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Foaling

Although most births proceed normally without assistance, I recommend an attendant to be present for foaling for the following reasons:

To assist the mare or foal if complications should occur, to carry out post foaling procedures, to imprint the foal with early exposure to humans and most importantly, because it is a wonderful experience to witness the birth of a foal. The foals are, of course, absolutely precious. Granted there are many joys in life but having a newborn foal slurp on your cheek or fall asleep with their head in your lap is quite endearing and special to say the least. Most owners will discover a whole new level of respect and admiration for their mare after watching her deliver and care for her new baby.

Predicting foaling, however, can be a bit of a nerve-racking process. My best recommendation is to spend a lot of time observing your mare to better enable you to identify subtle changes in her behavior as well as physiological changes.

Milk testing kits can be purchased online and can prevent some unnecessary sleepless nights. A small amount of colostrum (first milk) is extracted from the mare’s udder to be used for the test, which measures the concentration of calcium in the mare's colostrum. The calcium levels rise sharply, shortly before giving birth. With some mares, however, the colostrum cannot be extracted until the point where the mare is already in obvious labor.

Foaling alarm systems detect when the mare lays flat on her side and sends a message to a cell phone or other device. False alarms occur if the mare lays flat to sleep and the mare must stay within range of the receiver in order for it to work. Other devices are inserted into the mare’s vagina and detect when the foal is passing through the birth canal. One disadvantage to using these devices is that the attendant will only be notified late into the labor, therefore, improper positioning of the foal may not be recognized or the foal may already be born during the few minutes it takes for the attendant to reach the barn.

Camera systems installed in the foaling areas are another way to monitor your mare but it does require the attendant to remain awake.

A normal length of gestation is between 320 days and 370 days, with most mares foaling at around 11 months of pregnancy.

At least 1 month prior to foaling, the mare should be moved to her foaling area (if different), which will allow her time to adjust, in addition to providing her body with enough time to develop antibodies which can then be passed to her foal.

The foaling facility should be carefully inspected for hazards. Aside from obvious dangers such as protruding objects or sharp edges, some hazards may be overlooked. It only takes a few inches of water to drown a newborn foal, which means that irrigation ditches and common water troughs can be potentially deadly. Inadequate fencing may permit the mare to deliver her foal into a neighboring pasture, or the foals legs may become pinned under a fence or stall partition. The mare may choose an isolated spot out in the rain and mud to deliver, even if she has access to shelter. Foals may be injured or killed accidentally as the dam attempts to protect her foal from other horses. Straw is advised over wood shavings for bedding during foaling to reduce the likelihood of aspiration by the foal. If Caslick’s suturing is in place, it should be surgically opened and given enough time to heal prior to foaling.

Most mares exhibit at least a few signs of impending foaling, however, the following characteristics can only be used to roughly predict the onset of labor. Maiden mares are notorious for convincing you that they might be in labor before they actually are in labor.

Enlarged

Enlarged udder

The mare’s udder usually begins to enlarge about 4 to 6 weeks prior to foaling. The udder may fill overnight and then become small again during daily exercise in the early stages of this process. Not all mares will develop a full udder prior to foaling but will develop adequate lactation once the baby is born. The lower portions of the teats are the last area to fill.

The muscles in the mare’s pelvic area will begin to relax, giving a hollow appearance on either side of the tail to the point to the buttock. If this area is felt each day, the softening of muscles can usually be detected. There will be a gradual elongation of the mares vulva during the last few weeks, then within 24 to 48 hours prior to foaling, the mare’s vulva becomes significantly swollen, relaxed and elongated. The membranes within the vulva will be bright red (as if she is in heat) verses the usual gum color.

An observant owner may notice the passing of the cervical plug, which has sealed the opening of the mare’s cervix during pregnancy. This mucous cervical secretion may be streamed with small amounts of blood, appearing rust colored. It may be seen oozing from the mare’s vulva or it may be dried and crusted on the underside of the mare’s tail. Our mares have foaled as soon as 24 hours or as long as 4 1/2 weeks after passing their cervical plug.

Waxing

Waxing

“Waxing” refers to a substance appearing on the end of the teats, which begins as a honey-colored, transparent bead of colostrum, turning to a translucent yellow-white, followed by grayish-white milk.

Waxing may occur a week or so before foaling, a few hours before foaling or may fail to appear at all, although most mares will wax 12 to 48 hours prior to giving birth. The appearance of wax is definitely an indicator to watch the mare very closely. To be absolutely certain that I will not miss the birth, I literally do not let a mare out of my sight once she begins to wax.

After the wax drops off, the mare may drip or stream milk, coinciding with her contractions. While some mares show no evidence of wax or milk, others may drip milk for several days. Unfortunately, these mares may loose large amounts of colostrum, the vital first milk that contains antibodies for the newborn foal.

