnancies.
For owners who are new to foaling, who cannot monitor around the clock, or whose mare has a high-risk pregnancy, foaling at home is strongly discouraged.
For those who do decide to foal at home, make a detailed plan for the event with the veterinarian, and provide a clean, safe, and quiet space for the birth. While some mares can successfully foal out in an open pasture, it’s typically best to have the mare confined so the foaling can be easily observed.
This space should be stall measuring a minimum of 14 by 14 feet with good bedding. Straw is preferable to wood shavings, as shavings can stick to the horses and can be aspirated by the foal.
Related: Should You Breed Your Mare?
Provide the mare with a foaling stall measuring at least 14 x 14 feet, with deep straw bedding. Photo: iStock/Purple Queue
During the birth, it’s essential to keep a time record. Sometimes, especially if it’s your first foaling, emotions come into play and it’s difficult to remember how long it took, so it’s important to write everything down.
Delivery occurs in three stages:
- Stage one involves initial uterine contractions, which can last between 30 minutes and six hours and manifest as colic-like symptoms in the mare. She might pace around the stall, lie down and get up several times, and sweat — those are all signs of normal uterine contractions.
- Stage two comprises the rupture of the water bag, signaling that the foal will arrive in 20 to 30 minutes. This timeframe is crucial, as the equine placenta detaches very readily. Once that happens, the foal will be without oxygen and thus cannot survive an extended labour. If you detect a problem at this stage, prompt intervention will be needed.
- Stage three is the passage of the placenta, which must happen within three hours. If this does not occur, it will be diagnosed as a retained placenta, which can cause a number of problems.
Above Figures 1 and 2: iStock/Sangriana. Below Figures 3: iStock/PurpleQueue; 4-Dreamstime/Deborah Middleton)
Problems During Labour
During foaling, a failure to progress from stage one to stage two is a problem, as is a prolonged stage two (more than 20 minutes after the water breaks.) If the foal is not emerging or no major contractions are occurring, it’s time to intervene.
In addition, watch for malposition. Ideally, a foal’s front legs emerge first, followed by the head. Similarly, look out for the “red bag” — the membranes surrounding the foal are usually white and transparent. If they appear red, this signifies a premature rupture of the water bag and a loss of connection to the mare’s blood and oxygen supply. If an owner sees this, they must open the bag and pull the foal out immediately to halt asphyxiation.
Related: The "Gen-ethics" of Equine Breeding
If the birth sac is still covering the foal’s head, it should be removed within less than a minute of birth. Foals should breathe at around 60 to 80 breaths-per-minute and have a strong heartbeat. If not, immediate resuscitation is required. This involves clearing the airway of any mucus or substance sticking to their nostrils. As obligate intranasal breathers, horses rely on their noses for air.
For foals that are not breathing properly, focus on ventilating, as respiratory arrest precedes cardiac arrest in most large animals. If the veterinarian is present, they will have an endotracheal tube that will enable ventilation. If your vet is not present, there are other simple ways to ventilate the foal. Laying the foal down and extending its neck, owners should breathe into one nostril while closing the other and closing the esophagus at the same time by putting the thumb on the left side of the foal’s neck behind the throat latch. This prevents air from entering the foal’s stomach. Ten to twenty breaths per minute should be delivered, either using your mouth or with a pump and mask delivery system that can be purchased in advance.
After ventilation is going well, owners can recheck the heart rate. If it is not above 60 beats per minute after about 30
minutes of ventilation, a second person may begin chest compressions. Placing the foal on a flat surface, the person giving compressions should kneel parallel to the foal’s spine, placing their hands on top of each other right behind the foal’s shoulder. The goal is to deliver 100 beats per minute — following the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ song, “Staying Alive.” Be careful not to synchronize with the person who’s giving ventilation, because those are two very different rhythms.
Assessing the New Foal
A newborn foal is a very delicate creature, with very unique needs. As prey animals, horses in nature need to make a very big transition between being in utero and being able to run away from predators.
If any stress or pathologies disrupt this transition, problems can occur — sometimes causing body systems to reverse back to their fetal state. It’s essential to know what a newborn does normally, and to be proactive when you see something abnormal.
For a neonatal assessment, owners should identify key risks connected to the mare, the foal itself, and the pregnancy. These risk factors are summarized below:
- First-time mother
- Poor maternal behaviour
- History of complications in pregnancy or foaling, or abnormal foals
- Failure of transfer of passive immunity
- Congenital or acquired abnormalities
- Abnormal behaviour
- Abnormal length of gestation
To check for normal foal behaviour, apply the one-two-three rule:
1 - The foal should be standing within one hour;
2 - The foal should be nursing, and the mare passing the placenta within two hours;
3 - The foal should be passing meconium (first feces) within around three hours.
