It's a Horse!

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It’s time to break out the coffee, stock up on the midnight snacks and get a good book. Mares will be foaling any time now. And whether you’ve seen hundreds of matrons give birth or are about to see your first foal being born, remember that each birth is new and unique. Because of this, though most of the time everything goes well, there is always a chance that something could go wrong, so it never hurts to be prepared and well-educated for the coming event.

When the mare’s due date approaches, prepare a large, clean stall filled with straw (don’t use shavings or sawdust) and keep the veterinarian’s phone number posted near every phone. It’s also wise to prepare a kit with sterile gloves and sleeves, lubricant and bottles in case the foal needs to be hand-nursed. A notebook should be kept for jotting down observations of the mare in the days leading up to foaling to monitor her progress. There is also a variety of products on the market to help predict the event. And once things start to happen, keep a watch handy to accurately track the time the mare is in labor.

Deb Mihaloff Kirshner, who along with her husband Alan, owns Cre Run Farm, an Arabian breeding and racing operation in Virginia, has personally assisted in the delivery of approximately 300 foals in 25 years of breeding. She feels that taking notes on every piece of the mare’s activity is of the utmost importance.

“You need to watch and pay attention to your mares,” says Kirshner. “If you know your mares, you may not need all those bells and whistles.” In a large breeding operation such as Cre Run’s, which foals 20 to 30 mares a year, mares are kept outside until about a month prior to their due date. “They are then brought into the barn at night and put under our camera monitoring system.” Even if they are turned out during the day, they are watched carefully.

The gestation period for horses is 320 to 365 days with an average of 341. Signs of foaling are useful, but are too inconsistent from horse to horse to accurately predict. However, some signals to look for are relaxation of the sacrosciatic ligament, mammary gland development that starts three to six weeks prior to foaling and formation of colostrum that occurs two to three days before foaling. Waxing of the teats occurs in 95 percent of mares six to 48 hours before foaling and the honey-colored wax falls off and milk begins to drip one day to just hours prior to the mare giving birth.

Birth is divided into three stages (see sidebar on opposite page). Close observation of the mare and her changes will indicate when she has entered stage one. Once she has, encase her tail with a clean wrap and gently wash her vulva and hindquarters with a mild soap. Make sure to rinse her thoroughly.

Once the mare’s water has broken, the birth typically comes fairly fast. Normal presentation of the foal is with one front foot slightly in front of the other with hooves down, followed by the nose, head, neck, shoulders and hindquarters. Any deviation from this indicates a malposition. A mare will usually lie down to give birth, but there are those who will remain on their feet or repeatedly stand up and lie down with the feet presented. Try to stay out of the mare’s way and she will usually lie down again. If the mare insists on foaling while standing, you need at least two people to assist her, one at her head to keep her still and one to assist with the foal.

If everything is progressing normally, you should not disturb the mare. According to Alexis Sage, a veterinarian from North Carolina who specialized in equine reproduction, “If you see constant forward motion (of the foaling process), then you’re okay.” It is important not to rush the delivery and to let the mare go at her pace. Once the shoulders have cleared, it is not unusual for the mare to take a short break. The foal should be breathing by the time the hind legs are out. If he isn’t, it is imperative that his nostrils be cleared of any fluid. Rubbing the foal vigorously with clean, dry towels will help stimulate respiration and circulation as well as warm the foal.

The umbilical cord should not be ruptured by artificial means because it is supplying important oxygenated blood during delivery. The foal will usually kick free and break the cord on its own at a site about an inch from the foal’s abdomen. Once it has done so, you should thoroughly apply navel antiseptic to the stump. “It is very, very important to dip the navel a couple of times for a couple of days with half-strength iodine,” says Sage.

Allowing both mare and foal to rest in order to bond is a must. If possible, leave them undisturbed until one or both start to stand. Sage suggests that someone with whom the mare is really comfortable should approach first, especially if it’s a maiden (mare). “If that foal is lying quietly,” she says, “don’t make it stand.”

When the mare regains her feet, the placental membranes should be tied in a large knot so that the mare will not step on them. As the placenta is slowly delivered, it may be necessary to retie the knot. Sage also suggests tying a gallon milk jug filled with water to the placenta above the mare’s hocks. “Do not pull the placenta out!” Once the placenta has completely passed, spread it out to ensure that it is intact. It should be shaped like a Y and should have just one hole through which the foal has passed. Put it in a large plastic bag so your veterinarian can examine it. “It is very, very important to keep the placenta and save it for the vet.”

Within 30 minutes of being born, the newborn foal should be trying to stand. As long as the foal is safe, let him work on getting up by himself. If more than two hours has passed and the foal has not gained his or her feet, there may be a problem.

