By Roger Dixon BVM&S Cert AVP(ESM) MRCVS – Ashbrook Equine Hospital.
Brood mares throughout the country are steadily getting bigger, and owners are preparing for the new arrivals. The build-up to foaling can be a stressful time, but careful planning and preparation can help to give the mare owner the confidence to foal their mare at home and identify when assistance is necessary.
This article will discuss:
- How to prepare for foaling
- What to expect in a normal foaling
- Care of the newborn foal
- When to call the vet!
……Not All Mares Read Textbooks!
The average duration of pregnancy in the mare is 11 months, or 335 to 342 days. However, this can vary tremendously with some mares routinely foaling up to 1 month ‘early’ or ‘late’. Mares that foal in the early spring (February and March) tend to have longer gestation lengths than those foaling in late spring and summer.
Mares may be foaled outside, but:
- It may be difficult to monitor the mare on a frequent basis
- Other horses may interfere with the foal
- The placenta may be taken by predators before being inspected
- The foal may be injured in wire fences, ditches, ponds etc
Foaling in boxes allows for easier surveillance especially when a suitable small paddock is not available:
- There must be adequate room – a box at least 4m X 4m
- Good bedding – well compacted over the floor and built up at the sides.
- Minimal low-level feed bins; the water buckets must be off the floor.
- The foaling box should be away from other foaling mares.
- Minimal disturbance is crucial; careful observation from a distance is best.
PREPARATION FOR FOALING
The mare should be moved to her foaling environment 2-4 weeks before her anticipated foaling date. She should be vaccinated for influenza and tetanus at least 4 weeks before her expected foaling date. A daily and nightly routine should be established and followed without alteration so she becomes accustomed to the routine and will not be disturbed by it when she is ready to foal. The mare should be checked at least twice daily and even more frequently as signs of impending birth develop.
If your mare has had a Caslick’s operation in her vulva at the time of insemination or covering, it is essential this is ‘undone’ at least 48 hours before she is expected to foal.
It is said that the foal chooses the date of birth and the mare chooses the time. Mares are capable of postponing active labour if they do not feel safe or secure and will often foal between 11pm and 4am when the environment is quiet. There are several ways of predicting impending birth;
- The ligaments along the tail-head relax and become progressively more pliable in the last 2 weeks of gestation. The vulva and anus relax and soften.
- Udder development starts about 1 month before foaling and becomes more noticeable in the last 2 weeks. The udder secretions are initially yellow and watery but thicken and become like weak honey before finally becoming a thick milky yellow shortly before foaling. This thick secretion is colostrum that contains antibodies to help the foal fight infection.
- A wax-like secretion is often seen on the teats 72 hours before foaling (‘Waxing up’), although it may appear up to 2 weeks before in some mares.
- Mares that have had several foals sometimes ‘run milk’ a day or two before foaling. If this lasts for hours at a time over several days then the mare may be milked out and the colostrum frozen to administer to the foal when it is born. Your vet should be contacted to give advice about blood testing the foal at 24 hours of age to ensure enough antibodies have been ingested.
- Relaxed tail-head ligaments
- Closed circuit TV monitors are ideal and allow observation from a distance without disturbing the mare.
- Belt / girth alarms which are strapped to the mare’s abdomen are activated by abdominal contractions and may be attached to a pager or phone system. False alarms are common when the mare grunts when lying down.
- Mammary secretions may be tested either by your vet or by commercial ‘mare side’ kits e.g. Foalwatch. These usually measure calcium levels in milk which increase 3 days before foaling.
- The mare may show increased restlessness, mild abdominal comfort and decreased appetite. If with other mares, she may separate herself from the group.
STAGES OF LABOUR
Labour is divided into 3 distinct stages.
First-stage labour usually lasts about 1 hour. The mare can control the duration of Stage 1 and can delay Stage 2 for hours or even days if she is disturbed.
During Stage 1, uterine contractions occur and the cervix relaxes. The foal rotates from an upside-down to a right-side up position, ready for normal birth. The mare may show signs similar to that of colic. These include:
- Restlessness, looking at her flanks and kicking at her belly.
- Rolling to assist positioning of the foal. As a general rule she should not be prevented from rolling but this must be distinguished from colic.
- Frequent urination and defaecation.
- There are no obvious abdominal contractions during Stage 1.
Stage 1 ends when the ‘waters break’ and a volume of tan-red coloured fluid appears.
Second stage labour involves delivery of the foal. It usually lasts about 15 – 20 minutes.
- Powerful abdominal contractions occur which each lasting between 15 seconds and 1 minute.
- Sets of contractions are interspersed by 2-3 minute periods of rest.
- A glistening white membrane (the amnion) appears at the vulva containing fluid or a foot.
- If a thick red membrane appears at the vulva it is essential to call your vet immediately.
- Both front feet (one in front of the other) and the nose should then appear.
- Contractions cause expulsion of the head, after which the mare may rest for several minutes.
- Further contractions expel the foal, who will be born in glistening white membrane. The membrane should be cleared from the foal’s head if it has not already torn.
If no strong contractions are evident or no progress has been made 15 minutes after the waters break then you should contact your vet immediately.
Movements of the foal or mare rupture the umbilical cord; it is important not to interfere with this process. The mare and foal should not be disturbed during this time unless absolutely necessary because this is when bonding between them occurs. Observation from a distance should be maintained to ensure no problems develop, especially with particularly nervous or maiden mares. Occasionally the mare may need to be sedated by your vet to allow the foal to nurse.
It is important to treat the foal’s navel soon after birth with 0.5% chlorhexidine (Hibiscrub) or dilute iodine solution. This helps to prevent infection from developing in the umbilicus.
Stage 3 results in expulsion of the placenta and foetal membranes and usually takes 1 – 3 hours. Uterine contractions at this time can cause signs of colic / abdominal pain.
- The placenta should be kept so your vet can inspect them to ensure they have all been expelled.
If the placenta is not passed within 4-6 hours, this is a true emergency and you should immediately contact your vet for advice.
THE NEWBORN FOAL
It is important that the newborn foal is kept warm and dry. Foals usually try to stand within 20 minutes of birth and are up within 1 hour. He / she should suck from the mare within 2 hours of birth.
It is a good idea to ask your vet to perform a routine health check 24 hours after birth. This may include:
- A thorough physical examination of the foal, including checking the umbilicus, eyes, and constipation.
- Blood testing the foal to ensure he / she has taken enough colostrum which is vital for immunity.
- Checking the mare for any vulva tears
- Checking to ensure the whole of the placenta has been passed.