Birth of a foal

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Birth of a Foal

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We often think of pregnancy as a delicate and
fragile condition. When it comes to horses, this perception
is perhaps due to the mare’s relatively poor reproductive
performance in comparison to other domestic animals.
However, in a natural setting, the mare does comparatively
well reproductively. Therefore, this seemingly poor
performance is due as much to improper management as to any
reproductive deficiency. Fortunately, management is
something we can control.

Is my mare

Your veterinarian
will play an important role in helping your mare to get
with foal, whether she goes to stay at the breeding farm,
is only shipped in for breeding and then brought home, and
especially if she is artificially inseminated. Your vet
will determine if she is in season, whether or not
ovulation is imminent, and any additional assistance that
might be required after breeding.

The vet can rectally palpate the mare two days after
breeding to see if she has ovulated. If she hasn’t, you
will need to return her to the breeding farm. If she has
ovulated, the vet might recommend suturing her. Five days
after breeding, the vet can check her blood progesterone
levels. After eighteen days, tease her if you can to
determine if she is in season. If not, the vet can palpate
her again.

50 days
old fetus

Pregnancy can be checked by ultrasound. If she is carrying
twins, the vet might attempt to abort one fetus at this
early stage to reduce the risk of miscarriage and
complications. The heartbeat should be visible on the
twenty-sixth day after breeding, and the vet will sometimes
ultrasound again to check.

Also, blood tests at eighteen days can determine if the
mare is pregnant. This is especially important for maiden
mares without any pregnancy history to refer to. If the
test indicates a need, the mare can begin taking
supplemental progesterone at this time. However, oral
synthetic progesterone supplements are expensive. One
brand, Regumate, could cost between six and seven
hundred dollars over the course of the mare’s pregnancy. If
it is needed, vets generally recommend a one hundred fifty
day course. Some breeders continue the supplementation all
the way to term, but there is no evidence that the
additional supplementation is helpful.

birth of a foal

Birth of a
Friesian foal

Signs of

It is prudent to
observe mares for signs of foaling so that assistance may
be provided if needed. The average gestation length of the
mare is 335 days but the range is quite broad. In fact,
gestation lengths from 305 to 400 days have resulted in
normal, healthy, foals. Remember to have the vulva opened
as the expected foaling date approaches if the mare has had
Caslick’s surgery.

The mare prefers quiet and solitude at foaling and can
apparently delay the onset of parturition. We suspect this
to be one of the primary reasons why the majority of foals
are born at night. The signs of impending parturition
include a gradual relaxation of the ligaments around the
tailhead which may be difficult to detect, especially in
well muscled or over-conditioned mares.

The udder will begin to enlarge 3 to 6 weeks before foaling
with a major increase seen in the last 2 weeks. Some mare
may leak colostrum for days before foaling and, in these
cases, you must insure an adequate supply of good quality
colostrum for the newborn foal. Waxing (the presence of a
few drops of sticky colostrum on the teat ends) can occur
from 1 to 72 hours, but is usually seen from 6 to 48 hours,
before foaling.

Some mares
leak colostrum days before foaling

To avoid many nights of foal watch, a helpful method of
predicting foaling is to monitor the changes in
electrolytes in the mammary secretions. Kits are available
which make use of the rise in calcium occurring shortly
before parturition to predict foaling (1). When the
concentration of calcium in the secretions is greater than
200 ppm, there is an 88% chance that the mare will foal
within 24 hours. In a recent study, 94% of the mares
reached this value before foaling and only 6% foaled
without reaching it. To perform the test, mammary
secretions are diluted (one part secretion to six parts
distilled water). It is important that the udder be clean
and dry and to keep debris out of the sample. In addition,
the collector’s hands should be clean and dry, and they
should avoid touching the test materials since skin
secretions may result in a color change.

