Parturition: The Birth of the Foal

Mare and new foal in pasture.
Mare and new foal in pasture.

Pregnancies in mares are variable in length; therefore, it is important to be prepared for foaling in plenty of time. When the mare begins to show signs of beginning the birth process, it is important to watch carefully for any warning signs or irregularities that could endanger the foal or possibly the mare.

Preparations for labor

Long before the mare is due to foal, it is important to prepare for the birth of the foal by collecting the necessary supplies and keeping them in the stable or barn area in a covered container. Supplies should include:

  1. Tail wrapping material for the mare's tail
  2. Several pairs of latex or rubber gloves, preferably sterile
  3. Betadine or Nolvasan iodine solution
  4. A flashlight with new and spare batteries
  5. Several large towels and a few hand towels
  6. At least two prepared commercial enemas
  7. Clean, sharp scissors
  8. Clamps or hemostats to control bleeding
  9. A large, thick garbage bag for the placenta
  10. A clean bucket with soap for washing hands and arms, the foal and mare
  11. Plenty of clean, fresh water
  12. Suture thread or sterilized fishing line
  13. Roll cotton
  14. A watch or clock
  15. The veterinarian's phone number

In addition to the supplies, an adequate clean stable with a bed of straw should be made ready. Straw is preferred over shavings because dust that might affect the foal is minimized. In some cases, owners choose to have their mares foal outside in a pasture, but having the mare inside a confined area makes it easier to control the situation.

Signs of impending labor

  1. Udder increases in size and milk may be produced
  2. Muscles in croup area will show shrinkage
  3. Mare may isolate herself from other horses
  4. Calcium concentrations increase in mammary secretions
  5. Mare may become nervous and show signs of discomfort

During stage one of labor the muscles in uterine wall begin contractions and the water breaks expelling 2 to 5 gallons of fluid. Contractions continue as the muscles in the mare's abdomen begin positioning the foal for the actual birth.

The second stage is the actual delivery. The uterine walls contract forcefully and the mare lies down. Forceful straining of the muscles of the mare's abdomen push the foal through the birth canal, and initially, a membranous sac will appear at her vulva. The foal's leg and neck movements usually break this membrane that is called the amnion.

As the head is exposed, breathing begins and within a short period of time, delivery of the hind legs and body occur. Any abnormality during the second stage of labor is an emergency. The foal is born with the umbilical cord attached and is being nurtured with the mare's blood. It is important that the cord is not severed. The cord breaks naturally as the foal moves.

Stage three of labor is the cleaning-out stage when the placental membranes are expelled from the mare's uterus. Normally this process will take about an hour. The placenta should always be checked carefully to determine that is has all been expelled and that no pieces have remained in the mare to cause infection.

Prevention of problems during equine delivery

It is important for the foal that the environment is safe and clean, and that manure is removed regularly. It is best to keep the iodine solution nearby along with clean towels. In many cases, wax will develop at the tips of the mare's nipples, and they may begin to drip.

If there is evidence of extended dripping, (white spots on the mares hind legs where drops have fallen), the mare should be lightly milked, if she allows it, and the colostrum stored in a sterile container to be fed to the foal as soon after birth as possible. The colostrum contains important antibodies to boost the foal's immune system. Once it is obvious that the birth process has begun, the mare's tail should be wrapped and the perineal area thoroughly washed.

During this first stage the mare will be restless and shifting positions. This helps position the foal in the birth canal. Once the water breaks, the mare moves into the second state of delivery. This stage may take only a few minutes or may last an hour or so. Any abnormality during the second state is an emergency. If after a few minutes' effort, two feet and a muzzle do not appear, contact the vet immediately. Normally the mare will be in a recumbent position and should begin to present a white amniotic sac.

If the sac is velvety-red in color, it should be ruptured and the foal removed as quickly as possible. The vet should be called immediately. It is perfectly normal for the mare to get up and down or roll, but if prolonged agitation occurs or labor exceeds two hours, an experienced individual or veterinarian should determine the best course of action.

As soon as the foal's head is presented, remove fluid from the nostrils and evaluate the breathing rate of the foal. If the foal is distressed or is limp or weak, the amnion should be broken immediately and the head lifted and nostrils cleared to aid breathing. The mare will normally extend her neck to sniff her new foal, and it is important to give her time to begin the bonding process.

The newborn foal

The newborn foal

Straw is the preferred bedding for delivery as it is less dusty and less likely to stick to the newborn foal.

As the foal exits the birth canal, the umbilical cord should be left attached and left to break naturally to prevent blood loss. It will break naturally when the mare stands and should be treated with iodine or chlorhexidine solution. If it doesn't break naturally, it should be crushed approximately 1 inch from the navel and treated.

The mare will rest for as long as thirty minutes and this should be encouraged. It prevents the still-relaxed vulva from possibly sucking in air and the risk post-partum endometritis or acute metritis which delays uterine involution. Michel clips may be used after stage three to hold the upper vulva shut and reduce air contamination. If the mare's vulva is torn at foaling, it will be necessary to perform a minor operation called a Caslick's operation to restore the tissues to normal.

During the third stage, the mare expels the afterbirth. This stage lasts roughly an hour. It may be expelled with the foal, but if not, it is best to tie it up so that the mare won't step in it and risk breaking off pieces in the uterus. Once the placenta is delivered, it should be checked for completeness, placed in a strong plastic bag and saved for the veterinarian's examination.

Roughly twenty minutes after birth, the foal should be attempting to stand and then walk. It should be given a phosphate enema to ease the passage of meconium. Some foals might require two enemas, but only if necessary.

Searching for the mare's teat

Searching for the mare's teat

Some babies may require help to locate their mother's teat. It is very important that the foal consume colostrum within the first two hours after birth.

At this point the foal should be seeking the mare's udder. If he or she has trouble finding it, guiding the lip of the foal toward the nipples can be helpful. It is very important that the foal consume the colostrum within two hours after birth. If the mare is unable to give milk for some reason, substitutes can be fed.

It is important for the handler not to get between the mare and the colt during this bonding period. Some mares may become aggressive if they feel that they or the foal are threatened in any way.

Consider this

The mare should be provided with ample hay, plenty of fresh water and a warm bran mash should be fed to ease digestion through her likely bruised digestive system. A meal of mash during the next few days should also be supplied and care taken to ensure that both the mare and the foal remain healthy.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.