Because foaling season closely follows breeding season, and in most cases they overlap, this month we are going to explore all the intricacies and aspects of pregnancy and foaling in mares. We have already delved into the world of stallion management and other important breeding issues, thorough knowledge of which can help a whole lot of mare owners get their mares returned in foal with the least amount of effort expended by the stud farm and the least amount of money expended by the mare owner. I highly recommend following the advice and procedures presented here in those earlier installments.
Assuming, once you’ve decided to breed your mare and have chosen the right stallion (your decision, of course, based on a lot of research and tireless devotion to producing the most fantastic foal in the world!), that she actually is in foal, you will want to make sure she has the best care possible in her time of need.
Although different circumstances call for different methods, mares who are in foal should be exercised on a regular basis. I do not, however, like to see a mare get too much exercise before the first sixty (60) days of her pregnancy are behind her. After she is checked by your veterinarian...preferably by ultrasound rather than pelvic/rectal palpation...and it is confirmed that she is, indeed, in foal you can slowly start to resume a somewhat normal work program for her. For my own mares, depending on what job they do and what must be asked of them in order to perform that job, I will usually ride them until about eight weeks prior to foaling. After that I generally longe them lightly (walk and slow jog), turn them out by themselves ~ which minimizes the risk of getting kicked by another horse or similar situation which could cause the mare to abort ~ for several hours during the day or walk them (by hand or by puttting them on the hotwalker) for a short period several times each day.
Because your mare will be gaining weight, you want to be sure to keep her current on farrier visits, but I generally want shoes pulled off at least three-four weeks before the mare is due to foal so she won’t badly injure her baby if she were to step on him with her steel shoes. Just be sure to keep her feet trimmed properly to avoid unnecessary problems that will have to be corrected later, such as hooves that “pancake out”, or spread, which can sometimes cause severe cracking of the hoof wall.
Mares should always be kept on a strict deworming and vaccination schedule when in foal as well, but you must keep in close contact with your veterinarian to find out when these things should be accomplished. Worming a pregnant mare with a medication which can be toxic to her foal, or giving your mare the wrong shots at the wrong time can be dangerous. Her diet is also of utmost importance. Be careful not to overfeed, but adjust her feed according to how far along she is ~ the closer to foaling, the more you can feed her, but monitor her weight and intake constantly. It is also a good idea to discuss feeding with your vet, as he or she will be able to give you an approximate amount your mare should be consuming each day.
There are many well known “rules” about mares and foaling, such as length of gestation, being “waxed up” or dripping milk, but the only real rule is that there are no rules. We know that the average gestation period is about 340 days, but can vary widely in mares. Long has waxing (having “wax candles” ~ dried droplets of colostrum ~ hanging from the teats) been considered a sign of imminent labor and delivery. As a general rule, mares who are fully bagged, meaning their udders are full of milk and dripping milk, are going to deliver soon, but even that isn’t always the case. Some mares have been known to drip rather heavy volumes of milk for several days before actually presenting you with a baby (in which case she could be losing large quantities of colostrum which should be collected and stored to be given to the foal after he or she is born).
Within two weeks of the predicted due date, you should make sure your mare is housed in a safe, large (preferably 12’ x 24’ or larger) box stall and bedded with an adequate amount of straw. I prefer mares foaling on straw as it’s a softer cushion for the foal and it helps prohibit the respiratory problems often associated with the smaller particles found in shavings. This way, if she should decide to have her foal early you’ll be prepared. I like to keep an around the clock watch on mares when they’re getting close to their due date. You don’t necessarily need to get up every hour during the night if she’s comfortably resting, but when her behavior begins to change, that can be a pretty good indicator that her time is getting near. Remember ~ the safest foaling by far is an attended one! Also, if you have never had a mare in foal before, I strongly urge you to have either your vet or a friend who has been breeding for some time in attendance with you. Don’t try to go it alone your first time!
A distinct advantage in the area of observation is a closed-circuit television camera with the monitor set up in your house, on which you can keep a close eye on her without having to leave the comfort of your cozy home just to see that she’s sleeping peacefully. Equally as good is having an observation area next to her stall, or an adequate foaling location next to her bedroom window (I have done this before!). There have been mares who I’ve watched religiously for two solid weeks that have foaled behind my back the second I went into the house to get a Kleenex! Lesson learned ~ keep facial tissue and anything else you might need out at the barn when she’s getting close, or you might miss the miracle of birth! Many mares will begin to get restless and pace their stalls, go off their feed and so on, when they’re getting ready to deliver. Unless your mare is a maiden (meaning she’s never had a foal before ~ in which case do your best guesswork!) you should become familiar with her regular routine and how it may change around foaling time.