“If they can’t stand, they can’t nurse,” says Sage. “If you put your finger in that foal’s mouth and it doesn’t try to suck, you’ve got a problem. If after two hours, the foal is still sucking on the wall, the mare’s legs, tail, etc., you could have a dummy foal (one that was deprived of oxygen during birth).” In such cases, a vet should be called right away.

Once standing, normally the first thing the foal does is try to nurse. It is essential that he do so within two hours to get an adequate supply of colostrum. Colostrum contains antibodies from the mother that help prevent diseases until the foal’s immune system kicks in and produces them itself. Sage strongly suggests giving foals two doses of liquid IgG, oral colostrum, one to two hours apart to ensure that the foal receives adequate antibodies. Nevertheless, within the foal’s first 12 to 16 hours, Sage recommends a vet draws blood to look for a possible failure of the passive transfer of antibodies.

It is also important to take the foal’s vitals immediately after birth, as well as every day for five days. Normal ranges for a newborn are a temperature of 99 to 101.5 degrees F; a heart rate of 60 beats per minute (bpm), which should increase to 80 to 130 bpm from six to 60 minutes after birth, and then to 80 to 120 bpm from one to five days after birth. The newborn’s respiration rate should be between 60 and 80 breaths per minute for the first 30 minutes before slowing to 30 to 40 breaths per minute.

The final important task for the foal is to pass the meconium. This first sticky, tar-like stool should pass within 12 hours after birth. However, regardless of when the meconium passes, Sage recommends giving all newborn foals an enema because meconium impaction is very serious. A good attendant will make note of the times that all these events occur, providing valuable information for your vet as well as indicating how the mare may behave in future foalings.

In cases where the mare is having trouble foaling, you need to be ready to assist immediately. “If you see straining for more than 20 minutes without presentation of the foal,” says Sage, “you’re in trouble.” She suggests that the attendant try to help the mare because, “if I have a horse 40 minutes away, I know I’ll have a dead foal when I get there.”

First call the vet to see if he or she can talk you through it. “You need to be very clean and use lots of lubrication.” Many times it is simply a problem of the foal’s front foot being turned down. In many cases once that is flipped up, the foal will come out by itself. If the nose slips back inside the mare, do not break the membranes surrounding the head. If however, the head is out, Sage says that it is important to get the membrane off to let the foal breathe.

Mother Nature has developed a fine system for the mare to deliver a healthy foal. But there’s no reason for not being prepared, educated and attentive in order to help the mare and her newborn get off to a successful start. If at any time something doesn’t look right, a call to your veterinarian is in order. Sage puts it best: “No question is a stupid question when it comes to birthing a mare and her foal.”

The Three Stages of Labor

Stage 1: Onset of uterine contractions

This initial stage generally lasts one to two hours as contractions move the foal through the cervix and into the birth canal. The mare may begin to sweat, look at her sides, paw the ground and look generally restless and uncomfortable. She may lie down and get up several times. The udder will be warm and she will be dripping milk. She will look flat-sided and her abdomen will have dropped near her pelvis. The tail and vulva will be very relaxed.

Stage 2: Active labor

The beginning of the second stage, commonly referred to as “the water bag breaking,” is characterized by the rupture of the placental membranes, which releases the fetal fluid. Typically, the mare will then lie down and begin to have forceful uterine contractions that deliver the foal within about 20 minutes. If it takes longer than that, there may be a problem that requires immediate action.

Stage 3: Expulsion of the placenta

Once the foal is born, the mare will begin to pass the fetal membranes. The complete placenta should be expelled within three to six hours of the foal’s delivery. If it does not pass, call your vet because a retained placenta can cause serious problems such as massive infection or laminitis.

Complications with Foaling

oothly. However, there are times when the foal is presented incorrectly, and the mare struggles to give birth. In these rare instances, calling your veterinarian and assisting the mare immediately is crucial. Some types of malpresentations are:

1. One or both feet or legs deflected backward—This is the most common form of malpresentation.

2. Head and neck tucked under the pelvic rim

3. Head and neck deflected to the side

4. Foal upside down

5. Forelegs above the foal’s head

6. One or both hind feet too far forward—This is also called the “sitting dog” position. It is gravely serious and the average person will not be able to do anything about it.

7. Shoulder lock

8. Hip lock

9. Breech presentation

10. Premature separation of the placenta—This is also called a “red bag” foal where the placenta precedes the foal. This is very serious and the membrane must be ruptured to avoid suffocating the foal.

11. Uterine inertia—The uterus is so exhausted that it cannot expel the foal.