FOALING SUPPLIES

  • Mare’s halter and lead
  • 2% Chlorhexidine or Tincture of Iodine
  • Small cup
  • Tail wrap or vet wrap
  • Towels
  • Twine or rope
  • Plastic grocery bags (double bagged)
  • Enema
  • Warm water
  • Paper towels or cotton roll
  • Scissors (to open ‘Red Bag’ if necessary)
  • Veterinarian telephone number (In case of emergency)

Once you have determined labor to be eminent, you can utilize the time to prepare the mare for foaling. Her stall should be free of hazards and deeply bedded with clean straw. Urine and manure should be removed regularly during labor to keep the straw clean and dry. She should have fresh water and hay available at free choice. Some owners like to make a “bran mash”, mixing 4-6 cups of wheat bran with water. A small amount of grain or molasses can be added if needed. The bran has a mild laxative affect to aid in post foaling colic prevention plus most mares seem to enjoy it. Mineral oil can be added if the mare has any history of post foaling colic.

Her tail should be braided, folded and wrapped with a tail wrap or elastic bandage. Her vulva can then be thoroughly washed with a mild dilute soap and warm water. Squeeze bottles work well using one warm disinfectant wash and one warm rinse water, although, she will continue to defecate over the washed area.

She will want to walk during her contractions so she should be allowed as much room as possible within your foaling area. One or two familiar and quiet attendants are best. Some horses prefer to be alone during this time and too much noise and activity may interfere with the bonding process of the mare and foal, thus leading to an orphan foal.

Most mares give birth at night, usually between the hours of 11pm and 4am but daytime births do occur. A clean, grass pasture can make a nice place for a mare to give birth during the day provided that she can be readily observed and the pasture is free of hazards, mud, manure, inadequate fencing or other horses.

Some mares do not want any other horses nearby, although, many of our mares are far more relaxed during labor when their favorite pasture mate is close by, such as in the next stall with a grill style window in between or were they can join each other outside of their stalls in side by side runs. This is to be determined on an individual basis, depending upon the mare and the relationship with her pasture mate. Her desire for company may change once the baby is born.

Restlessness may be identified as the mare looks at or bites at her sides or kicks at her abdomen. Her tail may be held at an elevated position or cocked to one side or she may swish it rapidly. She may pace her stall, followed by periods of normal behavior and eating. She may paw or stomp the ground, trot, run, buck or shake her head. Attentive owners may detect a specific inward expression on her face as well as the positioning of her ears as she focuses on the changes within her body. She may rub her hind end on the stall wall. Yawning or teeth rubbing may be observed. She may lower her hindquarters, roll or lie down and get up several times. A light sweat may be noted. She may defecate and urinate frequently. Many mares will show signs of increased agitation as the foal makes its way through the birth canal followed by a short period of calmness just before her water breaks.

At this point, some attendants routinely check the foal’s position by inserting a washed arm in a sterile glove into the mare’s vagina just after her water breaks, when the mare is lying down. Although it is not required for normal births, there is only a short window of time before the mare starts to push and if the foal is not positioned properly, it will need to be repositioned at that time. Other attendants believe that unless there is an obvious sign of a problem, the mare should just be observed from a distance and be allowed to deliver the foal on her own. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to have your sleeves rolled up, your jewelry off and your arms thoroughly washed in case you need to assist in a hurry.

The amnion, which is a white membrane, should protrude from the vulva within 5 minutes after her water breaks. Once the mare is ready to begin to push, she will position herself on her side with her legs stretched out. She will need to be repositioned if her vulva is against a wall to allow room for the foal’s delivery. Most mares will deliver without assistance in less than 15 minutes, within 30 minutes is still considered normal but more than 30 minutes of pushing could indicate a problem and veterinary assistance should be immediately initiated.

The mare’s placenta consists of two parts; the “red bag” or allantochorion and the “white bag” or amnion. The red bag attaches to the uterine wall and within it is the white bag which surrounds the fetus. “Red Bag Syndrome” is another term for placenta previa which is a fairly uncommon foaling complication. Normally, the red bag membrane ruptures first but is passed after the foal is born. If a velvety red bag is the first to appear, it must be ripped or cut open immediately. This is an emergency and there will be no time to wash up or wait for a veterinarian. The placenta has prematurely separated from the uterus and the foal is no longer receiving oxygen and must be manually pulled out quickly.

Amniotic-membrane

Amniotic membrane - normal

Red Bag

"Red Bag" - abnormal

During normal foaling, the amniotic membrane will appear as a white bubble which can be ripped open with your hands if you choose to assist. Within it should be one front hoof with the sole facing down, 4-6 inches behind will be the other hoof. This offsets the foal’s shoulders, which reduces the circumference. It is not uncommon for the mare to stand up and walk around before lying down again at this time. The foal’s knee will be the next joint to be felt followed by the muzzle.

