by Kathy Thomson
Sometime around 340 days of gestation your mare should foal. Most mares foal at night. All mares go through three stages of labor.
Stage one of delivery involves positioning the foal for birth.
During stage one labor the mare shows no pronounced outward signs of straining, but often shows signs similar to those of mild colic. During this stage her uterus is contracting so as to position the foal into the birth canal. Before birth, during the last part of pregnancy, the foal is normally positioned lying on its back with its head and front knees pointed toward the mares rear. During stage one of labor the foal performs a half rotation to be in position for its swan dive into the outside world and straightens out its front legs and neck.
The mares appearance during stage one labor normally includes a full udder, strutted teats full of colostrum, waxing on ends of teats and/or leaking milk, elongated and relaxed vulva, prominent tailhead, and often the mare will have patchy or slight sweating under mane, behind the elbow, and in the flanks.
During this stage most mares are restless. They frequently get up and down, switch their tails, urinate, stretch as if to urinate, defecate small amounts of feces, look at their flank, stomp their feet, yawn, and may press and rub their rear against walls. But dont be fooled, some mares show no outward signs at all.
Stage one may be interrupted and postponed for hours or days. But normally it proceeds and ends with the rupture of the chorioallantoic membrane and release of the amnion fluid (breaking water). If you notice your mare displaying signs of stage one labor, keep a close watch on her. Foaling will probably happen within a few hours, perhaps within a few minutes. Write down a few notes on what types of behavior you noticed and the approximate times. This information could become very important if you need the assistance of your vet, to help him/her determine how long your mare has been in labor.
Your mare, in stage one labor, may look and act uncomfortable and irritable, this is normal. However she should not act as if she is in great pain. If your mare is an a great deal of pain call the vet. She could be suffering from a twisted uterus. This can often be remedied, but you need knowledgeable, skilled assistance NOW.
Wrapping your mares tail at this time will help prevent it from soaking up fluids and feces that could harbor infection and makes it easier to clean it up post-foaling.
Stage two of labor is the actual delivery of the foal.
Stage two of labor starts with the rupture of the chorioallantoic membrane (breaking water). This sounds and looks like a mare urinating a lot of fluid as most of the amniotic fluid is expelled. This fluid protected the foal in utero and serves to lubricate the birth canal during parturition.
Rarely, instead of the chorioallantoic membrane rupturing, a red, velvety looking tissue will protrude from the mares vulva. This occurs if the placenta is prematurely becoming separated from the mares uterus. This is an emergency situation because the foal is loosing its oxygen supply. You will have to handle this quickly to have a chance to save the foal. Cut open the membrane, don a sterile O.B. sleeve if you have one, and reach inside the mare to find the foal. You should find two front feet within reach, with a nose following shortly behind them. The foal will be encased within the amnion (a thick, bluish-white transparent membrane). Rip open the amnion, grab the front legs and pull the foal to deliver it as rapidly as possible. If it is delivered quickly enough it should be okay. But any delay may result in the foal suffocating or drowning.
After the water breaks, a bluish-white transparent membrane (the amnion) is pushed out through the vulva lips. The typical mare will lay down, often expelling more of the amniotic fluid. She may stay laying down and go into hard labor, but often will get up and down several times. Very soon, within only a few minutes, a hoof should be visible protruding from the mare, followed closely (~15 cm) by a second hoof. Both hooves should be facing palms down. If more than a few minutes pass and a hoof is not visible, you can slip on a sterile sleeve and check inside the mare. If you find both feet, and theyre both facing palms down, feel past them and make sure you find a nose resting on top of the forelegs near the knees. If you can find this, back away and give the mare some more time. Stage two of foaling typically takes 10 to 60 minutes.
If the hooves are facing palms up you need to take action. Either the foal is being presented backwards, and must quickly be pulled before it takes a deep breath of amniotic fluid and drowns, or the foal has not completed its swan dive into the birth canal. Either case requires your immediate assistance. To determine which one is the problem feel past the fetlock to the next joint on the foal. If it is a knee it will flex in the same direction as the fetlock joint, and you have a front leg. If it is a hock it will flex in the opposite direction as the fetlock joint, and you have a back leg.
