Foaling

Guide to Equine Foaling. Emphasis on Gypsy & Shire Foalings. By Kim Oest

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***Please note, that if you think your horse is in need of Vet attention it is best to CALL YOUR VET rather than referring to this guide or any other book.  No literature beats the hands on experience a vet can lend.  Call your vet if you think ANYTHING is wrong!***

CONGRATULATIONS!!!

You have just gotten your mare in foal (or you bought a mare in foal or whatever scenario you are dealing with)!  Now is the pain staking long wait of 11 months of excitement, worry, joy, and everything else that comes along with a baby on the way! Now is also the time to start reading ANYTHING and EVERYTHING related to foaling.  Especially what to look out for so you know if the mare is in trouble or not.  95% of foalings are normal non-problematic but those other 5 percent can be very dangerous and deadly if not attended to correctly!  It is HIGHLY advised that you do everything in your power to attend the foaling, whether it be buying some of the commercial predicting foalings (FoalAlerts, Milk test strips, Foaling monitor halters, Foaling camera, whatever) or just buy lots of caffeine products to stay up all night.  That's right, most mares will foal at night with the most common foaling times being between 9pm and 2am.  This does NOT guarantee your mare will foal during these hours, just is more likely as horses are prey animals so they foal at night so the baby has enough time to figure out it's legs so it can be off and running come sun up when the predators come out.  Now that you know a little bit about timing and trying to attend, we will go through the normal process of a normal mare.  Every mare is different and every foaling is not the same but this is generally what you will see:

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Pre-Foaling

About one month prior to the expected foaling, one should re-booster their mare with 4 way or 5 way shot, WNV shot (if you use it), Pneumabort shot, and finally wormer.  This way it should be transferred into the mare's colostrum (first milk) so the baby will be inoculated against the common pathogens.  About 1 month prior to foaling date (the normal gestational length is 340 days but anything between 320 and 360 days is common), you will start to notice the mare's udder slowly starting to fill.  It is not producing milk yet but the hormone secretin is starting to have it's affect and therefor the udder starts to fill. About two weeks before due date you will notice the mare's belly shifts down (towards the ground) and back (towards her tail).  Many say the mare has a V shape.  Also during this time the mare's butt muscles around the tail start to relax due to the hormone relaxin.  This is necessary in order for the birth canal to be flexible enough to allow the passage of the baby.  The muscles will have more of a jello type feel by the time foaling is imminent.  Right before foaling the mare's clear discharge from the teats changes to a tint of yellow which progresses to white.  Once it is white 90 percent of mares will foal within 24 hours. Some mares will also wax and or run milk right before foaling (up to 48 hours pre-foaling).  The final sign is the lengthening of the vulva, again to allow passage of the foal.  The mare should be where she is going to foal at least 2 weeks (30 days is much more preferable in order for her to gain antibodies in the colostrum against that area's pathogens).  The two big rules for a foaling area is CLEAN and LARGE!  By clean meaning minimal piles of manure and urine, as dust free as possible, and is best if the mare foaling is the only horse within the stall/paddock.  The bigger the better is best for foaling stalls, many say the minimum is 14x14.  That allows the mare enough room to lay down and be able to deliver the baby without the baby hitting the wall.  Below is an example of mares look right before foaling, along with another at top left.

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Dinah- Maiden Gypsy Mare

She foaled 12 hours later


Udder is full, teats are full/distended and have wax and active milk dripping.  She foaled 3 hours later.

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The Blessed Night

So now the night of the blessed event is here!  Will now explain what is happening even though in Stage 1, everything is happening internally, but stages 2 and 3 are external.  I will include photos below that may be construed by some as graphic (just shows a mare foaling) but is helpful to see what is normal.  As to who determines WHEN the blessed event happens, both the mare and foal play a part in deciding.  The foal determines the DAY it is ready to be born, the mare determines the HOUR it is born.  That is why mares will often wait till there is no activity at the facility and they are good at knowing when humans go on a coffee/potty break and usually pick that opportunity to kick the kidlet out :)!  So on to the stages!

