How to Prepare a Mare for Foaling

Four Parts:Deciding Whether to Foal Indoors or OutdoorsGathering the Necessary Equipment and MaterialsPreparing the Mare and StallKnowing When to Call the Vet

The imminent arrival of a foal is an exciting and nerve-wracking time for any horse owner. Giving birth is a natural process that mares have been doing for thousands of years and yet problems can and do happen, so it helps to be prepared. The last thing you want on a dark night is to be scrambling around looking for torch batteries. Having a kit of foaling essentials readily at hand and being well informed on what you should expect will allow you to concentrate on the main event.

Part 1
Deciding Whether to Foal Indoors or Outdoors

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    Understand the advantages of birthing at pasture. A pasture is a more natural environment and this minimizes stress to the mare. Keeping stress to a minimum facilitates the release of a hormone called oxytocin which triggers uterine contractions.
    • A clean, grassy pasture is more hygienic than a dirty stable, and the bacterial challenge to the newborn foal's immune system is lower.
    • In addition, there is more room in a pasture for the mare to move around, which facilitates the birthing process
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    Recognize the disadvantages of birthing outdoors. Not just any piece of scrubland is suitable for birthing a foal — the pasture needs to be clean of feces, and be grassy and firm underfoot. The land also needs to be free of hazards such as barbed wire or ponds that the newborn foal could injure himself on.
    • You will also need good weather conditions to birth a foal outdoors; it is not nice for the mare to foal outside in heavy rain, plus the newborn foal will rapidly chill which could predispose him to illness.
    • You also need a pasture near to a light source such as a lamp or a fluorescent tube so that you can watch the mare's progress in case she gets into difficulties.
    • If she does need help, it can be difficult to catch her on open ground.
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    Know the advantages of birthing in a stall. The advantage of birthing in a stall is that you can keep a closer eye on the mare, and she is readily accessible if she experiences any problems.
    • It is easier to monitor her in the stable, and you will find it easier to disinfect the foal's navel or to clear any membranes from his mouth, if necessary.
    • The stable is also nice and sheltered, so it does not matter what the weather is outside when the mare is ready to give birth.
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    Be aware of the disadvantages of birthing in a stall. In order to birth the foal indoors, the stall needs to be large — at least 14 foot (4.3 m) by 14 foot (4.3 m) — so that the mare can move around. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a stable of this dimension.
    • The stall must be disinfected and filled with fresh, clean straw. Make sure to use straw rather than wood shavings, because the latter may stick to a damp newborn foal and get into his eyes.
    • A dirty stable also provides a challenge for the newborn foal's immune system and makes him more likely to pick up infection.

Part 2
Gathering the Necessary Equipment and Materials

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    Put together a foaling kit. Ahead of the delivery date, it's a good idea to assemble a foaling kit. Put the essentials in a bag such as a rucksack and be sure to leave it somewhere easily accessible. Listed below are basics for a good foaling kit.
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    Write down your vet's contact details somewhere safe. On a piece of stiff card (paper can get soggy, or blow away) write down the contact details for your veterinarian.
    • This should include the clinic number, the out-of-hours number, and the number of a second surgery in case your vet is unavailable when needed.
    • Also write down the number of a friend who is prepared to assist you if unforeseen circumstances arise, for example if you need to put the mare in a trailer and drive her to a clinic.
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    Keep your cell phone charged. Keep your cell phone fully charged and leave a charger in the foaling kit. The complete foaling process — from the first stage labor to the delivery of the placenta — can take up to 24 hours, so you need to have a back up plan for charging a flat battery.
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    Carry a torch and some spare batteries. 80% of foalings happen at night, so be prepared and pack a torch along with some spare batteries. A head-mounted torch is ideal, because this leaves both hands free to assist if the need arises.
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    Bring a note pad and pen. A note pad and pen will be necessary to take note of the key timings, such as:
    • When the first stage of labor started, when the mare started pushing (second stage of labor), the time of delivery, the time the foal first suckled, and the time of placenta delivery (third stage of labor).
    • This is invaluable information that can help the veterinarian decide if intervention is required or not.
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    Pack some snacks and hot drinks. You may be in for a long night, so don't forget a few home comforts such as a flask of tea or coffee, and some sandwiches.
    • When things get going it can be just 10 minutes from the time that the foal's front hooves start appearing to the foal being being born, so you don’t want to be somewhere else boiling the kettle and miss the main event.
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    Set up a camping stool. A camping stool is also a good idea, as it can get uncomfortable standing up for hours, or sitting on the ground. Likewise it can get chilly at night so a spare fleece, or a rug to cover yourself, could be welcome.
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    Make sure you have plenty of clean towels. It is the mare's job to lick the newborn foal dry after giving birth, but if for any reason she is incapacitated or distracted, you may need clean towels to rub the foal down immediately after birth.
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    Grab a clean bucket with a lid. You will need a clean bucket with a lid to keep the placenta in after the mare has passed it. This is because the vet may want to inspect the placenta to check it is all present and that none was retained by the mare.
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    Have a halter and lead rope easily at hand. It's a good idea to have a halter and lead rope easily at hand in case you need to move the mare for any reason, like if she needs to be taken from the field to indoors, or from the stall to a trailer to be taken to the vet clinic.
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    Keep a pack of sterile gloves nearby. It is useful to have a pack of sterile examination gloves, preferably obstetric ones (which are longer) in case you need to touch the foal during the birthing process. This reduces the risk of introducing contamination to the foal or the mare's vulva.
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    Buy a bottle of antiseptic dip. A dilute solution of Betadine (an iodine-based antiseptic product) should be applied to the stump at foal's navel within an hour of birth.
    • The navel is where the placenta nourished the foal in the womb, but in the newborn it also provides a route of entry for bacteria into the foal's abdomen.
    • The navel should dry up and fall off within 3 to 4 days after birth, but in the meantime protecting it against "navel ill" (a bacterial infection in the exposed stump) is a good idea.