As parturition (the clinical term for foaling) approaches, be sure to contact your veterinarian and make certain he/she will be available if there is a problem with the delivery. Generally, the foal will reposition itself, or “turn”, in the last four to six hours before birth. When this occurs, your mare’s belly will appear to drop down and you can see much more movement from the baby. You should see a noticeable dropping off, or slackening, of the muscles in the mare’s rump, plus a lengthening and swelling of her vulva (a signal of dilation of the cervix) during this time. Most mares will begin to go through periods of sweating during the early stages of labor, but do not be alarmed...this is perfectly normal, and she is not in any danger.
The time between the onset of labor and presentation of the foal will include rupturing of the membranes (i.e., her “water breaks”), and can vary greatly from mare to mare. Some mares can rapidly go from the first stage of labor to the active stage (birth of the foal itself) without any warning at all, so you will need to keep constant watch over her to render any assistance necessary. Again, I highly recommend having someone with you who is experienced with foaling if you don’t have much experience yourself. A good person to contact in this instance, if you don’t have any friends who breed horses, is the stallion owner or breeding manager from the farm that stands your new baby’s sire. They are usually more than happy to offer any help you may need.
As the foal begins to appear through the amniotic sac, it’s forelegs should be coming out first, one in front of the other to ease the passage of the foal through the mare’s pelvic arch, with it’s tiny nose perched on top in a “diving position” as we call it. Almost immediately the foal’s little hooves (although initially covered with soft pads to avoid injuring his mama which will fall off soon after he’s born) should tear open the sac, and you should make sure his airway is clean and open so that he can start breathing on his own. With a normal, problem free delivery, the mare should be allowed to rest if she wants at different times, even if her foal isn’t all the way out yet. As you fellow mothers out there know, labor and delivery can be an exhausting experience. Just ask my husband!
When the baby has completely cleared the birth canal, do not attempt to cut the umbilical cord! This could cause the foal to lose a lot of precious blood. Once the cord has been severed naturally by the movements of either baby or mom, soak the baby’s navel stump in iodine to prevent infection, and tie up the end of the cord so your mare will avoid stepping on it, and thus, potentially tearing the placenta (afterbirth). The afterbirth may not be passed for several hours, but you want to be sure to save it for your vet to thoroughly examine to ensure that none was retained inside the mare’s uterus, which can cause severe infection.
At this point, both the mare and her newborn foal should be allowed to bond without human interference, but if the baby doesn’t appear to be breathing on it’s own, you may need to resuscitate him. This is one area I will not go into in any further detail here, but I must stress do not be unprepared for anything ~ problems CAN arise quickly. Be sure you know what can happen and what to do in the event something goes wrong!
Within the first hour or so, the foal should begin trying to stand (some try it immediately) and will start looking for his first meal. The act of a foal first attempting to stand can be a somewhat nerve-wracking experience for the first time breeder, since most foals fall down or run into walls or fences several times before they actually get the hang of balancing on their new hooves and those spindly little legs, but most of the time they’re fine and you should let nature take it’s course. When baby is ready to start eating, don’t be too concerned if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for right away. Most often, if left alone, they will do fine. It is critical, however, that the foal consume the first milk of the mare ~ the colostrum ~ as they are not born with any immunity to disease and must receive their resistance to infection from their mother. You want to make sure that the foal is drinking effectively within two hours of birth. If anything appears to be wrong, do not hesitate to call your vet right away.
Because a majority of mares foal during the late evening or in the early morning hours, I usually don’t have the vet out until the following day during regular business hours (unless there is an emergency, of course). Included in the first post-partum visit should be a thorough examination of the foal, at which time he should be given his Tetanus Antitoxin shot and an enema (to prevent retained meconium ~ the first stool of the foal). I will usually automatically administer a Fleet’s enema myself, the kind you can buy at your local drug store. Your vet should also look at the placenta (as described above) and if you are planning to re-breed your mare, you will need to discuss with him when you should do so.
Once the exhilaration of the foaling experience is behind you, it will be time to start planning your new baby’s future. Will he be a great show horse or race horse? Will he be the next superstar sire? Will he just be loved by you for his trusting nature and willingness to carry you down any trail you wish to explore? These are just a few of the reasons we breed horses in the first place. Whatever his lot in life, you can make sure he gets the best start possible by being a responsible breeder.