Foaling is typically divided into three

The first stage is
the preparatory phase
. Although this stage can last
from ten minutes to five and a half hours, it typically
lasts a little over an hour. This phase is characterized by
sweating, especially in the flank regions and behind the
elbows, an increase in pulse and respiration, and restless
behavior. The mare may act slightly colicky, look at her
flanks, switch her tail, stretch as if to urinate, and
roll. These movements help to position the foal for
delivery. The foal takes an active role in this
positioning, and it is for this reason that weak foals may
cause dystocia.

Stage I ends with the rupture of the chorio-allantois,
commonly referred to as breaking the water bag. If Stage I
is prolonged over 4 hours, a careful examination is
warranted. Whenever an examination or intervention is to be
performed in the birthing process, cleanliness and
lubrication must be stressed. Both the mare and the
examiner must be scrubbed adequately with a disinfectant
soap. Adequate restraint of the mare is essential to ensure
the safety of the examiner and other handlers.

Lubrication is very important when examining a foaling
mare. Petroleum jelly (e.g. Vaseline) is a good lubricant
for obstetrical procedures. Liquid soaps or detergents are
not recommended for use as lubricants due to their
de-fatting properties. If the forefeet are present in the
canal along with the muzzle of the foal, let the mare
progress with foaling. If there is any doubt about the
normalcy of the delivery or the course of foaling, it is
best to contact your veterinarian. Foaling is a rapid
process and if dystocia (difficult birthing) occurs, a
veterinarian may be needed quickly.

Stage II is
defined as the actual birth of the foal
. This is a very
rapid phase, typically lasting 15 to 20 minutes on the
average. Mares will typically lie on their side and may
turn to their hindquarters and whinny or nicker, as well as
lick allantoic fluid on the bedding or herself. Most mares
will return to standing at least once before final delivery
but repeatedly rising and lying down may signal a problem.
Normally, several strong efforts of straining are followed
by 2 to 3 minutes of rest. If 10 minutes of strenuous labor
occurs without results, examination is needed. If the
forefeet and muzzle are in the canal, let the mare proceed.
If they are not present, contact your veterinarian for

After a period of intense contractions, a bluish-white
membrane, the amnion, should appear at the vulva. The
forelimbs should be enveloped within this membrane and one
foreleg should be approximately 6″ behind the other. The
appearance of a red, velvety membrane, the
chorio-allantois, indicates premature separation of the
placenta and can result in a dead or weak foal. When this
occurs, the chorion should be cut and the foal delivered
promptly. Foals are normally delivered in the intact
amnion, which usually ruptures by the time delivery is
complete. If it does not rupture, it should be torn and
pulled back away from the muzzle to permit the foal to
begin breathing on its own.

Delivery of the foal usually leaves the mare in a tranquil
state. It is not necessary to break the umbilical cord in
most cases, as it will break when wither the mare or foal
rises soon after birth.

After foaling, the navel should be dipped with a 3.4%
iodine solution; 7% solution may scald the skin of the
foal. Good quality colostrum should be available. Methods
are available to check the quality of the mare’s colostrum.
Colostrum which has an adequate amount of immunoglobulin
has a specific gravity of 1.060 or greater. Your
veterinarian can also check the foal, using a blood sample,
to determine if an adequate amount of good quality
colostrum has been ingested.

The last stage of
foaling consists of the passage of the placenta
. This
usually occurs within 3 hours of foaling, and often sooner.
If the placenta has not passed within 6 hours, contact your
veterinarian. Serious consequences, including toxemia and
laminitis, can result from retained placenta in the mare.

Fortunately, problems with foaling such as dystocia and
retained placenta occur infrequently in the mare. Being
prepared for foaling and recognizing problems when they
occur are key steps in preventing serious problems.

