A GUIDE TO THE FOALING MARE!
In Preparation For PARTURITION
You have been waiting patiently and then suddenly the 340 days is up. Everything is ready to go for that beautiful baby you have been waiting for! What to expect? When do we call the vet? Hopefully the following article will help the novice breeder and the worried mothers of equine mothers! We will then look at the neonate, your gorgeous bonny foal, in the next edition.
The gestation period of the mare is widely variable with many factors involved. The range is from 320 to 360 days with an average of 340 days. Any foal born before 320 days is considered premature and birth before 300 days is usually not compatible with life. The actual birth time is governed by the foal with some maternal influence but the actual process is poorly understood! More often than not, the great event happens at night – in one study 65% of mares foaled between 8pm and 1am. Be prepared for limited sleep!
Good foaling management is very important for the optimum health and survival of the mare and foal.
Signs of impending parturition
The following changes indicate that your mare is about to give birth!
What is happening inside the mare – FOAL YOGA!
The foal is active in the uterus with periods of movement and sleep. Sometimes it is possible to see movements in the flank area! From 7 months most foals lie with their back bone against the abdominal floor and their head towards the pelvic inlet.
During first stage labor the foal extends its head and forelimbs, then rotates and enters the birth canal.
The birth process is split into 3 stages:
Stage I – preparation
There is contraction of the uterus and dilation of the cervix and the foal lines up with the pelvic (birth) canal. The mare shows signs of discomfort – the colic type signs described above. This phase lasts for 30 minutes to 4 hours.
White membranes appear at the vulva and burst with watery fluid. Once the white membrane has appeared the foal should be born within the next 20 – 30 minutes.
Stage II – expulsion of the foal
The foal passes into the birth canal and the front feet and muzzle appear at the vulval lips covered in membrane. Usually the membranes are ruptured by movement of the foal’s legs. If not broken already, rupture the membranes with your fingers and feel for the foal. USE CLEAN HANDS!
The mare will usually lie on her side and may have very strong contractions. Some mares however will foal standing up. If this is the case, it is advisable to have a handler hold the mare’s head to stop her walking around and an assistant at the back to assist with delivery and to catch the foal. Delivery of the foal should occur within 20 – 30 minutes of the waters breaking.
Stage III – expulsion of the placenta
This stage involves the passage of the foetal membranes and usually occurs within 3 hours of foaling. It is important to check that the whole placenta is present. It is also advisable to keep the placenta in a bucket so that it can be checked by the veterinary surgeon – the state of the placenta gives important information about the health of the foal.
MONITORING and OBSERVING THE BIRTH
There are several ways to monitor the due mare. One such method is “foal watch” which simply involves sitting up with the mare so as not to miss the birth. The most useful methods however are foaling alarms and CCTV cameras. Foaling alarms are monitors worn by the mare that give an alarm when she starts to foal. There are various types available on the market. They do however sometimes give false alarms.
The calcium carbonate levels can also be monitored in the udder secretions prior to foaling (they rise before birth). This involves sampling daily when the mare is imminent using various commercially available kits. Like all methods however, this technique does have pros and cons.
Preparation FOR BIRTH
Most non-commercial breeders here in Australia tend to foal down in paddocks. These should consist of clean pasture to minimise the chance of infection of both are mare and newborn. The fencing should be such that a foal cannot roll underneath and be separated from the mare and it should not contain any bodies of water such as creeks or dams. This may seem like common sense, but every year we are called to mares and foals that have been accidently separated straight after birth.
If you have elected to foal the mare inside, the area needs to be at least 12 x 14 feet, maintained at a comfortable temperature, in a quiet area and with clean straw bedding.
If the mare has been Caslicked (vulval lips sutured) during her pregnancy, this should be opened 2 weeks prior to her due date or when she starts “bagging up”.
Prior to foaling, the mare’s genitalia and udder should be washed with mild soap and the tail wrapped.
Novice breeders should also be aware that the mare’s nature can change very rapidly around the time of foaling – even the kindest and friendliest of mares can become quite aggressive due to strong maternal instinct.
The following lists items for a basic foaling kit which expectant owners should have on hand. This can be added to according to individual needs and experience.
THE FOAL’S FIRST FEW HOURS
We will discuss the new born foal in more detail in the next issue, but here is a guide to the first few steps of life.
Within the first 30 seconds, the foal takes its first breaths using abdominal and chest effort, which may appear as gasping. If the foal is not breathing then clean the mucous away from the mouth and nose and rub them vigorously with a towel to stimulate breathing. CPR can be performed but is usually done by an experienced assistant.
By 2 – 5 minutes of age, the foal should be lifting its head and have a suckle reflex and by 15 minutes should be sitting on its brisket and making attempts to stand. Once the foal is born, owners should allow it to lie quietly behind the mare for 10 -25 minutes until the pulsations in the umbilical cord ceases. This allows adequate transfer of blood to the foal. The foal and mare usually break this connection themselves at which stage the stump can be dipped with antiseptic (usually iodine or chlorhexadine). Then the mare will usually clean the foal– this stimulates the foal and is part of the bonding process.
From 30-90 minutes post-birth, the foal should be standing and seeking out the udder. If the mare does not allow the foal to suck, she should be held still and the foal assisted to the udder. By 3 hours the foal should be suckling strongly
If there are any concerns and the foal is not following this normal pattern, the vet should be called.
When to Call the Vet
Foaling compared to the birth of other species is very rapid and explosive. Most foalings are very straight forward with no problems – the mares do what comes naturally! Occasionally (1 – 4 %) there may be an issue and assistance may be required. When things do go wrong it is a true emergency and prompt intervention is required. A vet would much rather be called to a foaling early on and to arrive and for everything to be fine rather than the mare being left for too long and both mare and foal getting into extreme difficulty. Most vets will discuss the process over the phone if you do have any concerns.
If you are a “first timer” or have any worries, it is worth calling your vet ahead of time and letting them know that your mare is imminent. Obviously it is preferable to have a local vet on standby rather than one that has to travel – any further than 30 minutes to reach you is too long.
- The vet should be called if any of the following occur:
- If the mare has a previous history of dystocia (difficult foaling)
- If the mare has been sick throughout pregnancy
- If after 20 minutes of the white membranes appearing the foal has not been born and the mare is having difficulty
- It is not possible to see or feel two front feet and muzzle at the vaginal lips. This may indicate that the foal is in the incorrect position. Call the vet if there is only one foot, more than two feet, feet are upside down, the nose is not visible or if the nose appears without the feet
- If the membranes are RED (RED BAG DELIVERY indicates premature placental separation). These membranes will appear velvety red rather than smooth white. If this occurs, break open the red bag, clean the material from the foal’s mouth and nose and assist with the birth of the foal
- If the mare prolapses her uterus
- If there any problems with the mare or foal after foaling
- If the membranes have not been passed by 4 hours after the birth of the foal. If this occurs, do not pull on the membranes but rather tie them up with twine until the vet arrives
The large animal veterinary surgeons at Samford Valley Veterinary Hospital are happy to answer any questions you may have on foaling mares. We also have a CD available on the subject with further pictures that may be helpful.
Paula Williams BSc (Hons) BVSc