How to Deliver a Foal

Five Methods:Preparations Come FirstSigns of Labour ApproachingThe Labour ProcessFoals That are Presented AbnormallyAfter the Birth

The birth of a foal is always exciting, no matter if you've waited for days on end for your mare to finally foal. If the mare is healthy and she foals in a clean place, there will be no problems. However, if something does go wrong, it is best if you are there to give assistance or to get a veterinarian to help. This article is how to not only be prepared for foaling, but to know what to do if things go wrong.

Method 1
Preparations Come First

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    Find a place where the mare should foal. This can range from out on pasture or in a small enclosure like a shed, corral or box stall.
    • A foaling stall should be at least 14' by 16' or larger to minimize the risk of the mare lying too close to the wall during her labour.
    • If the mare has to foal in a stall or shed, it must be thoroughly cleaned.
      • Take out all old bedding and scrub down the entire stall (floor, walls, everything) with disinfectant. Then sprinkle the floor with lime before putting on new bedding.
        • Straw is best as bedding, because it won't stick to the foal as easily as wood chips or sawdust will, nor will it get into his/her nostrils and get sucked into his/her air passageways, nor get swallowed by the mare when she cleans him/her off.
          • Wood products may carry a bacteria called Klebsiella which can cause uterine infections.
    • Remove all obstacles from the stall, from feed tubs to buckets or anything else that may get in the way of the mare during her labour.
    • Clean the mare's udder, belly, rear and upper legs or any place that a foal would nuzzle when trying to find the udder, with warm water and chlorhexidine to reduce contamination to the foal.
      • This is especially useful if there has been any cases of E. coli and other foal-hood diseases on the farm. Washing her just before foaling also greatly reduces risks of diarrhea and septicimia in the foal.
    • Pick up all manure several times a day so the mare has no chance of getting dirty.
    • A level grassy pasture is a good place to consider, especially if the mare is foaling during the time of year where the pasture isn't muddy or full of snow or both.
      • Make sure the pasture is free of brush, rocks, old nails, machinery, ditches or even puddles of water.
        • Foals have been known to drown in tiny pools of water, and get stuck on their backs in a dry ditch. Foals can even die if they have their backs under a fence and can't get up; mostly because the mare choose to foal right beside the fence.
      • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of foaling out on pasture:
        • Advantages:
          • Less risk of infection
          • More natural environment where mare can seek her own privacy and be less upset and nervous
          • Better exercise and muscle tone for the mare
          • More natural bowel movements than a confined mare would have on grass hay and grain because she won't be as constipated when giving birth.
        • Disadvantages:
          • Difficult for you to keep constant watch on her
          • Foaling on pasture not advisable in bad weather or in winter.
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    Be prepared if the mare decides to foal early. Usually mares that foal for the first time may start labour earlier than those mares that are more experienced.
    • Mares that foal in the spring or summer may have a shorter gestation period than those who foal in winter months (January, February or March). Most vets believe that the time of year is the largest factor affecting length of pregnancy in all mares.
    • Some mares are set on their own schedules, and this can be more reliable than her age, how many other foals she's had, and the time of year.
    • Illness or infection can cause a mare to foal earlier or later than normal, if the fetus has been nutritionally deprived due to poor placental attachment in the uterus.
      • If she's 3 or 4 weeks past her due date, have your vet check her out to make sure there's nothing wrong.
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    Sometimes it may help to get a foaling prediction kit to determine when the mare is really about to foal. Things like test strips for checking the mare's milk before foaling, TV or security cameras installed in the stall to monitor the mare 24/7, Baby Buzzer (Locust Farms, Kirkland OH), the Birth Alarm (Kincardine, ON) or the Foal Alert (Foalert Inc., Acworth, GA) are some things to try out if you don't want to be spending nights in the barn waiting for the mare to pop.
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    Give the mare privacy. It is best to observe her quietly from a place where she cannot see nor hear you. A mare can get easily upset of people are always hovering around her, and naturally would rather have her foal where it's quiet, secluded and peaceful. This is why most mares like to foal at night.