Part 3
Preparing the Mare and Stall

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    Remove any blankets and sheets from your mare.
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    Braid the mare's tail and fold it up to the top of her dock. Secure it there by wrapping vet wrap around it. If the mare is a draft type, or has long feathering, be sure to wrap feathering and legs as well.
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    Check your mare's udder and make sure it's clean. If it is, gently wipe it clean with some warm water and soap.
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    Clean the stall, bed it with straw (no shavings), and keep the stall clean. You shouldn't ever use shavings with a mare about to foal because the shavings could get up the foal's nostrils.
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    Remove shoes or other foot protection devices so if the foal is near the mare' s feet, the is less chance for the foal to get injured.

Part 4
Knowing When to Call the Vet

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    Research the foaling process beforehand. Hopefully your role in the foaling process will just be to observe the fact that everything is going smoothly. By far the best chance of a successful birth is if the mare does all the work, and you assist only if necessary.
    • However, you need to be informed enough about foaling to recognize when there is a problem. Therefore, it is essential to be familiar with what constitutes a normal foaling.
    • In order to prepare for the foaling process, you should ideally shadow someone whose mare is having a foal. If that is not possible, at the very least do some research online and read books, so that you know what to expect.
    • It's even more important to be able to identify what isn't normal, so you know when to call the vet.
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    Watch out for a stalled delivery. Giving birth is tiring and some older mares lack the energy to complete the process. If the has been in the second stage of labor for hours, lying down, pushing hard, looking at her flanks, and then she stops, this is cause for concern. It can be a sign that the uterine muscles are exhausted and no longer contracting. If this happens then she may well need oxytocin to restart the process, so contact your veterinarian immediately.
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    Keep an eye out for red, ropy swelling. During the second stage of labor (the active pushing part of labor), you should call the veterinarian immediate if you see a dark red, ropy swelling at the lips of the vulva. The mare may have premature separation of the placenta or be trying to pass it ahead of the foal. This deprives the foal of oxygen and is considered an emergency.
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    Look for signs of dystocia. The word "dystocia" means an abnormal birth. The regular order of a foal's delivery is first one front hoof appears, then a second, followed by the nose, head and shoulders, before finally the whole foal is delivered. If you see anything other than this sequence then the foal may be incorrectly positioned and could get stuck. Phone the vet immediately.
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    Act immediately if the foal is unresponsive. The foal should gasp and breathe immediately after delivery. If the foal is not breathing, make sure the birth membranes are cleared from his mouth and nose. Try rubbing him vigorously with a towel, while someone else phones the vet.
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    Call the vet in the event of a retained placenta. The third stage of labor is the delivery of the placenta. This is usually complete within 2 hours of the foal being born. If the placenta is not delivered, then contact your vet. A retained placenta can lead to a serious infection, or septicemia.

Sources and Citations

  • Current Therapy in Equine Obstetrics. Pycock & Sampler. Saunders. 1st edition

Article Info

Categories: Horse Breeding