You have waited nearly a year and the time has finally arrived. Foaling is a stressful time for all involved: owner, mare and foal. After such a long wait, foaling is an abrupt process that takes place in three stages.
Stage one of labor is the preparatory phase for the mare – foal positioning, dilation of the cervix, beginnings of contractions. It usually lasts from 30 minutes to three hours. This stage ends when the placenta ruptures at the mare’s cervix and the “water” breaks.
Stage two is the delivery of the foal. This is the point where the amnion (a white, opaque, fluid-filled “bubble”) becomes visible at the vulvar lips. The foal appears next. Often just one foot becomes visible initially, with the second foot and the foal’s nose soon to follow. No more than 30 minutes should go by from water breaking to foal delivery.
The third stage of labor is the delivery of the placenta. This stage should be completed in less than three hours. If it takes longer than three hours, the placenta is considered retained, and the horse should be seen by a veterinarian for help with removing it.
Mares can sometimes delay foaling for hours if they feel threatened. Ideally, the mare should be allowed to foal with very little interruption, but foaling should be observed to allow for quick intervention in case of complications. Once the foal’s shoulders have emerged, the amnion can be opened and moved off the foal’s face to allow it to breath.
It is best for the umbilicus to be allowed to tear naturally as the mare stands up and moves away from the foal, allowing umbilical blood to pass to the foal as long as possible. The foal should be able to get up unassisted in the first 45-90 minutes.
Mares often stay lying down for 30 minutes or more, resting after delivery. Occasionally the placenta is passed prior to the mare standing up and it may not break free when the foal tries to stand. This would be an instance where it would need to be tied off about 1” from the abdominal wall with dental floss and cut off. If the cord has broken and the mare is still down, the foal can be moved to the front of the mare where she can touch it, but where it will be out of the way for her to stand up.
I usually keep the mare and foal in a clean, dry stall for the first 24 hours to allow them good bonding time. Remember the foal will investigate all surfaces of the stall due to the nursing instinct and can absorb bacteria from contaminated surfaces. This, along with the umbilicus contacting the bedding, is often how foals acquire infections in the neonatal period. After the first 24 hours, the mare/foal pair should be allowed some turn out time in a safe paddock, arena, or pasture.
I usually recommend treating the umbilical stump with 0.5% chlorhexidine 3-4 times in the first 24 hours, twice the second day, and once the third day. I will also give the foal a fleet enema when it is 2-3 hours old. This encourages the foal to pass the first manure (meconium) a bit more easily. I usually keep the empty bottle in case the foal needs a second enema (use a few drips of Ivory soap with warm water in the bottle). If the foal continues to strain to defecate or continually has its tail lifted, “wagging” it, the foal should be seen by a veterinarian.
It is extremely important to allow the mare-foal bond to develop in the first few hours. Drying the foal off completely without letting the mare clean the foal and lick it dry after delivery, can diminish the scent cues to the mare and inhibit bonding. Only dry off the foal if there is a risk of the foal becoming chilled.
Foals often show a strong suckle reflex, curling the tongue and making sucking sounds before it even stands. They should be nursing unassisted within 2-3 hours of birth. The foal’s ability to absorb the colostrum from the mare is maximal in the first 2 hours. It rapidly decreases after the first 6 hours, is minimal after 12 hours, and ends by 24 hours of age.
If the foal has not nursed by 4 hours, a veterinarian should see to the foal immediately. It may be necessary to pass a nasogastic tube to administer colostrum milked from the mare or from another mare known to have good quality colostrum. Colostrum can be taken from a post-foaling mare and frozen to have on hand for emergency use.
Veterinary Care for Mares
The mare should be examined 12-24 hours after delivery. The placenta should be inspected closely to determine if it has been passed completely. It should be assessed for health and signs of disease or abnormality that may affect the mare’s future reproductive capacity. The mare should have her vital signs taken and have her udder, vulva and, depending on her appearance and history, possibly more of her reproductive tract assessed.
Veterinary Care for Foals
A foal should be bright and vigorous, romping and playing within the first 3-4 hours. A foal that is quiet and has low energy is abnormal and should be evaluated immediately. A foal should pass manure readily and without excess effort. It should pass urine frequently and easily. No urine should be seen coming from the umbilicus after the foal is standing. If it does, that indicates a patent urachus and the foal should be seen by a veterinarian. The foal should nurse 2-3 times an hour and sleep soundly in between.
Like mares, a foal should be examined by a veterinarian 12-24 hours after it begins nursing. A blood sample should be taken from the foal at this time to assess whether it has received enough antibodies from the mare’s colostrum. The foal depends on these antibodies for protection from infection. Failure of passive transfer occurs when the foal does not absorb enough immunoglobulin G (IgG). In this case, the foal should be given an IV source of antibodies in the form of plasma. The foal may need 1-3 liters of plasma depending on the results of the blood test. Insufficient antibodies increase risk of acquiring fatal infections in the immediate neonatal period or even into the first 4 months of life.
The physical exam includes inspection of the umbilicus; inguinal area; heart, lung, and GI sounds; eyes; mouth, bite, and palate; legs and joints; and general appearance and attitude. Colts’ testicles should be palpable at birth. Umbilicus and legs/joints should be monitored closely in the first days to weeks. These areas, together with the respiratory and GI tracts, are susceptible to infection.
Depending on the findings of the exam, foals may benefit from additional enema administration, vitamin dosing, or possible plasma or antibiotic treatment.
Foals should be dewormed between 1-2 months of age and start on a vaccination schedule between 4-6 months of age.