The processes of foaling are divided into three main stages that each consist of key events and signs of the progression of the birth and new life of the foal. It is important to keep track of time for some of the specific events to be sure the procedure is going normally. An observant eye must be used to watch for warning signs and irregularities that could be endangering to the foal and possibly also the mare.
When the mare begins to show the first signs of labour (discussed later), it is important to gather appropriate tools to be prepared for every step. Supplies for the foaling process include O.B. gloves, a foaling record of the mare (which includes records of timing of events and what is or is not normal for her), a watch or clock to monitor progress of labour, phone numbers for the vet (best memorized in case of emergency, or kept by nearest phone), stethoscope, thermometre, any drugs that have been prescribed by the vet, and an oxygen set up. Geared specifically for the mare, some more necessities include a halter and lead shank, tail wraps, three buckets (one for washing mare’s perineal area, one for a warm bran mash, one for the disposal of the mare’s placental membranes to be examined by the vet if necessary, or if threat of pieces of placenta still within uterus), warm water, cotton or paper towels, mild soap or antibacterial wash, penlight to check the condition of the udder, bran, plenty of hay, and constant availability of clean, fresh water. It is also best to have the mare bed on straw within the birthing stall. Dust within shavings can irritate the foal’s lungs, shavings and similar bedding materials are also at risk for clumping around the foal’s wet nostrils, potentially suffocating it, and shavings may be consumed by the mare if they are licked off by her when she is cleaning her newborn foal. The coming foal should also have an arsenal of supplies prepped for post-partum.
On hand during the arrival of the foal, it is best to keep the iodine nearby, although recent studies suggest that iodine based products can cause sloughing of skin cells around the naval and run the risk of exposing the naval to infection, so 0.5% chlorhexidine which is recommended as a better solution can be used instead. A warm phosphate enema (geared more for colts than fillies because of the narrower pelvis) can be used (this is debatable because it has been observed that repeated enemas can cause irritation for the mucousal lining of the gut). A clean bath towel should also be kept handy. It is important for the health of the foal that the environment is kept clean and safe and that the manure is removed regularly. Some bacteria thrive in manure, especially if the mare (or her and her foal’s pasture mates) have not been wormed, and certain types can cause infections within the foal’s lungs that are often undetectable until the infection has become serious. (Due to a foal’s early lifestyle being lacking of regimented exercise, it is rarely noticed early on in the development of the infection within the lungs.) With the supplies at hand, when the mare begins to show the early signs of the first stage labour, the handler will be much better prepared.
Before labour commences, the mare will often, but not always, give hints that the foal is on the way. Approximately two to six weeks prior to foaling, the udder may become distended. Seven to ten days before foaling, the muscles in the croup area will show a marked shrinkage and appear almost concave to the mare’s hip bones. She may begin to isolate herself from other horses within the herd. The teats fill out the nipples roughly four to six days before delivery, but it may be as early as a two weeks, and wax may begin to develop at the tips of the nipples. This trait, however, isn’t common with all mares. Another test is to check the quality of the first milk. The handler, if the mare allows him/her, can milk a few drops. If the liquid is cloudy or milky white in appearance, it is an early warning sign of impending delivery. If wax covers develop, they normally fall off the day of delivery, although hours vary, and may begin to drip. If, however, the mare has evidence of extended drippage (white spots on her hinds legs where drops have fallen), the handler should consider collecting and refrigerating it, as this is the colostrum and it contains many important antibodies to boost the foal’s immune system.
Within days prior to foaling, the calcium concentrations increase in mammary secretions. Using a test kit for water hardness, where calcium content is measured, it is possible to predict within four days of foaling. The test strips have four different zones which change colour when exposed to certain concentrations of calcium. If three or four zones change colour, foaling will occur within four days, but if there are no more than two zones that change colour, foaling will not occur within twenty-four hours. This process can actually decrease number of nights the mare is on foal watch, because a considerably accurate reading can predict how soon she will be ready for labour. Some exceptions may occur, but this is a generally reliable guide.
First stage labour is recognized when the muscles in the uterine wall undergo rhythmic contractions. During this stage, the cervix begins to dilate in preparation for the passing foal. The mare, especially maiden mares, may become nervous and walk around the stall anxiously, and glance back at their flanks. They experience cramps and will likely break out in a sweat. The mare may also experience mood shifts from nervousness or discomfort to a look of concentration or looking in the distance, and will become restless, getting up and lying down repeatedly, and possibly pawing the ground. Once this stage has been diagnosed, the mare’s tail should be wrapped and her perineal area thoroughly washed. This is when any apparent wax drips are lost, and some mares may begin to drip valuable colostrum. The mare should be milked lightly, if she allows it, and the colostrum should be stored in a sterile container and fed to the foal as soon after birth as possible. During the mare’s restlessness, it is believed that her shifting positions are to help position the foal in the birth canal. The discomfort will increase with the frequency of contractions, and eventually lead to the breaking of the water. There is no way to clearly estimate how long this stage should last, but if it seems prolonged and the mare is in danger of becoming exhausted, contacting veterinary assistance could be considered as prolonged first stage labour could be a sign of problems, especially if the mare’s behaviour displays particular distress. Some mares may display false starts over a period of days, but this stage ends when the water finally breaks, expelling 2 to 5 gallons of fluid.