Method 2
Signs of Labour Approaching

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    A month before the mare foals her udder starts looking fuller and larger especially at night when at rest.
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    Around 2 weeks prior to foaling udder remains larger, filled with milk, and will also look shiny.
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    A few days before foaling, the muscles on each side of the tail head around the hooks (pelvic bone) sink in. That's because the muscles are relaxing and drooping away from the base of the tail.
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    The vulva starts to look loose and relaxed and even swollen. Often it will look larger and more floppier than normal.
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    Secretions from the teats may start.
    • This is called "waxing," and is often the most common signs that a mare is near, within 24 to 36 hours of foaling. Waxing is a congealing of secretions from the teats that are forced out to the end of the teat. There are always exceptions, though.
      • Some mares may not even start waxing or bag up until right after birth. Others may have a huge bag for weeks and be waxing for days as well.
        • The funny thing is, the most predictable thing about mares is that they're always unpredictable!
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    Mares that begin labour process will show changes in her attitude or behaviour. She may try to find a place in a far corner away from the rest of the herd, or stand with a faraway look in her eye.
    • She may also become restless, pacing around, then eating a little, then pacing again.
      • If you suspect she's in early labour, check on her every 10 to 15 minutes.
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    Mild uterine contractions prepare the dam for delivery. The uterine contractions help get the foal positioned properly for birth so the head and front legs are aimed at the birth canal, towards the rear of the dam.
    • Pelvic muscles relax more fully, the tail rises, and her sides above her flanks appear more caved in. This is the time that the foal is shifting position.

Method 3
The Labour Process

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    The dam will be more nervous and restless than initially in during the early labour stage.
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    As active labor comes about, the mare will be switching her tail, pacing more, pawing, or nosing at her flank.
    • This is the time to bandage up her tail, using a clean bandage or nylon stocking or pantyhose to prevent the foal from picking up dirt on his way out of the birth canal.
    • Also supply fresh bedding (making sure it's soft and deep enough for her and her foal) and, if there's time, gently washing her teats, udder legs and buttocks with soap and water and a mild disinfectant if they're dirty.
      • Leave her be, but still keep checking on her (without her seeing or hearing you).
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    The mare may be getting up and down once the contractions come faster and more intensively. She may give birth laying on her side, or up on her feet, depending on how she feels.
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    The water sac will appear first, amber-coloured. The sac may have burst inside her, with instead amber-coloured liquid streaming out from her vulva.
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    The birth of the foal usually doesn't take long, often within 5 to 30 minutes after the last stage of early labor began and the water bag showed.
    • Cows can safely be in active labour for longer than 20 to 30 minutes but it's different for a mare. If she's taking longer than 30 minutes to foal, assistance is needed immediately.
      • Mares at this point are pushing so strongly that they can kill their foals or push only part of it through her uterus.
        • Either the foal is presented wrong (dystocia), or it's too big and not coming through the birth canal readily.
    • Foals in normal presentation come front-fee-head first. A clear whitish membrane filled with fluid will appear then in a moment, the feet should be visible within.
    • The foal's nose should appear tucked between them.
    • Usually the feet are not even; this is because foals often come through the birth canal one shoulder at a time.
    • Once the shoulders come, then the rest will follow.
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    For large foals or hard birth,s you will need to pull the foal, if you can. If the large foal is presented normally but unable to fully get through the birth canal, loop obstetrical/calving chains on the foals forelegs, and pull with the contractions.
    • Pull out and down (if she's standing), or out and toward the mare's hocks, keeping in line with the birth canal.
      • If it's an exceptionally hard pull, you may need to have one person on each leg of the foal.

