With the onset of spring and warmer days comes the arrival of the long anticipated foal. After the costs involved in breeding and maintaining your pregnant mare, a loss of a foal can be a devastating experience both emotionally and financially. Knowledge and preparation can be vital in preventing a potential disaster with your foal and begins with knowing the normal development of the pregnant mare.
Your mare should not show signs of udder development until approximately 1 month prior to foaling. Development prior to this stage can indicate placental/foetal problems and impending abortion and requires immediate attention. The udder of most mares will continue to develop until close to birth although some mares will foal with a smaller udder that should fill quickly after foaling. Usually within 24 hours of birth the mare will form small droplets of colostrum (first milk) on the ends of one or both teats. This is called “waxing up” and again is not always seen prior to birth. During this last month of pregnancy the mare should be in a safe, grassed paddock or large foaling stable where she can be observed frequently during the day and night.
Most mares will foal during the night and usually at the most inconvenient time for an owner! (10pm-2am). Stage one of labour begins when the mare begins to have contractions of the uterus. This stage is rarely observed by owners but can be seen as agitation, pacing, inappetance or separation from the herd. This stage can last for an hour or two. Stage 2 of labour is the birthing process and begins with the emergence of the amniotic sac or“white bag”of the foal. Shortly following this the mare will usually lie down and start to show forceful straining. The foal’s front foot should appear followed closely by the second foot, then the nose. The shoulders and hips are the widest part of the foal and are the critical areas for the mare to push past. Once the hips are out the hind feet usually remain inside the mare while she rests on her side. This is an important time that allows blood that is still circulating in the placenta to return to the foal. It is preferable that movements of the foal, rather than the mare prematurely rising, cause breaking of the umbilical cord thereby limiting bleeding from this area. The entire delivery of the foal should take no longer than 30 minutes.
Once the foal is out it should immediately be showing signs of movement, lifting its head and breathing, and within 10 minutes be attempting to stand. The mare may still be resting for the first 10 minutes after foaling but should be demonstrating some bonding with the foal including nickering and licking of the foal. This is a vital time for bonding to occur between the mare and foal and there should be minimal human intervention unless absolutely necessary. You can always find out the sex of your new foal later! Stage 3 of labour for the mare is the expelling of the placenta and usually occurs within an hour after birth. It is a good idea to keep the placenta in a clean bin or bag for observation by your veterinarian for abnormalities. A placenta left in the mare for more than 6 hours can cause a severe infection that can result in death if not treated. As a general rule a normal foal should be standing by 2 hours and sucking within 4 hours however most are standing in an hour and sucking by two hours. The foal should pass meconium (first black, sticky faeces) within a few hours and may not urinate for 6 or more hours after birth.
The birthing process of the foal and the following 24 to 72 hours are a critical time for careful observation of the foal. It is often subtle signs that will alert you to abnormalities that can quickly spiral downwards if left untreated. Stand quietly for 5-10 minutes and observe your foal’s
behaviour. A normal newborn should sleep often, spending a majority of time either sleeping or nursing with short bursts of activity in between. Once a foal awakes it usually has a quick stretch or yawn and immediately goes to the mare’s udder to nurse. A few bunts underneath results in milk letdown and the newborn foal should feed vigorously for 2-4 times an hour for 2-3 minutes at a time. It is important to actually observe the foal with a lip and tongue seal around the teat and swallowing of the milk. Some abnormal foals can look like they are sucking but not be attached to the teat. Sticky milk down the head of the foal is evidence of abnormal feeding. The mare lets down the milk in response to the foal under the udder however no sucking occurs. A foal that is asleep on its feet with milk on its head is an early indication of a sick foal.
Lack of adequate colostrum intake or absorption by your foal in the first 24 hours following birth can leave your foal susceptible to infections, leading to diarrhoea, pneumonia, joint ill or death. Colostrum is only made once by the mare and can only be absorbed by the foal in the first 24 hours of life with most absorption occurring by 12 hours of age. A simple blood test (IgG test) performed 24 hours after birth can determine if the foal has had adequate colostrum intake. If levels are below normal than a plasma transfusion can be performed to provide the foal with protection against infections.
Observe your foal for subtle signs of lameness. Lameness in a foal should always be taken seriously as it is more common to be caused by infection then from the mare standing on and injuring the foal. The foal should not have diarrhoea in the first week of life. At about the one week mark it is common for the faeces to become loose and coincides with the mares first season after foaling. The diarrhoea is thought to be due to normal bacterial colonisation of the foals intestines. A ruptured bladder in a foal may not be clinically evident for up to three days post foaling being dependent on the size of the tear. Bladder tears can occur during the foaling process and lead to leakage of urine into the abdomen. Many of these foals may still pass urine normally but will become progressively depressed with an enlarging abdomen.
Being present at the birth of your foal and astute observation of your newborn is vital to identifying and treating potential problems. If your foal does not seem right in the morning do not wait until afternoon to re-examine as they can deteriorate quickly.