Now is the time to get ready for your foal’s long-awaited arrival.
Mares gestate on average 340 days but can be as early as 320 and as late as 370. The calendar is a good gauge of when to expect your new arrival. It’s important to look for physical signs, too. Mares often don’t respect the calendar and do things in their own time.
When the mare is getting very close to foaling, the rump muscles on either side of her tail will get soft and sunken. Her vulva will expand and her udder will get swollen and kind of shiny. Some yellow substance may also form on the tips of the teats. This is colostrum, the magic liquid that transfers the mare’s vital immunity to the foal. It can only be absorbed by the foal for the 72 hours that its stomach remains porous.
Vaccinating mares 30 days prior to foaling assures all the antibodies are incorporated into her and then into the foals through the colostrum. If the mare doesn’t produce any or enough colostrum, most vets keep a supply that can be purchased and fed to the foal.
Many vets and several private practitioners will “foal out” your mare for a fee. Many have stalls equipped with surveillance cameras so the process many be watched. Such attention is important because, although most mares foal with no problem, those that do have trouble could spell death for both mare and foal.
Mares can labor quietly for some time before it becomes obvious. Once labor escalates, mares will pace, sweat and may look at or kick at her stomach. This can go on for some time without need for concern.
The clock starts ticking when the mare’s water breaks. From there, there should be obvious progress and delivery within 30 minutes. If not, call the vet immediately because there is no time to waste. All vets say they would rather be called to find a healthy delivery than to arrive to the death of one or both horses.
During normal delivery, a white bubble will appear from the mare’s vulva, two little hooves, pointing down, should appear and should protrude more with each push. Some mares lay down for the process while others get up and walk around between contractions with the foal partially delivered.
The foal’s nose will appear next. Each push should bring more of the foal into view. Once the shoulders are delivered, one good push usually shoots the foal out onto the soft, straw bedding. It’s important to use straw because shavings can get into the foal’s eyes and damage them.
The sack usually breaks open during the foaling process. If not, it’s vital to intervene and get the sack off the foal’s face so it can breathe. Mare and foal often rest a bit before the mare rises, usually breaking the umbilical cord. The afterbirth is usually delivered within an hour. If not delivered within two hours, the vet must be called because retained placenta can be fatal.
The foal’s navel should be dipped in betadine as soon as possible to prevent navel ill. I used a prescription pill bottle filled with betadine and dunk the navel in it.
You and your new family are not done yet.
The foal will struggle to its feet within the first hour and then must nurse to ingest the life-giving colostrum within two hours. This is the most frustrating part for me. Foals will stagger around, nuzzle everywhere and can take a very long time to finally latch on and nurse. Once they do, they will usually flop back down and take a well-earned nap. Healthy foals should nurse three to five times per hour after that.
The foal should pass the muconium, a dark, firm, first bowel movement within 12 to 24 hours. If the foal appears to be uncomfortable and straining, a preprepared, warmed baby enema may be gently administered. Foal rectums are very fragile so much care should be taken.
There are countless foaling videos available on the internet. I recommend a book called, “Blessed Are the Broodmares,” written by M. Phyllis Lose, DVM. It addresses everything anyone needs to know about the issue and was my go-to book during the years we bred horses.