Your mare has safely carried her special package for 11 months, but as her due date approaches it can be a worrying time. What to look out for and how will you know if things aren’t going right are amongst the familiar questions asked by breeders. Here Ed Lyall Vet Med Cert EM (StudMed) MRCVS
of the Sussex Equine Hospital shares his advice from what to look out for during the final month of pregnancy to the birth of the foal.
Most mares foal without complication, however it is important that they are monitored regularly as the foaling becomes imminent. Mares prefer to foal when all is quiet, as such it is important that the
checks do not disturb them. The stable can be fitted with a low wattage light bulb that can be left on. Small cameras are available so that foaling mares can be observed from a distance and sweat alarms can be used to indicate an imminent labour. There are alarms that can be stitched into the vulva which call your mobile phone when the water bag is pushed through the vulva at the onset of labour. In high-risk mares with complications, the milk secretions can be monitored to more accurately identify when labour is likely to begin.
The mare herself will start to show signs impending foaling. These may occur several weeks before foaling or may start much closer. The signs include development of the udder, swelling in front of the udder, slackening of the pelvic ligaments resulting in hollowing and softening of the quarters, lengthening and relaxation of the vulva, changes in temperament and the production of wax on the teats. The “waxing-up” of the mare is one of the last signs to occur.
During the last month of pregnancy the udder produces the first milk, colostrum, this is rich in
antibodies that protect the foal from infection. Prior to foaling some mares drip or run milk and as a result lose the valuable colostrum, once lost it is not replaced. If this occurs 200ml volumes can be milked from the mare and frozen, this stored colostrum can be thawed in warm water (not microwaved) and bottle-fed to the foal in the first six hours after foaling.
Three stages of labour
While a mare is foaling it is better to minimise interference and to only respond when there is a
problem. There are three stages of labour. The first stage is when the foal is getting into the correct
position to be born, this may take several hours. During this time the mare may become restless, sweat, look at her flanks and get up and down.
The second stage of labour begins with the passing and breaking of the white water bag, it ends with the complete birth of the foal. Ideally mares should foal lying down. The second stage of labour involves the forceful uterine and abdominal contractions required to give birth to the foal, typically the mare will be lying on her side. The average length of the second stage is 17 minutes, if after this length of time when forceful expulsive efforts have been made and the foal has not been produced veterinary assistance should be sought.
The third stage of labour involves the passing of the placenta. Once the mare stands after foaling the
placenta should be knotted at the level of the hocks to prevent the mare from standing on it.
The placenta is usually passed within one hour, if it is not passed within three hours veterinary
assistance will be required. The placenta should be kept for your vet to examine.
Let the mare guide you
Most mares will foal without any complications. The normal presentation is that of a diving posture where the two front feet and the head come together, so the first part of the foal to be seen will be a hoof, usually followed by a second hoof a little further back. The soles of these hooves should be facing the ground, if they are facing upwards the foal is either rotated or it is breach and coming back feet first which is very unusual. A rotated foal will end up in the correct orientation as the mare gets up and down, so let her do this. The leg with the foot which is a little further back will have a flexed elbow, the elbow may catch on the brim of the pelvis, if the mare appears to be making little progress getting the foal out, then between the mare’s contractions grip the pastern on the shorter leg and pull the limb to the same length as the more forward hoof, this will extend the elbow and prevent it catching on the pelvis. Once this is corrected often the foal will come away easily.
As well as two front legs there should be a nose, this should be at about the level of the foal’s mid canon on the forelimbs. Once the nose is out of the vulva it is worth just clearing the membranes from the nostrils. If little progress is being made by the mare a little traction can be put on the foal to help it out, the direction of pull should be down towards the mare’s hocks due to the shape of the birth canal and the posture of the foal. Grasp the pastern regions and pull gently, particularly between the mare’s contractions to prevent the foal slipping back into the uterus, let the contractions push the foal out, just help her.
Once the foal gets its chest and then pelvis through the mare’s vulva it will come away very easily. Ideally the foals back legs should be left in the birth canal and the mare allowed to lye quietly to regain her strength, in this position the foal will still remain attached to the placenta via the umbilical cord, during the time it lies here blood from the placenta will be retained by the foal. The placenta should break at the natural weak point next to the foal’s abdomen when the mare stands up. As the foal is lying there make sure the nostrils are clean, sit it on its chest with its front legs wide apart in front of it and rub its chest with straw to stimulate breathing.
If at any stage in the birth process there are concerns about the foal’s presentation or its viability then seek veterinary assistance immediately.