After the long awaited birth of a foal, the
decision must be made as to the appropriate time to breed
the mare again. Many facts, figures, emotions and tales
exist as to the wisdom of breeding a mare on foal heat. We
usually define foal heat, or nine day heat, as the first
ovulation that a mare displays within the 20 day period
after foaling. The first thing that must be positively
accomplished is accurate estrus (heat) detection. Only
diligent and judicious teasing of each individual mare with
a stallion will optimize the observation of estrus. Many
mares, particularly those with newborn foals, are very
nervous and may resist the stallion’s flirtations. These
mares must be adequately restrained for teasing. Their
foals must also be safely restrained, within sight of the
mare, but out of potential danger. Teasing is best done
every day to ensure that the first day estrus is positively
observed. Obvious decisions not to breed on foal heat are
based on factors such as perineal laceration (tear),
metritis (uterine infection), early foals and late foals.
If the decision is made not to breed on foal heat, teasing
is still important so that the mare’s estrous cycle can be
documented and predicted for future management. Any
problems noted while deciding whether to breed on foal heat
should be corrected as soon as possible to avoid subsequent
delays in breeding.

The decision to breed on foal heat should be based on
scientific fact, not folk-lore or dogma. Remember that foal
heat is the first ovulation within 20 days of foaling.
Fertility at foal heat is primarily influenced by how soon
a mare has foal heat and is bred after foaling. Simply
stated, the earlier the foal heat breeding, the lower the
conception rate. In summary, if a mare is bred sooner than
9 days after foaling, don’t expect high fertility, but
fertility can be quite acceptable is she is bred after 9

Some strategies can be used to manage foal heat to improve
conception rates. The first strategy, although time is
lost, is to skip foal heat breeding and induce an earlier
second cycle by injecting the mare with prostaglandin 5-6
days after the first ovulation. The prostaglandin acts upon
the corpus luteum of the mare and causes her to come into
heat earlier than normal. Good fertility has resulted from
this approach to foal heat breeding.

A second alternative is to delay the normal foal heat by
using hormones. It has been shown that the uterus repairs
very quickly after foaling, but it takes about 10-15 days
for the endometrial glands to proliferate to a near normal
stage. Injecting progesterone or giving an oral
progesterone analogue (Regumate R) for about 8 days after
foaling delays foal heat. This apparently allows for
greater uterine repair and results in significantly higher
pregnancy rates than in mares bred on earlier foal heats.

Prostalene, a prostaglandin analogue, has been successfully
used to hasten the repair period of the uterus. Mares given
prostalene twice a day for ten days after foaling, had
greater pregnancy rates from both the foal heat breeding
and from breeding on the second heat than mares not treated
with the drug.


Ultrasonography can aid in maximizing the pregnancy rates
of foal heat breeding. If mares had signs of fluid in the
uterus when bred at foal heat, their pregnancy rates were
much lower than mares that did not have fluid in the
uterus. The appearance of fluid in the uterus did not
really correlate with the size of the uterus. Therefore, it
may be better to ultrasound than to palpate a mare’s uterus
to detect fluid at foal heat breeding, and then delay foal
heat breeding if fluid is present. This simple management
tool can help preserve the stallion for the most opportune

Three questions always arise about foal heat breeding:

1. Will it increase the
chance of uterine infection?

2. Will the subsequent
heat cycles have lower fertility?

3. Will there be a
higher risk of early embryonic death after foal heat

The answer to all these questions is NO. There is no information
available to support the notion that any detrimental
effects result from breeding at foal heat.

If foal heats occur early, breed on the next heat or delay
foal heat with drugs if you expect to obtain normal
pregnancy rates. Examinations by ultrasound can accurately
determine whether or not fluid is present at foal heat
breeding. If fluid is present, expect decreased conception
rates. Foal heat breeding is a sound management practice
that can maximize a mare’s reproductive performance when
used correctly.

In summary, the careful management of the pregnant
mare, astute observation and timely intervention at foaling
and well calculated strategies for foal heat breeding can
help maximize a mare’s reproductive potential. Mares are
fairly self-sufficient during pregnancy, but they do need
some special care. A little extra effort can ensure a
smooth pregnancy for both the mare and the foal. If you
have any questions about your pregnant mare, please contact
your local equine veterinarian.

Raising a newborn