If you find you have back legs, grab hold of them and pull the foal out as quickly as you can. (DO NOT use any kind of mechanical device to pull a foal EVER. If it can not be pulled with one or two people tugging on the legs you need a vet NOW.)
If you have front legs, you need to assist the foal in completing its rotation in order to ease the trauma of delivery on both the mare and foal. If the hooves are still inside the mare they will be aimed for her rectum and can easily jam through the tissues causing a serious recto-vaginal fistula. To prevent this, cup the hooves with the palm of one hand, holding your hand between the hooves and the mares rectum. Use your other hand to try and twist the two front legs to turn the foal. Go ahead and call the vet if you can, but dont give up trying to turn the foal. If it wont turn one way, try the other way. I normally find that after 5 minutes of hopeless lack of progress, the foal will suddenly turn and assume the normal palms down position. The mare may want to get up and down during this process. Dont let her hurt you if she moves around, but keep in mind that the mare getting up and down often helps shift the foal into the correct position.
If you reached in the mare and didnt find two feet and a nose, but instead some other body part of the foal, or other combination (one foot, one foot and a head...) CALL THE VET. TELL THE VET THAT YOU HAVE A FOALING EMERGENCY. Then get the mare up and walking as you wait for the vet. Repositioning the foal requires a great deal of expertise. If you are experienced with repositioning calves or lambs and have read how to reposition foals you may decide to try this as you wait for the vet. Otherwise just try and keep the mare up and moving as this delays labor and allows the foal the possibility of repositioning itself. Time is critical in foaling. Walking the mare buys you some time as you wait for the arrival of the veterinarian.
If you have two front feet followed by a nose, wait quietly as your mare goes to work. The mare should now be laying down on her side, all four feet extended, and often grunts or groans loudly as she pushes. Dont panic if she gets up and down a couple of times, this is normal.
Most mares will lay down to deliver the foal, though a very few mares will insist upon foaling standing up. If your mare wont lay down, try and cushion the foals arrival into the world. Foals are heavy, slippery objects to try and catch, but you can at least slow down the fall.
It often takes a mare several hard contractions to get the shoulders delivered. If your mare has a temperament to let you, and you decide to, you can assist the mare by pulling on the foals legs. However, only pull when the mare is pushing. When the mare rest between contractions, you can use mild tension to keep the foal from slipping backwards, but dont pull when the mare is not experiencing a contraction. With the calm, quiet, mare you can also ease behind the mare as she is delivering the shoulders and rip or cut open the allantois and repel it back away from the foals nose, so the foal can start breathing once the ribs are delivered.
Sometimes a foals elbow will seem to hang up on the mares pelvic rim and one fore leg will end up way behind the other, with the mare making little or no progress delivering the shoulders. You can make this much easier with just a little help. After easing up to the mares rear, wait until the mare is resting between contractions and then gently but firmly push the extended leg back into the uterus a couple of inches while applying gentle traction to the shorter leg. Often the shorter leg will then slip over the pelvic rim and make delivery much easier.
Mares often take a short break once the shoulders are delivered, dont be too worried if your mare pauses here. Soon the mare should go back to work and deliver the hips before stopping to rest again.
Occasionally a foals hips will hang up in the pelvic cavity. If the delivery seems to stop at this point, rotate the foal 90°. This allows the widest part of the foals hips to be aligned with the widest part of the mares pelvic canal and often allows delivery to proceed.
Once the foal is delivered, stage two is completed. The foal and mare often rest with the legs still within the mare. If you havent already done so, remove the amnion from the foals nose and make sure the foal is breathing. Try and remove excess fluid from the foals nostrils by running your hand down both sides of the muzzle while applying a little pressure and/or by picking up the foals chest and letting the head hang down for fluid to run out the nostrils.
If the foal is not breathing, try tickling the inside of the foals nostril with a hay straw to get it to sneeze, move the front legs and rub down the coat with dry hay or a towel to try and stimulate nerve responses that often lead to breathing, and/or give mouth to nostril resuscitation. To give mouth to nostril resuscitation, close the foals mouth and a nostril and breath into the other nostril. Do this repeatedly until the foal starts to breathe or you give up all hope. Be sure and check for a heartbeat by feeling the foals chest, because as long as the heart is still beating there is still definite hope of reviving the foal.