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Stage 1

As I said earlier, Stage One is mostly all internal.  Mares will exhibit external signs such as restless/nervousness, frequent lying down/rolling and getting up, pawing at the ground, start sweating (due to prostaglandin PGF2alpha).  Stage one is when the uterine contractions begin and the baby finishes getting into position for delivery.  The baby stretches the front legs forward into the diving position and is now in the dorsal position.  The length of time highly varies in the mare but usually consists of 1-4 hours, the more foals a mare has had the shorter the period.  Stage One ends when the mare finally lays down (or stands) and breaks her water (the allantoic fluid). (pictured at left).

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Stage 2 Expulsion of the Foal aka the Exciting Stage

This is the stage that you have been waiting the past 11 months for!  
Since there is SO much excitement abounding it can seem like it takes an eternity but the foaling should take 10-60 minutes with the average
delivery time in 10-20 minutes (18 minutes is most common).  You will
first see the amnion (a little white bulb) which will soon be followed by 1 hoof shortly thereafter the 2nd hoof and in the middle will be the nose). As the mare contracts more she progresses the foal forward.  The hardest part for a mare to clear is the shoulders, this is why one foot is slightly in front of the other, it separates the shoulders allowing one to pass before the other.  Most people freak at this stage because they see their baby with the amnion still over the nose and fear the baby can't breathe.  RELAX!  The baby can not breathe air until their shoulders clear the birth canal, so at this stage the foal is still getting oxygen from the umbilicus.  You can clear the amnion from the nose if you are so inclined but the foal will not suffocate.  So now the mare has passed the shoulders, the rest of the foal should slide right out.  If the babies legs are still inside the baby will clear them on their own.  Also when the baby thrashes its legs or when the mare gets up, the umbilical cord will break free allowing the separation of mom and baby.  Stage two is now complete as it ends with the expulsion of the fetus.  Now on to the final stage, one of the most important stages for the mare's health, stage 3.  

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Stage 3 Expulsion of the Placenta. Final Stage

The final stage of the foaling process is the passage of the placenta (afterbirth).  This can range anytime between 15 minutes post-foaling to 3 hours post foaling.  A PLACENTA IS CONSIDERED ABNORMALLY RETAINED AFTER 3 HOURS AND VET INTERVENTION IS A MUST!!!!  Once the baby clears the mare the placenta starts involuting on itself, so the mucous area that once connected the placenta and the uterus will be on the inside upon passage.  The mare continues to contract due to the hormone oxytocin (which also causes milk let down) which causes the expulsion of the placenta.  DO NOT GIVE THE MARE BUTE OR BANAMINE FOR PAIN UNTIL THE PLACENTA IS OUT!  Bute and banamine will relax the contractions that are necessary to get the placenta to separate from the inner body.  When the placenta is expelled, you can take it and make an F or a Y pattern by spreading it out, you will have the pregnant horn (is the much larger horn), the
non-pregnant horn, the body of the placenta that then connects via the umbilical cord to the baby.  Many people are grossed out by the placenta and leave it for the vet to check in the morning.  Be nice to your vet.  Put the placenta in a bucket of water and put it in a fridge if possible or at least cover it to keep the flies out.  Once the placenta is out completely (one must check the NON-PREGNANT horn, ensure it is complete as this is the most likely part to get retained and a retained placenta is not fun) and the baby has nursed and hopefully passed the meconium (first manure) you can NOW go to sleep (if you can after all the excitement!) but it is always good to check on the new pair overnight to ensure everything is still going right.

1-2-3's of Foaling

  1. Just a quick run down of the ESSENTIALS come foaling, don't get caught up in the excitement, ensure you
    remember the 1-2-3's of foaling and all will be well.  Upon the foal's arrival there are the 1-2-3's:
    1) Within ONE hour the foal should be standing
    2) Within TWO hours of birth the foal should have nursed, after this point the foal will start getting weak if it has not drank
    3) Within THREE hours of birth the mare should have passed a COMPLETE placenta


Post-Foaling Care
It is ideal to have the vet out within 9-12 hours post foaling in order for them to do a physical on both the mare and the foal.  You will also want to have an IgG test done to ensure passive transfer (ensure the baby got the antibodies from the colostrum to keep it healthy in its new pathogen filled environment).  Failure of passive transfer (anything 400ppm or less 9-12 hours post is failure of passive transfer) and is best to get a plasma transfusion for the foal in order to ensure health and survival.  800ppm or greater is ideal and is passive transfer.  The vet should also inspect and ensure the placenta is complete and healthy.  After this congrats!  Enjoy your time with your new bundle of enjoy!

