Whether you are a new broodmare owner, or a seasoned breeding operation, the nutritional and medicinal needs of your mare during the stages of pregnancy must be met under the direction of your veterinarian. There is no absolute system that can be applied to every mare. You must base her care on her past history, her current health, and the time of year the birth will take place.
The gestation length for horses is approximately 340-345 days. A wise man once said, “You’ll know when your mare’s going to foal when you see two feet and a nose.” While never an exact science, if you factor in the time of year the foal is expected, the mare’s exposure to light, and the mare’s past foaling history, your Sacramento vet can come very close to picking the due date. Those mares foaling in winter will take an extra 7-10 days, and possibly less if the mare is given additional light exposure during the last two months of pregnancy. Maiden mares tend to foal 7-14 days late.
Your veterinarian can provide you with a schedule for vaccines, tests and signs to watch out for, based on your horse’s health and history. The program will include periodic ultrasounds, hormone blood test, vaccinations, and uterine culture. As a Sacramento vet who specializes in equine reproduction, I am pleased to provide a recommended schedule of vaccinations on my web site at www.hunterstallion.com .
Are you ready to handle the big day? As the due date nears, mare owners need to decide if they have appropriate facilities and the knowledge to assist the mare and foal should that become necessary. A foaling stall should be at least 12 X 24 feet, heavily bedded with straw, with no sharp corners or protruding objects. The owner must also ask themselves if they have the knowledge and physical ability, should something go wrong.
Since mares usually begin labor late at night, will the owner be available once labor begins? Does the owner know the signs the mare will show indicating the time of birth is approaching?
If they have a maiden mare, or one that has had difficult labors previously, they should consider boarding their mare with a veterinarian at least two weeks, and up to two months prior to the calculated foaling date.
Veterinarians who specialize in reproductive management will be able to monitor the foaling stall 24 hours per day; they will know if the birth is not progressing normally and will have their knowledge and equipment ready to assist when time is of the essence. They know whether the mare is cleaning the foal and bonding appropriately, and when to step in to provide assistance.
So what can go wrong and how will the vet be able to make a difference?
The mare must be monitored as her due date approaches. Milk Calcium levels increase as the time of foaling approaches, and a common sign that the birth is near is the waxing of teats. However, not all mares wax up and the duration from the onset of waxing to foaling can be quite variable. The mare’s udder will fill up and appear tight prior to foaling.
Other signs may include softening of the the rump and tailhead muscles. This helps to prepare the pelvic area to stretch during labor and foaling. The vulva may also become swollen and elongated. Be aware of changes in the mare’s behavior and loss of appetite as indicators that she is getting ready to give birth.
Stage 1 – Signs of early labor in the mare include frequent episodes of lying down, looking at her flanks, pawing at the ground and patchy sweating. The end of Stage 1 should occur within 1-4 hours when the mare ‘breaks her water’ or ruptures the outer placental membrane and releases allantoic fluid.
Stage 2 – Active labor lasts 20 to 30 minutes. A translucent gray membrane will be visible at the vulva. If there is a premature separation of the placenta (‘red bag’) there will be an appearance of a thick, brick-red, velvety membrane (the chorion) at the vulva during early labor. Red bag should be considered a medical emergency as the oxygen supply to the foal is compromised and veterinarian needs to take over immediately.
During labor there should be signs of progression every ten minutes, or less. If not, your veterinarian should be called immediately.
Normally, the foal’s front hooves are delivered first, usually with one slightly ahead of the other. The hooves are covered by a rubbery protective coating. The nose and head should appear once the front legs are out to around the knees. Your vet will need to assist if the mare strains for more than twenty minutes without the feet appearing, if only one foot appears, or if two feet appear but the head does not follow. The foals hips can also have difficulty passing through the birth canal, and your vet will reposition the foal.
Foals can also be born in the breech position—hind-feet first. This is not the normal foaling position, but it can occur without complications. Breech births are more difficult for the mare and it is more likely that help will be needed than with a normal birth.
Once the foal’s back feet leave the birth canal, the foal must stay close beside its mother. While the mare and foal rest, the umbilical cord is still attached and transferring a large, vital amount of blood from mare to foal. This five to fifteen minute rest period is crucial.
After this rest period, the mare will stand and break the umbilical cord. There is very little bleeding at this point. Sometimes, the foal will stand too. If either stand or pull away too early, the umbilical cord can snap prematurely. This results in bleeding from both horses that must be quickly controlled.
The navel should be dipped with a disinfectant soon after foaling to help prevent bacterial infections and help seal the umbilical stump. Common disinfectants include diluted Nolvasan, Betadine and Iodine. It is recommended that the navel be dipped 2-3 times per day for the first 2-3 days after birth.
Once the foal has been born, an airway and stimulation of breathing must be established. The amnion should be removed from the nasal area if it did not break spontaneously during foaling. Respiration may be stimulated by briskly rubbing the newborn foal with a towel, tickling the inside of the nostrils with straw or flexion and extension of the front limbs to stimulate stretch receptors.
The foal should be standing within one hour after birth, and nursing within 2 hours. Ingestion of colostrum, which is rich in antibodies, is critical for early immune protection of the foal. Ideally, a liter or more of good quality colostrum should be ingested by the foal within the first 6 -12 hours of life. Your veterinarian should check antibody levels in the blood of the foal 24 to 36 hours after birth to determine if adequate transfer of colostral antibodies has occurred.
However, if blood antibody levels are checked earlier (i.e. at 12 hours), oral supplementation with frozen-thawed colostrum or a colostrum substitute can be administered if needed. Evaluating antibody levels is a critical to the health of a newborn foal.
Stage 3 – Passage of the placenta should occur within 3 hours after foaling. It will be a large mass of red and white tissue protruding from the mare’s vulva. Failure to pass the placenta could lead to severe medical conditions in the mare, such as peritonitis and laminitis (founder). Even if the rest of the foaling proceeded normally, a retained placenta requires veterinary help. Early medical intervention can aid in stimulating passage of the placenta and prevention of subsequent complications.
The foal’s first feces should pass within approximately 3 hours after birth. An enema should be administered if a foal strains to defecate without passing meconium (sticky in substance and darker in color; composed of materials ingested during the time spent in the uterus).
While horses have been giving birth since the beginning of time without the help of humans, it is important to be prepared in case you need to step in. The safest precaution for your mare and her foal is to have your veterinarian monitor her pregnancy and to have her at a veterinary facility during the birth. Whether the mare is your passion or your business, her health and that of the foal will be much safer in the care of your vet.