Breeding and foaling out mares can be a rewarding but stressful time each spring, and it is important that the new babies get diligent care to avoid health complications. Foals are much more fragile than calves, and prompt intervention and treatment is crucial if any problems are suspected. Preg checking mares 14 days after breeding is recommended to avoid twin complications later along in the pregnancy.
Signs of Impending Birth:
A mare’s normal gestation period can range anywhere from 320-360 days, so it is important to be prepared and have a very clean foaling space available well in advance of the anticipated foaling time. Udders will begin to fill 2-4 weeks prior to parturition, and mares teats will “wax” 1-4 days prior to delivery. Pelvic ligaments and the vulva will become more relaxed when the mare is within 48 hrs of foaling. There are also commercial milk testing kits that can help predict when foaling will happen based on mineral composition changes that occur up to 3 days prior to foaling.
Stages of Parturition
Mares go through 3 stages of the birthing process:
Stage 1: Restlessness, pacing and sweating with a raised tail- this stage indicates that the foal is repositioning for birth and uterine contractions are beginning. Usually this stage lasts for less than 6 hours, but it is somewhat under voluntary control so can be interrupted for many hours if the mare is stressed.
Stage 2: Fast stage where the chorioallantoic membrane ruptures and releases allantoic fluid (the water breaks). Strong uterine contractions should result in rapid delivery of the foal within 30mins. Two feet and a nose within a silvery sac should be visible early on in this stage- if feet are not visible, a “red bag” is seen, or there is not tangible progress made within 10 minutes a veterinarian should be contacted immediately as the foal is at risk of severe oxygen deprivation or even death.
Stage 3: Expulsion of the afterbirth (placenta). Unlike in cows, horse placentas must be expelled within 1-3 hrs of birth. If this is not the case, the retained placenta is considered a medical emergency as it can quickly cause overwhelming infection and laminitis in the mare. If the afterbirth has not been passed within 3 hrs, give the vet a call to plan the next steps before there is a chance for infection to occur. Do not pull on the afterbirth as this can cause it to rip, and save any expelled membranes for the vet to inspect.
How to Tell if a New Foal is Healthy:
The 1-2-3 Rule is important: Healthy foals should stand within 1 hr, nurse within 2 hrs and poop within 3 hrs. If any of these conditions are not met, veterinary assistance may be required.
Foals must ingest colostrum (first milk) as soon as possible after standing- colostrum contains IgG antibodies that are the foal’s only form of protection from infection for the first weeks of life. The best absorption of colostrum happens within 8hrs of birth, so multiple successful nursing episodes should have occurred within this time. Normal foals nurse at least once per hour, and failure to do so is the first sign of a problem. Ensuring adequate colostrum intake and IgG transfer is the single most important factor in preventing development of fatal neonate infections.
A simple, on farm test of IgG is available and it is recommended to have this test done by your veterinarian at around 12hrs old to ensure adequate colostrum ingestion has already occurred. Health checks at 12hrs old gives the veterinarian time to successfully supplement any problems before illness is present. IV plasma transfusions can be done in foals that fail to nurse soon enough to directly administer IgG into their bloodstream and provide essential immune protection.
Support of the Newborn Foal
The average foal should gain 2-3lbs per day, and must ingest 12-20% of their own bodyweight in milk daily. Supplemental feeding is necessary if foal is struggling to nurse, but syringe feeding/ force feeding should be avoided as it can cause aspiration pneumonia. If foals will not drink from a bottle or bucket, a feeding tube may need to be placed to allow safe administration of milk. Always feed foals in a standing position. Mares can be hand milked out, or commercial equine milk replacers can be used.
If you notice any abnormalities with a new foal, your vet will be happy to answer any questions over the phone and set up a health check if needed. Keep an eye out for colicky behaviour, straining to urinate/ defecate, tooth grinding, hesitance to rise and nurse, and swellings or deformities of the legs. If a foal is sick or unable to stand up, it is best to keep it warm and laying upright on its chest rather than flat on its side while awaiting veterinary assistance.