Colts should urinate within the first six hours, and fillies should urinate within 10 to 12 hours.
Nursing is a vital step in the foal’s health and survival. It should be monitored closely to make sure it’s happening correctly. The foal’s tongue should be sealing around the nipple, and the foal should be actively suckling and swallowing. Some foals will not successfully latch or have trouble swallowing (known as dysphagia), which can show up as milk coming up through the nostrils. After the foal has nursed, the mare’s udder should be checked to see if it has been emptied.
Owners must also look for the first meconium; if the foal does not defecate within the first several hours, there may be an impaction — signs include restlessness, tail switching, and straining to defecate.
Related: Collecting Colostrum for your Foal
When nursing, observe that the foal’s tongue is sealing around the nipple, and that the foal is suckling and swallowing. After nursing, check the mare’s udder to make sure it has emptied. Photo: Clix Photography
Foals that are lethargic and unwilling to stand or nurse, and foals that don’t become curious and explore their surroundings, should be evaluated. The foal may be interested in getting up but not successful because of mechanical issues caused by contracted tendons — this situation calls for immediate vet assessment because a foal that cannot get up is a foal that cannot nurse, which can lead to very big problems.
Transfer of Immunity
During the first six to twelve weeks of life, the foal relies on its mother’s antibodies for protection from pathogens while its own body builds up an innate immune system. This transfer of antibodies comes from the mare’s colostrum, the first milk that is produced after birth. Owners should check the quality of the colostrum using a Brix refractometer, which will show the percentage of immunoglobin antibodies in the colostrum. Above 30 percent is excellent, below 20 percent is not enough. Also make sure the foal is able to latch and nurse to receive the colostrum shortly after birth.
To ensure that passive immunity transfer has taken place, the veterinarian will take a blood sample during the first 24 hours of life to assess the foal’s immunoglobin antibodies (IgG).
Foals can only absorb IgG during their first 18 to 24 hours of life, so it’s very important that the foal receives colostrum during this time. If the foal has low IgG levels, it can be given supplemental colostrum. If the foal is beyond the 24-hour window, IV plasma delivery of immunoglobins is an option.
- Abnormal mothering behaviours should be recognized promptly. Watch out for:
- Absence of bonding
- Fear of the newborn foal
- Reluctance of nursing
- True foal rejection
The mare will typically exhibit normal maternal behaviours of recognizing and accepting her newborn. Normal mothering behaviour includes tolerating or assisting nursing, actively defending the foal, and remaining near when the foal is sleeping. Photo: Shutterstock/Hosphotos
Again, it is important to check the mare’s udder to see if it has been emptied recently as this will indicate whether the foal is able to nurse or getting the chance to nurse regularly.
- Call a veterinarian in these scenarios:
- If you notice any abnormal behaviour from mare or foal;
- If the foaling was unassisted;
- Always within the first 12 to 24 hours for a check up
During the first checkup, the veterinarian will give a physical exam, check the IgG levels, sometimes provide a vitamin E-selenium shot, and check the mare and the placenta to ensure no remnants of the afterbirth remain inside.
The most common and life-threatening pathologies that affect the neonatal foal are:
- Neonatal septicemia
- Fractured ribs
- Dummy foal syndrome or neonatal encephalopathy (disturbed neurological function)
- Meconium retention/impaction
- Neonatal isoerythrolysis (incompatibility between the mare’s and the foal’s blood type)
- Ruptured bladder
- In the Hospital
Problems such as prematurity, neonatal septicemia, and dummy foal syndrome often require hospitalization. When this happens, foals are usually put into intensive care, which might include intravenous (IV) fluids and drugs to maintain blood pressure; urinary support with hydration, electrolyte correction, and urinary catheters; gastric protectants; oral or IV nutrition, immune protection, oxygen and ventilation; antibiotics, and lots of nursing care.
A well-prepared, knowledgeable observer can identify typical actions and behaviours and recognize when something is wrong. When a problem is detected, prompt action can prevent it from escalating into a crisis. From the time the mare is pregnant, to the parturition, to immediately after birth and in the weeks after the birth, prevention and early intervention are keys to a safe and successful delivery, and ensuring the foal has the best opportunity for happy, healthy life.
Published with the kind permission of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Read more about Barbara Delvescovo, DVM, MRCVS, DACVIM here.