The Foaling Process: What is Normal?
by Debra J. Hagstrom, M.S., Equine Extension Specialist
Time is crucial when a mare is having difficulty foaling. As the foaling attendant
it is vital to be able to recognize immediately when a mare is having trouble
during parturition. Prompt veterinary attention can most often allow both the
mare and foal to survive a problematic birth. Thus, it is important to understand
what is "normal" when it comes to the foaling process so that a problem can
be recognized and dealt with promptly.
The normal gestation length in mares ranges from 335 to 345 days with an average
of 340 days. It is often the case for pregnancy to be prolonged for up to ten
days when foals are due in the early months of the year (January-March). Furthermore,
it is common for colts to gestate for two or three days longer than fillies.
There are several preparations that need to be made prior to a mare's expected
foaling date (EFD). Six weeks to one month before the EFD a mare should be given
a tetanus toxoid booster, in addition to boosters for diseases prevalent in
your area. Two weeks prior to the EFD is the time to remove the caslicks (vulvar
stitches) if the mare has one. It is essential to check for the presence of
a caslicks when a mare has been purchased after she was confirmed in foal. If
the caslicks is not removed, the mare can do tremendous damage to her perineal
area during foaling. Since the stitches in the vulva drastically decrease the
size of the vulvar opening, a mare will rip, as there is not a large enough
opening to accommodate the foal.
One to two weeks before the EFD, a clean place for the mare to foal should
be prepared. Once it is ready the mare should be moved there immediately so
that she has time to become familiar and comfortable with her new surroundings.
If the foaling area is to be a stall it is preferable for the measurements to
be 16"X16". The stall should be "baby proofed" by removing any objects that
the foal can harm itself on. The bedding of choice is straw. Though most horse
facilities have shavings on hand, they really are not appropriate for a foaling
stall. In fact, shavings can be detrimental to the health of the neonatal foal.
Shavings may cause corneal abrasions, as the newborn will spend a significant
amount of time lying down. Additionally, shavings are much more apt to cling
to the foal's navel stump and increase the chances of infection. Finally, especially
just after birth when the foal"s nostrils are still very wet from amniotic fluid,
shavings are much more likely to be inhaled by the new foal and either block
breathing all together or predispose the foal to pneumonia.
Good powers of observation will make predicting the exact day of foaling easier.
There are numerous physiological changes that can be seen in the mare that happen
just prior to foaling which provide clues that her time is near. The first of
these noticeable physical changes is the mare's development of an udder, which
is often called "bagging up." A mare may start developing a bag as early as
six weeks prior to foaling, conversely, other mares may not develop a bag until
just a few days before they foal. In addition to udder growth, a mare's teats
will often start to distend as she gets closer to foaling. Still another sign
that foaling is approaching is when the mare waxes or begins leaking milk. Usually
this means that foaling is less than a day away.
There are other places on a mare's body that give hints that she is getting
close to foaling. One to three days preceding foaling, the area around her tail
head will start to soften and become spongy. Additionally, a mare"s vulva will
become noticeably elongated, in fact by as much as twice the normal length.
This lengthening of the vulva is typically seen within a few hours of foaling.
Lastly, you may be able to notice a change in your mare's profile when you look
at her from the rear. As she nears to parturition, the foal may "drop" causing
the mare"s shape to change from wide and shallow to narrow and deep.
Remember that most mares show similar signs, on similar time lines year after
year. Therefore, it is advantageous to keep written records of when your mare
begins showing the various signs of foaling so that in future years her time
of foaling can be more accurately predicted.
There are three stages of parturition. The first stage is a preparation phase.
In stage one the mare will show signs of physical discomfort. She will exhibit
signs similar to colic. She may act restless by lying down and getting up repeatedly.
Additionally, she may walk her stall in an anxious or nervous manner. She may
break out into a sweat in her flank area and behind her elbows. Furthermore,
she may look at, bite at, or kick at her sides. She may hold her tail in an
elevated position or do a lot of tail swishing. Frequent urination or defecation
is also common. In stage one, the mare's cervix is dilating and the foal is
turning to get into the proper position for birth. Stage one can last for a
few minutes to several hours. The mare has the ability to prolong stage one
if she does not feel safe and secure. More than seventy percent of mare's foal
between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am because there is typically less activity in their
surroundings during that time. As experienced foaling attendants know, mares
can and often do put off foaling until no one is watching.
Stage one ends and stage two, the birth, begins when the mare's water breaks.
This is usually easy to recognize, as the mare will void two to five gallons
of allantoic fluid. That is significantly more fluid than is passed during a
typical urination. Once the mare's water breaks the foaling process cannot be
stopped. From this point on, time is critical. Stage two usually is complete
within 20 minutes, but it can take up to 1 hour. During the actual birth a mare
will usually be lying on her side, but she may get up and lie back down or even
roll. The first thing you should see after the water breaks is the amniotic
sac, which is a whitish colored membrane that some describe as having a water
balloon appearance. If, instead of the smooth white membrane, you see a red,
velvety membrane you must take immediate action. The most common cause of "red
bag" is toxicity after the mare has consumed endophyte-infected fescue pasture
or hay. In this rare situation the mare is passing the foal and the placenta
simultaneously. When that happens, the foal is being deprived of oxygen, as
the connection of the placenta to the uterus is its source. Because the foal
is suffocating, time is of essence. The red bag must be torn and the foal must
be birthed as fast as possible. Though your veterinary probably cannot arrive
in time he/she can coach you through this process.