Method 4
Foals That are Presented Abnormally

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    Call the veterinarian if you suspect your mare is having trouble foaling due to dystocia.
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    Get the mare up, if possible. Put a halter on her and pull on her head or tap her hindquarters to encourage her to get up.
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    Don't wait for the vet to arrive. No matter if it's a simple problem that is easy to correct or a more serious and complicated problem, you will have to try to correct it while you wait for the vet to arrive.
    • Most serious malpresentations will result in a dead foal.
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    Wash your hands, glove up and lube up. Cleanliness is a priority when handling the birth of foals.
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    Reach in through the vagina and determine what presentation the foal is in. These are the following types of malpresentations, from the simple to the more complex:
    • One foot turned back: The foot may be flexed at the knee or at the fetlock, and will be easy to correct, by simply pushing on the leg that has already appeared, at the same time pulling on the missing one. If you can't find the missing foot, however, you will need vet assistance or try to get it back up yourself.
      • Wash up and lube up again, then go in and push the foal's nose back into the uterus and try to reach farther in to find the missing leg. Once you have gotten the leg flexed up enough that you can grasp the hoof with your hand, cup the hoof in your hand and bring it in and up so that it is under the foal's neck and over the pelvic rim.
        • Once the foal's back to normal, you can start pulling on the foals legs. Check and double check that the nose is in the right place and not pushed back too far.
    • Nose but no feet: Usually a foal in this position is one that is already dead. Push the foal back in the uterus far enough that you can manipulate both legs into the birth canal. Then pull the foal out.
    • Head turned back: Only attempt this if your vet cannot get there within the next 20 minutes. Push the foal back into the uterus with one hand and find the head with the other. The head may be turned back or down to one side. Try to get hold of the lower jaw and pull the head up into position. Often foals with this malpresentation die by the time they come out.
    • Belly presentation (Three or Four Feet at Once): This is a rare condition, and may only be discovered until you've already started pulling on the foal, thinking it is just a large foal. This type of dystocia is pretty well impossible to correct. A Caesarean section may be the only option to get this foal out, or if it's already dead, the vet will have to cut the foal in pieces.
    • Rotated transverse foal: This position, though rare (but more of a problem in draft mares) is where the foal is upside down and the head is turned back, often twisting in and upwards so much so that it is impossible to correct. Each part of the foal's body is also often in the uterus. The uterus can be tipped so that the foal cannot be reached from the birth canal. A C-section is the only way to safely deliver this foal.
    • Backward presentation: The foal can still be delivered, but more quickly so that he won't suffocate or inhale any of the surrounding fluid before he's completely out. You need at least two people to help you with this: one to hold the mare up, and another or two to help pull out the foal. Put OB chains on the rear legs of the foal, one half-hitch above the fetlocks and another below the hock joints, and pull with all your strength when the mare strains. Don't stop when the mare stops, as you need to get this foal out as quickly as possible to have it come alive. Get him breathing as soon as possible once he's out.
    • Breech: This presentation is much worse than a normal backwards presentation. This is because nothing protrudes as the mare is in labour, and when you reach in, all you feel is rump and tail. You need to get both back feet up so that you can get the foal out. To do this you will need to try to reach the hock and flex it as much as possible. Reach for the cannon bone and slide your hand to the foot. Cup the foot in the palm of your hand and bring it up over the pelvis into the birth canal. Repeat with the other leg and foot. Then follow the procedure above for delivering a backward foal.
      • If the feet cannot be reached either by you or the vet, a C-section will be necessary to deliver the foal.
    • Placenta previa is a condition where the placenta detaches too early and appears first before the foal. You will see a dark red mass coming out instead of the clear white amniotic sac. You will need to break through the thick membrane with your hands to get to the foal, then reaching into the birth canal to get a hold of the foal's legs and quickly pull him out.
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    The sooner you get the foal out, the better!

