It’s been a long winter, but an even longer wait for the much-anticipated debut of your new foal. As the arrival approaches, worry often replaces excitement. However, proper planning can alleviate the stress of uncertainty.
Proper Health Care
The average equine gestation period is 345 days, plus or minus 2 weeks, depending on the breed and climate in which the mare resides. Mares foaling in warmer climates or during warmer months tend to deliver early, although those due in colder months or climates are more likely to exceed their expected due date. Maiden mares, or first-time mothers, might deliver prematurely.
Early in pregnancy, or at least 45 days prior to foaling, remove mares from fescue grass to prevent future problems. Fescue toxicity in pregnant mare causes significant problems, including prolonged gestation, retained placenta, absence of milk and delivery of weak foals.
Continue routine vaccinations based on your geographical recommendations. If your barn has several breeding females, heavy horse traffic or a history of abortion, vaccinate pregnant mares at 5, 7 and 9 months of gestation for the abortogenic strain of equine herpes virus, EHV-1, to protect against late-term abortions and birth defects. Don’t confuse this with immunization for rhinopneumonitis, or EHV-4, a different viral strain that causes respiratory and neurological disease in young and adult horses.
Give all mares tetanus toxoid boosters 6 weeks prior to their due dates to protect them during and after delivery, and to ensure that their colostrum contains adequate levels of antibodies to the disease. The organism that causes tetanus is actively secreted in horse manure and lives in the environment where horses are kept, making them extremely susceptible to the disease. Mares are particularly vulnerable at foaling time, especially in cases of prolonged labor, or when partially retained fetal membranes are allowed to contact the ground. Foals, meanwhile, are at risk of contracting tetanus through their navels.
You can safely treat mares for parasites throughout their pregnancies, and it’s recommended that you deworm pregnant mares 6 weeks prior to their expected due dates. This ensures that they’re in good condition at foaling and that their milk is free of parasites.
Mares that have undergone Caslick’s procedures need special attention. In this minor surgical procedure, the upper portion of the vulva is sutured shut following breeding, allowing just enough space for the mare to urinate. It’s performed primarily in older mares with genital conformations that contribute to fecal contamination of their reproductive tracts. Without this procedure, many mares are unable to carry a pregnancy to term. In preparation for foaling, the veterinarian opens the vulva by cutting along the center where the tissue has been sewn together, while using local anesthesia.
It’s also advisable to remove shoes, to prevent mares from injuring themselves during labor and damaging their foals after delivery. Bare feet aren’t nearly as dangerous to delicate newborn flesh or as likely to cause fractures as those that are shod.
Expectant mares should receive moderate exercise to maintain fitness, even in the last weeks of pregnancy. Daily exercise strengthens muscles, promotes circulation and prevents colic. Even though pregnancy and impending lactation increase nutritional demands, don’t allow mares to become sedentary and obese. Mares rarely suffer from obesity-related dystocia (difficult birth), but extra weight causes fatigue during delivery.
Mares can safely foal in a variety of locations, but it’s imperative that they become accustomed to their birthing location at least 2 weeks in advance. In mild climates and during warm months, turned-out expectant mares can comfortably foal on grass. However, in extreme weather, move them to an alternate area. Avoid placing late-term mares in expansive areas where they aren’t easily observed. Small paddocks or pastures are ideal. If the mare is pastured but expected to foal inside, bring her in at night for the last few weeks of her pregnancy to introduce her to the new accommodations.
Fencing should consist of some type of flank – avoid mesh and barbed wire. Follow the same fencing guidelines when preparing turnout areas for mothers and their babies. Bear in mind that it’s difficult for foals, with their immature vision, to decipher mesh, even that constructed of small weave. Additionally, young foals might fatigue or injure themselves trying to keep pace with their dams in large areas, so keep them in a more manageable location.
The idea foaling stall is at least 12 by 16 feet, the roomier the better. Mares need enough room to safely turn and roll without injuring themselves or becoming cast during the initial stage of labor. The stall should have sufficient room for attendants or the veterinarian to work in emergency situations. At the same time, a larger stall allows new foals room to romp and play without injuring themselves.
Solid walls with no holes or loose boards are safest. Don’t leave space between planks or under the bottoms of walls or doors. Check carefully for nails or any other protruding objects. Water and feed sources are safest at ground level, as foals can get caught in buckets or tubs hung on walls.