Most Common Foaling Difficulties

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Baby Malpresentation

This one is usually best left to the vets unless you are experienced with foaling and know what to feel/look for.  Foaling malpresentation is ANY form of presentation other than two front hoofs and the nose in the diving position followed by the back legs extending backwards.  Most common malpresentations are one front hoof backwards (stuck inside before the cervix rim), the head is bent backwards, one or both back legs are forward.  Again this is best left to the vets unless you are experienced!  Immediately call the vet if you think something is wrong and they can either talk you through it or come out and assist!

Red Bag Delivery

Red bag delivery will NOT look like the delivery above.  Red bag means the placenta is coming out at the same time as the foal and amnion (pictured at left).  It is CRUCIAL to immediately detect this and get the foal out IMMEDIATELY!  The placenta provides the baby oxygen during the birthing process, but with red bag, the placenta has cut off prematurely from the uterus which means the foal IS NOT getting oxygen.  Time is of the essence in these cases and one must help pull the baby out (must coincide with the mare's contractions) immediately to prevent loss of life.  With Red Bag, you will see the foal inside the amnion which is inside a purplish/deep red colored mucous outer coat which is the placenta that is NOT involuted.  These foals (if they survive) are almost always dummy (usually don't suckle, don't know where to go for milk, can't get to their feet easily, etc) and will need LOTS of assistance from both you and the vet.  Call the vet out immediately if you are sure it is red bag.  
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE!!!!

*Update* In 2010, Desert Jewel had it's first Red Bag Delivery.  The mare for whatever reason separated the placenta early, Jen & I were both on hand and immediately saw it, and pulled with the mares contractions and actually foaled the baby with the mare standing up as every
SECOND counts with red bag!  We got the baby out in time and he is completely normal to this day!  With Red Bag, every second matters if you wish to save both mare's and foal's life!  Pictured at bottom left is what it looks like when Red Bag.  The placenta does not invert like normal so comes out as if it was still attached to the uterus.

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Retained Placenta

This is by far and away the most common issue with Gypsy Horse foaling.  Gypsy Horses seem to follow in their larger cousins (Shires and Clydesdales) hoof prints in not wanting to let go of the placenta.  Again a retained placenta is a placenta that is not passed within 3 hours.  In order to try and prevent it is best to tie the placenta/amnion in knots just below where it is coming out of the mare to try and encourage gravity to take over and make the fibers inside release the placenta.  If this does not work, call the vet and they will administer Oxytocin which will again stimulate contractions to get the placenta to break.  ANYTHING OVER 6 HOURS RETAINED WILL REQUIRE THE VETS ATTENTION TO GET THE PLACENTA OUT AND FLUSH OUT THE UTERUS!!!  The placenta will allow many NASTY pathogens to invade the uterus which will lead to the mare foundering/laminitis if left untreated.  Uterus infections are always a pain to treat and some can never be rebred again due to the infection.  Get vet help!  PLEASE DON'T GO TO BED BEFORE PASSAGE OF THE PLACENTA!!!  Your mare's life may be at risk if left unattended!

Foaling Kit- Essential Items

  • Towels
  • Betadine
  • Twine
  • Scissors
  • Enemas
  • Banamine (IV or Paste)
  • Halter/Leadrope for Mare
  • Rope/Chains
  • Clock/Stop watch
  • Pen/Paper
  • Vets Phone Number
  • Syringes (20cc/35cc)

In Conclusion

THANK YOU for taking the time to read this and remember, you can't read enough to be prepared for the blessed event.  The more prepared you are the more you can help your mare by determining whether she is in trouble or not.  At the end of the day, there is nothing better than seeing the foal and mom relaxing together after waiting the past 11 months!  Congrats again and enjoy your foal!