Method 5
After the Birth

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    In normal unassisted births, a foal born live will break the sac on his own when he shakes his head. If the membrane has not broken around his head, break it and make sure he's breathing.
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    Get the foal breathing as quick as you can, clearing mucus away from his nose with a suction bulb. You may have to hold him upside down for a few seconds to get the fluid out. Tickle his nostril with a clean piece of straw if that doesn't work. Or, slap his ribcage if even that won't work. You can even try positioning him so that he's sitting on his chest and his head and chin is resting on the ground, allowing the fluid to run out. If any of those methods won't work, give artificial respiration to get him going.
    • Artificial respiration is done by cupping your hands firmly over his mouth and nose and breathing into his one nostril steadily and gently, letting his chest rise, then fall, then breathing in again. Keep going until he can breathe on his own.
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    Once new momma and baby are delivered and the foal is breathing normally, leave them alone. The mare will lie there for around 10 to 20 minutes before she gets back up and starts cleaning off her new baby.
    • A few minutes of rest is Nature's way of making sure the foal gets his full blood supply from the placenta before the mare gets up and tears the umbilical cord.
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    Disinfect the navel stump with iodine. With a small jar of iodine, immerse the cord completely without spilling any on the foal.
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    The afterbirth should soon follow 15 to 45 minutes later after birth, sometimes taking around 2 hours to be completely shed.
    • If it takes longer than a couple hours for the mare to expel the placenta, call your vet immediately.
      • NEVER try to remove the afterbirth from the mare, as this could lead to serious uterine infection.
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    Bag up the afterbirth immediately, then spread it out on a table to let it dry and have a look at it to see if it's intact and a health coloration or not. It should look like a pair of trousers that has one leg smaller than the other (with the ends of the legs closed), and only one tear at the "waist" where the foal came through.
    • If any part of the placenta is missing, it'll usually be the tip of one of the "trouser legs."
    • If the placenta weighs more than 15 lb, it is abnormal and may be diseased, something that you should get your vet to check out for you.
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    If all is well and both the mare and her foal are healthy and happy, enjoy watching the foal grow into a healthy new horse!


  • Always keep your vet's phone number and any other people that you need on speed-dial.
  • Keep the mare relaxed and as comfortable as possible.
  • Keep your hands and equipment you are using around the foal and the mare's vulva/vagina as clean as possible. There's nothing worse than having a sick mare or foal because cleanliness was not followed.
  • The front feet always comes out first. The soles of the feet in a normal presentation should be pointed down, not up. And, you should be feeling knees, not hocks, in the birth canal when the foal is being delivered.
  • Stay calm and relaxed.
  • Straw bedding is the best to provide for the mare. Make sure it's deep enough that it provides a cushion for the mare when she's throwing herself around in her anxious state as she's in labour, but not so deep that the foal cannot get up on his own.
  • Be sure that your mare gets all the vitamins and supplements that she will need to provide properly for her foal.
  • Always expect the unexpected!!
  • Avoid getting seen or heard by the mare. Any time there's people around or activity in the barn near her stall, she will get upset and not foal when she should.


  • Never pull a foal too hard or when the mare is not pushing herself.
    • This is an exception when you are delivering a backwards or breech foal.
  • Your mare's attitude may be a bit different towards you when she's in labour, possibly acting aggressively or a bit cranky since the hormones and the contractions are making her a bit antsy.
    • Be patient and calm when handling mares that are foaling for the first time.

Things You'll Need

  • New, clean 3- to 5- gal. bucket
  • Clean container to milk into if needed (open pan works best)
  • Tail wraps or nylon stocking to bandage the mare's tail
  • Pint or quart of disinfectant such as chlorhexidine (Nolvasan)
  • Small bottle of tincture of iodine
  • Plastic shoulder-length obstetrical gloves
  • 3 or 4 clean bath towels
  • Paper towels
  • Roll of cotton
  • Plastic garbage bag (put placenta in)
  • Prepackaged enemas (human adult size in plastic squeeze bottles fitted with prelubricated rectal tube) or foal enema kit
  • Flashlight w/ new batteries
  • Heat lamp
  • Obstetrical chains and handles, or nylon pull straps and handles
  • Sterile syringes and needles
  • Suction bulb
  • Injectible antibiotic (refrigerated)
  • Obstetrical lubricant
  • 10 mL of Oxytocin

Sources and Citations

  • Thomas, H.C. Storey's Guide to Raising Horses. Chapter 22: Foaling. USA:Verda Press, 2000. pp. 372-395.

Article Info

Categories: Horse Breeding