What to expect when you're expecting...

It’s that time of year again.  Old man winter’s not through with us yet, but we’re getting a bit of a thaw, the sun is shining, and we can tell that spring is coming.  Now, it’s time for foals

If you've got a mare (or several) with a little one cookin'... now’s a good time to get ready for the big day.  If you’re a first time “midwife”, do you know the signs of impending labor and normal delivery?  Have you prepared a foaling kit?  A few hours of preparation and equipment gathering can save you lots of time (and stress!) during the big event.  If you’re unsure of what to expect, read on!

Most people know that a mare’s gestation is roughly 11 months, but keep in mind that this length depends largely on the mare.  Horses are “prey” animals, and therefore have developed the ability to delay foaling until they are sure it is safe… as anyone who has tried to “catch” a mare giving birth will tell you.  So it is prudent to make your mare’s environment as secure and “routine” as possible.  Moving your mare, introducing new horses, or constantly turning the lights on in the middle of the night to see what she’s doing, can all cause her to delay foaling.

The best way to tell if your mare is getting close to foaling is to monitor for subtle signs of udder development, vulva elongation and relaxation of the pelvic ligaments.  Each morning, perform a brief exam on your mare: 

  1. Palpate her udder – is it filling?  Try to differentiate between edema (fluid pooling under the skin, it usually will “pit” under finger pressure) and glandular development (firmer, more uniform than edema).  As udder development progresses, the teats may begin secreting a pre-milk substance which can gather on the teats as “wax”.  Waxing teats usually means that a mare is quite close and should foal within 48 hours, but it’s never a sure thing.
  2. Next, palpate the hindquarters to each side of the tail head.  Is this area firm, or loose?  As the pregnancy progresses, the pelvic ligaments should relax, causing this area to become flaccid and “jiggly”.  Feel for tail tone as well.  Most mares will resist you manually lifting their tail, but as the ligaments relax you may be able to lift it quite easily.
  3. Finally, check the vulva.  As your mare gets close to foaling, the vulva will relax and elongate.  Check for any discharge.  A small amount of clear mucus as the due date approaches may be normal, but any other drainage should be checked by your veterinarian. 

Keep in mind that a maiden mare (one carrying her first foal) may not progress in a normal, expected way.  She may not develop a good udder before foaling, and her ligaments may not relax until just before the event.  She will also likely be more “spooky” about her pregnancy than an experienced mare, and may put off foaling.  You will need to watch her more closely, but be sneakier about it… this is where baby monitors and foaling cameras can be helpful. 

So, your mare is getting ready.  What should you do to prepare for this momentous occasion?  Putting together a foaling kit is always a good idea.  A large plastic bin, easily disinfected and easily carried, will help keep everything clean, together and at hand.  Items found in a good foaling kit include:

            1.  Several large, clean, absorbent towels (bath towels are a nice size)

            2.  Bailing twine

            3.  Scissors

            4.  Clean latex gloves

            5.  Several large plastic garbage bags

            6.  Dilute chlorohexidine or betadine solution (1:4 with water) and a small cup

            7.  Flashlight

            8.  Numbers for your vet, friend/neighbor

            9.  A watch or clock

How will you know it’s actually happening?  Foaling is broken down into three stages.  Stage 1 is the preparation stage: the foal repositions into the “diving” position associated with birth (front feet at the cervix, nose just behind it), and the uterine contractions begin to prepare for the BIG push.  Signs of stage 1 include restlessness, sweating, getting up and down, rolling, not eating, or just looking “off”.  Stage 1 signs can be drastic enough to be confused with colic (especially in maiden mares), or they may be very subtle (a slight lift of the tail, increased walking in the stall).  Stage 1 can last a few hours, or potentially days.  To add to the confusion, a mare can halt her progress at Stage 1 if she is stressed or senses danger, and seem to show no more signs of labors for several days. 

The end of Stage 1 is signaled by the release of fetal fluids: her “water breaks”.  At this point, there is no turning back.  The foal must come out in 20-30 minutes or risk serious complications.  If you are lucky enough to be present when the water breaks, check your watch.  The mare should push vigorously, and you should see good progress within about 5 minutes.  If 7-10 minutes have passed and you can’t see any sign of a foal, call your vet.  If you see a nose, but no feet, call your vet.  If you see just one leg, or two legs and no head, call your vet.  (Sensing a theme?)  When you first glimpse the foal at the mare’s vulva, it will be likely be covered in a white membrane, the amnion.  This is normal, and the foal will break it as it is being delivered.  If it seems to be in the foal’s face as the delivery progresses, you may move it aside, but this is usually unnecessary.  If you see this:


Call your vet immediately.  This is a “red bag” delivery.  You probably didn’t hear or see the water break, because it hasn’t.  This is premature placental separation, the foal and all the membranes are coming out at the same time.  The placenta has separated from the uterus, leaving the foal without oxygen.  Your vet will probably instruct you to open the membranes (using the scissors) and pull the foal out.  This is where the scissors come in.  Sound scary?  It is.  This condition is rare, but if you don’t know what to look for, you may miss it. 

That scary topic aside, assume (mostly for the sake of time, as this post is getting a bit long already) that the birth was very normal, and you have a wet, vigorous foal and a tired but happy mare in the stall now.  Stage 2 of labor is complete: the foal has been born.  Stage 3 is the passage of the placenta, which may take up to three hours. 

Take a few minutes to dry the foal (with the towels in your foaling kit), and check him or her out.  Mucous membranes should be nice and pink, he should be picking his head up and breathing well.  Fumbling, thrashing and making strange noises are normal!  A dull, listless foal needs attention – if he doesn’t get more active with vigorous toweling, call your vet.  Check out the umbilicus.  The cord has likely ripped already or will once the mare stands.  Allowing the cord to break on its own is better than cutting it.  Once the cord breaks, check for bleeding (should be minimal or none), and dip the stump in the solution of dilute chlorhexidine or betadine.  Quickly evaluate the mare, and tie up the fetal membranes so they don’t drag on the ground while she works on passing them.

Then – leave the stall!  Resist the urge to stay and cuddle with the newborn foal.  Especially if the mare is a maiden, she needs this time to bond with her foal.  Allow the two to rest, nicker to each other, and work on being a pair.  Watch from a distance as the foal gets more active.  A good rule of thumb is that the foal should stand within an hour of being born, nurse within 2 hours, and the placenta should be passed within three hours.  

Once the placenta has passed, collect it in a garbage bag and keep it for your vet to examine the next day.  We’ll examine the placenta to make sure it’s all there – if a piece is missing, it may be left in the mare.  A retained placental fragment can make a mare quite sick.  We’ll also want to examine the foal at about 8-12 hours after birth.  We can pull a blood sample to check for good transfer of immunity from the mare in her colostrums (first milk).  We’ll also check for defects like a cleft palate or broken ribs which can occur during birth.  We’ll examine the mare to be sure she’s producing enough milk and didn’t sustain serious injury during foaling.

As they say, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.  Having the tools you’ll need, and the knowledge to know what’s normal and abnormal, can save you from frustration and heartache in the long run.  There’s nothing better than watching a happy healthy foal grow up.  Here’s to the next generation, and a wonderful spring to all.