Note the time the foal was born as future events will be measured from this milestone.
The foal should try and prop itself on its chest (reach sternal recumbency) within a few minutes of birth. If your foal does not do so, note this for your vet, as it may be a sign of health problems in the foal.
Do not cut the umbilical cord. Encourage the mare to stay laying down as long as the umbilical cord is still attached. Blood contained in the placenta will be pumped into the foal during this time. Therefore this continued connection is very important to the foal. Eventually movements of the mare and/or foal should cause the umbilical cord to break. If the cord does not break on its own after a half hour or so, you can separate it, but still do not cut it. Instead grasp the cord on each side of the natural separation area which should be visible as a whiter area about 2 inches away from the foal and pull the cord in two.
Once the umbilical cord is in two, the foals navel needs to be treated to keep infectious agents from using the umbilical stump as a highway into the foal. There are different schools of thought as to what the navel should be treated with, and how often. I have always used strong iodine to thoroughly saturate the entire stump, and have been pleased with the results. However, many horsemen now feel that a slightly less caustic agent such as a milder iodine or chlorohexidine should be used several times over the first day or two. Check with your vet, but be sure and use some treatment as soon as the cord breaks.
If it can easily be done, get the foal off of the placental membranes, so that they are not as likely to be torn when the mare stands.
An enema can be given to the foal to assist it in quickly passing the meconium (first fecal material). Again there are different schools of thought, each valid. One holds that an enema adds unneeded stress to the foal, as the vast majority of foals pass the meconium with no problems. If a foal does develop colic-like signs from unpassed meconium material a couple of days after birth, an enema can be given then. The other school of thought holds that an enema does add a little stress to the new foal, but then relieves future stress from the foal as the meconium is passed within the first hour or two and you know for sure that the foal has passed the meconium. Once again, check with your vet to see what he/she prefers for you to do.
Also check with your vet to decide if you want to give the foal a tetanus antitoxin at birth. Once again there are two valid practices. One side feels that foals should be given the tetanus antitoxin as a preventative since the umbilical stump is an obvious possible route for tetanus infection. The other side feels that a properly immunized mare will put tetanus antibodies in her colostrum, and no other preventative should be needed for a healthy foal. They see no reason to stress the foal by giving it an injection. If your mare was not updated on her tetanus vaccination about one month pre-foaling, you probably do need to give the shot.
Stage three of labor is the expelling of the placenta.
When the mare stands up, tie up the placental membranes so they do not drag on the ground. If the membranes broke off, tie them together and tie them to the remains of the umbilical cord that should still be hanging from the mare. The weight of these tissues helps the mare expel the rest of the placenta. When the placenta is expelled, gather it up in your bucket and place it somewhere where dogs or cats will not have a chance to eat on it. You want your vet to examine the placenta and insure that all of the placenta was expelled. If not, the vet will need to treat the mare for a retained placenta (which can be life-threatening to the mare).
If your mare has not expelled the placenta within 3 hours post-foaling, you need to call your vet. Treatment needs to be started so that toxemia does not take the life of your mare.
Also at a three hour post-foaling deadline is seeing the foal nurse. The foal is only capable of absorbing the critical antibodies in the colostrum for the first few hours after birth. If the foal has not nursed within 3 hours, its time to help it. Patience is required for this.
Keep an eye on your new foal over the next day or two as some problems are not visible until after the foal is a few hours old. One problem in particular is neonatal isoerthrolisis. If your previously healthy new-born foal becomes listless and droopy it may have absorbed antibodies from the dams colostrum that are killing off the foals red blood cells. Quick attention by your vet is needed as this can be treated if caught soon enough, but is normally fatal otherwise.
While not a complete listing of everything that can happen during a foaling, this article discusses the things that I have found to be typical of the foaling process as well as the more common problems to watch out for. Good luck.
Card, C. E. and Hillman, R. B., Parturition. in Equine Reproduction edited by McKinnon and Voss, (1993). Williams & Wilkins, Media, PA.
Henneke, D. R. A condition score system for horses. Equine Practice 17(8):13-15.
Lose, M. P. Blessed are the Broodmares, 2nd ed. (1991) Howell Book House, New