Proper ventilation is necessary to ensure the respiratory health of mothers and their new arrivals. The lower levels of foaling stalls should be draft-free, with adequate air exchange above. Stalls with open tops or constructed from bars are generally well ventilated, but might not offer enough warmth in colder climates. Cold areas might require completely enclosed foaling stalls.
Adequate barn and stall lighting allows you to observe expectant mares. Ideally, provide sufficient light to watch mares, without disturbing their rest. Most importantly, ensure that enough light is available to work in emergency situations.
Straw is the best bedding for foaling stalls. Avoid sawdust and shavings, because they’re dusty and can lead to respiratory disease in foals. They also tend to stick to moist surfaces, which can contribute to reproductive infections in postpartum mares. Wood bedding also is associated with higher ammonia levels in barns. If mares are ordinarily bedded on shavings or sawdust, change to straw a few weeks in advance to allow time to acclimate. Before switching back after delivery, allow another few weeks for the risk of health-related complications to subside. And remember to provide mares plenty of hay on which to nibble to prevent them from eating their bedding. Don’t bed stalls too deeply, or it might be difficult for wobbly foals to stand. Avoid stall mats when possible because they’re slippery when wet. In permanently installed, cover them with a thin layer of sawdust for traction before covering with straw.
In areas where temperatures fall below freezing, heat lamps are often necessary additions. To optimize their use, place them in stalls with ceilings, which helps prevent the heat from escaping. Focus the light into the corner nearest the lamp rather than trying to scatter it over the entire space. This produces a cozy area for the occupants, while still allowing them to escape the heat. Always exercise caution with any heat source. Specifically, make sure horses can’t chew on the cords.
Fortunately, there are a number of devices on the market today aimed at predicting foaling. They include surveillance cameras designed to observe expectant mares in foaling stalls and throughout the barn and paddock areas. The systems consists of closed-circuit video cameras connected to a television or computer that allows horse owners or foaling attendants to watch for signs of impending labor in mares without directly observing them.
Monitors that connect to halters can detect restless movement or whether the mare is lying down, while others respond to changes in skin moisture. Vaginal monitors are inserted directly into the vagina or sewn into the vulva to detect contractions. Exercise caution with these types, though, as they can lead to vaginal and rectal lacerations once the foal’s feet have entered the birth canal. Never rely heavily on any of these devices as primary indicators of foaling, because they’re often misleading and provide a false sense of security. Nothing replaces good, old-fashioned observation.
Calling for Help
One of the most difficult aspects of foaling is knowing when to call the veterinarian, because every birth is ultimately unique. If you feel uncomfortable, or uncertain that you can handle the situation, don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian. Many horse owners experience anxiety about having their veterinarian make “wasted” trips, but any equine practitioner would rather take time out of a busy day to find a healthy mare and foal, than face a situation that’s escalated into a dismal prognosis.
Give your veterinarian a list of foaling dates and potential problems ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to have a competent back-up veterinarian in the event yours is unavailable. Keep phone numbers and contact information convenient at all times. And in case of emergency, be prepared to provide details when the veterinarian arrives.
Normal Foaling Stages
The first stage of labor can last up to 8 hours. During this time, the mare experiences contractions as the foal moves into position for delivery. If this stage lasts longer or seems more violent than expected, call your veterinarian immediately.
The second stage of labor begins when the mare’s water breaks and usually lasts only about a half-hour before the foal is delivered.
After the allantoic fluid escapes, the foals front feet should appear within a few minutes. One foot should be farther forward, with the nose resting on top of the legs. If the foal doesn’t present normally, or if more than 45 minutes has elapsed, seek immediate help.
When they initially appear, the foal’s feet will most likely still be encased in the amniotic membrane, which should rupture as the foal advances. If the membrane appears overly thickened, or if the foal is enclosed in a bright red sac, the sac must be opened immediately with blunt scissors. During a red-bad delivery, the placenta prematurely separates from the uterus before the foal is delivered. If not opened immediately, the foal will suffocate. In this case, there’s no time to wait for your veterinarian to arrive.
Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect any abnormality. Remember that harm can be inflicted by either action or inaction. Being prepared can’t ensure that foaling will proceed without incident, but it sure helps when circumstances take an unexpected turn.