The second stage may last up to hours or only a few minutes. Though it is usually about twenty minutes, it can range anywhere from five minutes to an hour (sources vary). Once the fluid has been expelled, if an episiotomy is required, now is the time to do so. The mare will normally assume a recumbent position which is easier for her straining, and should begin to present a white amniotic sac. If the sac is velvety-red in colour, it should be ruptured and the foal should be removed as quickly possible, but in coordination with the mare’s efforts to push it out, and a vet should be called as quickly as possible. If the forelegs, one slightly advanced of the other, and the muzzle are both evident, the mare should be left to deliver naturally. If the foal is positioned improperly veterinary assistance should be called for. It is perfectly normal for the mare to get up and down or roll, but if prolonged agitation persists (exceeding two hours), contact with an experienced individual or a vet can be considered to ensure normality for the mare, or to determine if veterinary assistance is required.
As soon as the foal’s head is presented and comes through the sac (allow it to break naturally if it is healthy), fluid should be removed from the nostrils as quickly as possible to allow the foal to breathe sooner, and to sooner evaluate the breathing rate of the foal. If the foal, however, seems distressed at all or is limp or weak at delivery, the amnion should be broken immediately and the foal’s head lifted and nostrils cleared to aid breathing. The mare will normally lie for a few minutes to rest and will more likely than not extend her neck to sniff her new foal. It is very important that interference between bonding is avoided, so that the mare and foal are more likely to have a normal mare-foal relationship. The foal will still have it’s hind legs within it’s mother, and it should be left alone. The umbilical cord should be left still attached and left to break naturally to prevent blood loss. The cord will break naturally when the mare stands, usually the breaking point is an inch to a 1 inches from the naval and it should be treated. If it doesn’t break by itself, it should be crushed approximately that near to the foal and treated with iodine or 0.5% chlorhexidine. Some mares will rest for as long as thirty minutes, and should be encourage to do so. This prevents the still-relaxed vulva from possibly sucking in air and risking post-partum endometritis or acute metritis, which delays uterine involution and any return to oestrus. Michel clips may be used after stage three to hold the upper vulva shut and reducing air contamination and are easily removed 2-3 days post-partum for the normal veterinary examination, and can then be replaced with a Caslick operation if necessary.
Third stage labour occurs when the mare begins to appear restless again, as this is when she must expel the afterbirth. This stage roughly lasts about an hour, but varies between mares and their individual experiences. The placenta may be expelled with the foal, or it may take up to several hours to be completely removed. If it is not out with the foal when the mare stands, it is best to tie it up so that the mare won’t step in it and risk breaking pieces off within the uterus.
Roughly twenty minutes post-partum, the foal should now be attempting to stand, and then walk. If the mare didn’t chew it off, the spongy pads on the soles of the foal’s hooves will wear off when it begins to walk. Once the foal is able to stand and walk by itself, it can be given a phosphate enema to ease the passage of the meconium. Colts may require two doses because of the smaller pelvic size, however, as previously discussed, it can irritate the mucous lining of the gut and only used if necessary. The priority area, however, once the foal is on it’s feet is making sure it can find the udder. Patience may be required while the foal attempts to find the utter of the mare, but in the process builds up the bond between them by moving with her and following her. If he or she has trouble, the handler can tickle the lip of the foal to guide it toward the nipples. It is discouraged to try and push the foal to her as he will naturally resist. Instead, you can mimic the mare by tickling his haunches as the mare would nuzzle him. The mare may move away from the foal’s first attempts because of pain in her udder, but again, this builds up the bond between them, encouraging the foal to follow her.
It is very important that the foal consume the colostrum preferably within two hours after birth. If the mare is unable to give milk for some reason, or she was seriously injured labour, substitutes can be fed, but real colostrum is best (it can be stored healthily for up to a year). It is very important to keep the foal between the mare and the handler, especially if the mare has a history of being aggressive or protective. The handler might find herself at risk with an aggressive mare, and potentially victim to biting or kicking if they get between mare and foal.
As soon as the foal has passed the meconium and nursed, and the mare has accepted the foal, they can be left alone to bond at will, rest and eat. The mare should be provided with ample hay in various places around her stall if she’s distracted, and she should have a constant availability of water. A warm bran mash should be fed to ease digestion through her more-than-likely bruised digestive system, and can be fed a meal of mash for the next few days.
Although most deliveries go as planned, bringing healthy foals into the world, it is best to have an experienced individual on foalwatch to make sure that there are no problems. Some problems, such as a velvety-coloured amniotic sac, or improper fetal position, can be fatal. Call a vet in case of uncertainties or obvious problems, such as those just mentioned occurred. Sometimes, for mares that have a risky history, it is considerable to have induced delivery, even though foals are often weaker or smaller than they would be if left to be born naturally. Corticosteroids are the most effective means of inducing labour, but administration of progesterone, and prostaglandins can be used. The use of oxytocin is increasingly common today, though. When so much time, effort, and money are invested in the broodmare, we still owe her for her efforts by providing her with all the help she needs, whatever that may be.