Five to ten minutes after the mare's water breaks, you should see the foal"s
front feet, which will be inside of the amniotic sac. One front foot will appear
first with the other front foot several inches above the first. At this time
it should be determined if the soles of the feet are facing down as this indicates
that the foal is in the correct birthing position. After the two front feet,
the nose should appear at approximately the level of the foal's knees. The next
thing to pass will be the foal's shoulders. This is the most difficult part
of the birth. It may take several minutes as the mare may rest briefly to gain
the strength to push the foal's shoulders through the birth canal. Once the
shoulders are out the rest of the foal follows quickly. When the foal is completely
delivered stage two is complete.
The final stage of the birthing process is placental passage (cleaning). After
the foal is delivered the mare may remain lying down for ten to twenty minutes.
This time allows her to rest in addition to providing time for placental blood
to transfer to the foal. It is important to not interfere with the natural
breakage of the umbilical cord. Cutting the cord with a knife or scissors creates
too clean of a cut and prevents rapid clotting. There is a natural stricture
on the cord where breakage occurs when the foal struggles sufficiently or the
During stage three, the mare may again show signs of mild colic. She is still
experiencing uterine contractions that facilitate the expulsion of the placenta
(after birth). Stage three lasts approximately one hour and ends with the passage
of the placenta. The placenta should not be manually removed, as that can damage
the mare's uterus or result in pieces being left inside her, which leads to
Most veterinarians will consider a placenta to be retained after three hours.
Retention of a placenta predisposes mares to uterine infection that could lead
to endometritis and infertility. Additionally, mares are prone to laminitis
(founder) if they have a retained placenta. If a mare has not passed her placenta
after two hours it is advisable to contact a veterinarian and apprise him/her
of the situation so he/she can be better prepared to take action if the mare
has still not cleaned after three hours.
Once the placenta is passed, it should be spread out on a flat surface to determine
if any pieces are missing. As stated above, pieces left in the mare will cause
infection. There should only be one hole in the placenta where the foal exited.
The total placental weight is approximately eleven percent of the foal"s weight,
so from the placental weight you can estimate the foal's birth weight.
In regard to care of the newborn foal, the first thing to do is make sure the
foal is breathing. If struggling by the foal does not tear the fetal sac, the
foaling attendant should rip it and expose the foal's nose. Furthermore, the
foaling attendant should clear the mucus from the foal's nostrils by lifting
the head to allow fluids to drain or by stripping the nostrils clear. If the
foal does not appear to be breathing, rubbing it vigorously on the belly and
ribs with a towel may stimulate breathing. Extreme measures would include picking
the foal one to one and one-half feet off the ground and dropping it. The navel
stump should be treated with two percent iodine or one-half percent chlorhexidine.
Filling a small cup with the iodine or chlorhexidine and dipping the navel stump
for 30 seconds can accomplish this. One application is all that is needed. In
fact, repeatedly dipping the navel stump over a few hours can be too caustic
to the umbilical tissue.
It is important to make sure the foal passes its meconium (first feces). This
is a reddish-colored feces that has a very sticky consistency, thus it can be
difficult to pass. If the foal appears to be continually straining, but fails
to defecate, an enema can be administered. A soap and water enema can be prepared
or a human enema can be given. It is important to be very careful when giving
an enema so that the rectum is not perforated.
The newborn foal should stand within two hours and it should nurse within three
hours. The less human interference with this process the better. However, the
foaling attendant does need to confirm that the foal is nursing. In order to
develop immune, the foal needs to drink the mares first milk (colostrum) as
it is rich in antibodies that will protect the foal until its own immunity system
is functional. The foal is only capable of absorbing the antibodies in the mare's
colostrums for the first 24 hours of life, and more so during the first 12 hours.
Thus it is essential to the viability of the foal to nurse. In addition to actually
seeing the foal nurse, there are a few other signs that suggest it has consumed
colostrums. The foal may have milk on its lips or whiskers if it has suckled.
Also, if the mare has one side of her udder that looks significantly less full,
that may suggest that the foal has nursed. If there is doubt as to if the foal
has consumed colostrums a veterinarian needs to be advised so that he/she can
provide the foal with antibodies either by injection or stomach tube.
Being aware of the normal events in the foaling process will make a foaling
attendant more able to recognize when a mare is having birthing difficulty.
In addition to understanding the physical events, it is important to be aware
of the timing of the events as well. If a veterinarian needs to be called for
assistance be prepared to tell him/her how long it has been since the mare's
water broke, how long since feet have been seen, how long the placenta had been
retained, etc. In the event of difficulties, this information will help your
veterinarian make more appropriate decisions for the welfare of both the mare
and the foal.
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