If your mare has made it through 11 months of pregnancy, you're almost home free. Labor and delivery, while momentous, are generally uneventful. In most cases, you will simply need to be a quiet observer -- if, that is, you are lucky enough to witness the birth. Mares seem to Prefer to foal at night in privacy, and apparently have some control over their delivery. Despite your frequent visits to the barn, your mare may give birth the minute you step away. While this is disappointing, don't worry. She is unlikely to need your help anyway However, in case problems arise, it is advisable to have your veterinarian's telephone number nearby.
What your mare will need, however, is a clean, safe, quiet place to foal. Horses have been giving birth on the open range for eons, and this is still an acceptable choice. Allowing the mare to foal in the pasture even has some advantages. An open grassy area is likely to be cleaner than a stall and provides a healthy environment with adequate room to foal. You won't have to worry about the mare crowding into a corner or foaling too close to a wall. However, many owners prefer to confine the mare to observe her progress. Should you choose to foal your mare in a stall, provide one that is a minimum of 14' x 14'. If possible, the stall should have a floor that can be readily cleaned and disinfected. Dirt or clay floors make sanitation more difficult. Also, provide adequate clean bedding. Straw (particularly wheat straw) is preferable to shavings, as it won't cling to the wet newborn or mare the way small wood particles can. Remove manure and soiled bedding promptly, and disinfect the stall between deliveries.
Mares provide clues that they will soon give birth. However, the timetable is far from absolute. Some mares may show all the signs like clockwork; others show practically none. The following is a general guideline, but be prepared for surprises:
Most mares foal without difficulty. It usually is best to allow the mare to foal undisturbed and unassisted. If a problem becomes apparent, contact your veterinarian immediately.
What you can do:
Labor is divided into three stages:
Stage one begins with the onset of contractions and generally lasts 1-2 hours. During this phase, contractions move the foal through the cervix and into position in the birth canal. The fetal membranes (allantois) may become visible at the mare's vulva. When the sac breaks, signaled by a rush of fluid, stage one ends.
Stage two is the actual expulsion of the foal. This phase moves relatively quickly. If it takes more than 30 minutes for the mare to deliver, there could be a problem. Call your veterinarian immediately. If labor seems to be progressing, wait and watch. Even in a normal delivery, the mare may stand up, lie down, and roll several times in an effort to properly position the foal for delivery. Normal presentation of the foal resembles a diving position, with front feet first, one slightly ahead of the other, hooves down, followed closely by the nose, head, neck, shoulders, and hindquarters. If you notice hoof soles up, the foal may be backwards or upside down, and you should call your veterinarian immediately. If you suspect any deviation from the normal delivery position, call your equine practitioner.
Stage three labor begins after delivery and is the phase during which the afterbirth (placenta) is expelled. Most placentas are passed within 1-3 hours after the foal is delivered. If the placenta has not Passed within 3 hours, call your veterinarian. A retained placenta can cause serious problems, including massive infection and laminitis.
In the excitement of birth, it is important to remember some tried and true guidelines:
Following birth of the foal, the mare and foal should be monitored for the following:
It is essential that the foal receive an adequate supply of colostrum. Colostrum, the mare's first milk,is extremely rich in antibodies. It provides the foal with passive immunity to help prevent disease until its own immune system kicks in.
A foal must receive colostrum within the first 8-12 hours of life in order to absorb the antibodies. If a foal is too weak to nurse, it may be necessary to milk the mare and give the colostrum to the foal via a stomach tube.
If a mare appears to be leaking an excessive amount of milk prior to birth, consult your veterinarian. This pre-foaling milk is not typically colostrum rich. However, depending on your veterinarian's recommendation, the mare may be milked and the colostrum frozen to give to the foal shortly after birth. For orphan foals, or mares without an adequate supply of colostrum, it is important to locate a back-up supply. Without it, the foal is at an increased risk of infections. Your veterinarian can test the colostrum to determine whether it is rich in antibodies. Also, the foal's serum can be tested at 18-24 hours of age to evaluate IgG antibody levels. If IgC is inadequate, treatment for Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT) should be instituted by your veterinarian.
Nature has provided an efficient system for the mare to deliver and care for her young. Be a prepared and informed owner so you can enjoy the miracle of birth, keep your anxiety in check, and help the new mother and foal get off to a great start.