Foal Positions

If the attendant chooses to assist by grasping the foal’s legs at the cannons, the legs should remain offset to keep the shoulder circumference reduced. The attendant should pull with steady tension, never yanking, and pull in a downward arc toward the mares hocks. The muzzle will be seen as the forelegs appear, followed by the head, neck and shoulders. After the shoulders pass, the rest of the body slides out quickly. The foals back legs may remain inside of the mare’s vulva for the time being. Attendants should remain still and quiet for the next several minutes. Most mares will remain lying calmly in an upright position for several minutes and this rest period should not be interrupted.

Do not cut the cord. It will break in a natural weak spot a few inches from the foal’s abdomen when the foal moves or the mare stands. It is a good idea to support the foal’s abdomen by cupping your hand around the umbilical and squeezing it between two fingers as it breaks to help prevent an umbilical hernia.

There will be fluid around the foal’s nose and mouth which the foal will attempt to blow out. You may assist by towel drying if necessary. Foals have an instinct to keep their airway free and will resist your attempts to wipe their muzzle directly.

The bonding process is important for the mare and foal and should not be interrupted. The mare may nicker at her foal, she will smell it and she may lick, nudge, nibble or even lightly paw at her foal to encourage it to stand but she should not be allowed to aggressively paw at her foal. The foal may nicker back.

Soft, fringe-like pads cover the bottom of the foal’s hooves to protect the mare’s reproductive tract. The pads are no longer needed after birth and will begin to fall off as the foal struggles to stand.

Hippomane

Hippomane

You may discover a small, brown rubbery object on the straw or within the white membrane around the foal. This known as the hippomane and is thought to consist of waste products accumulated in the allantoic fluid during pregnancy.

The mare’s udder can be washed using plain warm water. Once the mare is standing, the afterbirth should be placed into a sack (a double bagged plastic grocery sack is excellent) and tied up (above the hocks) to the umbilical cord which is attached to the placenta. This prevents the mare from stepping on it and pulling on the placenta. The placenta should never be pulled from the mare’s reproductive tract, as manual removal can cause irreparable damage. The bag may need to be retied up above her hocks again as it lowers. The mare’s placenta will be passed as uterine contractions continue. She may lie down again after the baby is born. Again, it is important for the attendants to be fairly still and quiet as the mare is not finished with her delivery. Too much activity around the mare or foal before the placenta is passed is thought to be a potential risk factor a retained placenta. Occasionally, mares will pass the placenta while still lying down shortly after the foal is born and no sack will be needed after all.

The placenta emerges as a liver-colored, vascular membrane. The placenta will be passed inside out. Upon expulsion, it should be laid out and carefully examined to insure no part of it is missing. Even a small piece of retained afterbirth is a potentially serious condition. One large hole will be noted from which the foal emerged. The red, velvety side was attached to the mare’s uterus. The placenta is usually passed within one hour. Retained for more than 3 hours is call for veterinary intervention. Most mares will make a full recovery after a retained placenta with early intervention and proper treatment; however, an unassisted mare may die from septicemia. Experienced breeders may keep Oxytocin on hand to be used in the event of a retained placenta.

It is important to put Chlorhexidine or iodine on the foals naval to help prevent infection. A small cup should be held under the navel for several seconds to allow good absorption. If you are using iodine, be sure to avoid getting any on the foal’s skin as it can be caustic. This process should be repeated later and a few times per day until the umbilical stump is dried and sealed.

An enema, warmed to body temperature, can be given to the foal via the rectum. The enema helps to prevent straining due to impacting of meconium (first manure). Meconium is dark (like tar) and sticky or pelleted whereas subsequent milk feces is soft and yellow-brown, with an appearance similar to butterscotch pudding.

The foal should be allowed to struggle to stand without assistance and should nurse within 2 hours. Assistance at this point may interfere with this natural process and the struggling helps the foal to gain strength and coordination. The foal will curl its red tongue out over its upper lip and will begin to make saliva bubbles; searching the stall and the mare’s legs and abdomen. The foal may pause to push out meconium or may stumble, fall and rest a while before resuming the search for milk. It may become necessary to halter and stand at the head of a maiden mare if she will not stand still to let the foal nurse.

Some breeders will administer a dose of Banamine to the mare if she appears uncomfortable after she has passed her placenta. The attendant should stay with the mare and foal until the placenta has passed and been inspected, the mare shows no signs of colic, the foals umbilical has been treated, the foal has passed its meconium, the foal has successfully nursed several times and has urinated normally (not through the umbilical).

If your veterinarian wishes to do a post foaling check of mare and foal, they will likely want to examine the placenta as well.


 

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