By Jed D. McKinlay, DVM at McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital,Newman Lake, WA
As we begin a new year there are all kinds of thoughts and goals and aspirations going through our minds. Those of you who may be reading this probably have some plans with your horses. We try to offer some advice that might prove helpful or handy with your 2023 equestrian plans.
My thoughts this time of year often turn to our foaling and breeding efforts.
New babies will be arriving soon! What excitement it holds to see what color and gender they are! It’s a miracle we get to be a part of when they are born, stand and nurse, and pretty quickly are running circles around their mothers. Horses are truly one of Gods most magnificent creations!
Some of you have had many foals over many years. Others may be first timers. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years. You could look on these suggestions as rules of thumb for foaling.
A mares gestation averages 340 days, 25 days less than a year. Some mares will foal 2 weeks early and other go well past a year. Individual mares are different and there is a large gestational range then between mares. Those who have had foals previously tend to be pretty consistent in gestational age from year to year. It’s helpful to keep pregnant mares handy where you can observe them at least twice a day. Watch for udder development. This can happen pretty fast (like between morning and night) in maiden mares. It’s helpful to work at stripping a little milk from each side of the mares udder twice a day. This will get the mare used to having her udder messed with and give you an idea of the character of the milk. Take a good look at it. As the mare approaches giving birth her milk will almost always be grossly whiter, milkier and more opaque than it was the day before. Usually there is an obvious change from runny, yellowish see through type milk to the afore mentioned characteristics. These changes are due to the increase in calcium and other minerals in the milk. This occurs just prior to foaling. There are commercial kits available that actually measure the levels of minerals in the milk that are very helpful in predicting when we need to watch them closely.
There is usually also a noticeable relaxation to the muscles and tissues around the tail head. As estrogen increases, again, just prior to parturition, the pelvis relaxes in order to make room for the foal to pass through. This can be appreciated externally as the tissues around the tail head relax and the vulva elongates. This, and the milk tests, are the best ways to predict when your mare is getting ready to have her baby.
90 plus percent of the time mares have their foals all by themselves just fine without needing any assistance. The process happens fast, so it’s easy to miss. Most of them choose (or maybe they can’t help it) to have their foals in the night or in the wee hours of the morning. They can have ‘false labor’ signs where they lay down and groan and push and it seems that there may be even something getting ready to protrude from the vulva, but then they get back up and go back to eating. This is sometimes referred to as the first stage of parturition and can go on for days. The second stage of parturition is when the uterus begins to actively contract, and the foal is born. Things happen fast. From the time mare lays down in active second stage labor it’s usually not longer than 30 minutes before the foal is born. In some cases it’s much faster.
As the mare foals, the two front feet should be presented first. With a few more contractions the nose will be seen about the middle part of the foals’ cannon bone, followed by the rest of the head and front legs. It’s ok to take hold of the front feet and help pull as the mare pushes. It’s always a good idea to rupture the amnionic membrane that usually covers the front feet and head. If the foal is born on its own (non-assisted) and this membrane is not ruptured it will suffocate the foal. The amnion is a fairly thin, but tough translucent membrane that immediately surrounds the foal in the uterus. It is often the first thing we see as parturition begins. Following the head come the foals’ shoulders which are the biggest portion of the foal that is pushed through the birth canal. It’s the hardest part for the mare to deliver. The foals’ pelvis and hind legs come last.
Most often the umbilical cord will still be intact as the foal begins to breath outside its momma. We always like to sit the foal up on its sternum so both side of the lungs can fill with air, and we tickle the nostrils a bit to encourage the baby to snort out the fluid in the nose. It’s fine to allow the umbilical cord to break on its own. This will usually happen when the mare stands up. It’s not a bad idea to just reach down and pinch the umbilicus when it breaks, just for a few seconds, so the foal doesn’t lose much blood. A little blood loss is normal. If the umbilicus wants to continue to bleed it can be tied off with a clean piece of umbilical tape or shoelace. Tie it in a knot and cut the ends fairly short.
It’s important that the area where the foal is born is as clean as possible. Try to keep the umbilicus as clean as you can and keep the foals mouth out of the dirt. Wash the mares’ udder ahead of time if you can. These are the areas (the umbilicus and mouth) where bacteria often enter the foals system and potentially cause infection. We dip the naval in chlorhexidine solution and give a foal a warm water enema with a little Ivory soap added. Last we strip a little milk out of the mare’s udder and give the baby a taste of colostrum (the mares first milk that is rich in antibodies). Then we walk away and let the pair figure each other out. The foal will usually stand within an hour of being born and should nurse within 2 hours. The mare should pass her placenta within 2-3 hours. If all this happens, you are in good shape! Enjoy your new arrival! Give us a call and we’ll come out the next day to examine the foal and do a test to make sure it got adequate colostrum to protect it from infections.
Things don’t always go exactly as outlined here, and there are sometimes serious complications. These are rare, and too numerous and varied to mention here. If you know what SHOULD happen, and things are not going well, you know when to call. We will always do the best we can to assist you. We also offer the service of foaling mares out for people if they wish. When born at either of our locations the mare and foal are usually ready to come home in a day or two.
We hope this review has been helpful. Enjoy the arrival of your new horse family members!