Pregnancy and foaling can be very exciting times for all horse owners. Here is some useful information about pregnancy, foaling and the first few hours of the foals life to help you if your mare is pregnant.
It is important that your mare maintains a healthy body condition score throughout pregnancy and is neither too thin or too fat at the time of foaling. Most mares do not require additional feeding to their normal diet until the last three months of pregnancy when it is advisable to feed a proprietary stud mix which will contain all the necessary nutrients for healthy growth of the foal. Please follow the guidelines and adjust appropriately for your mares condition.
Most mares should have their shoes removed before foaling to reduce the risk to the foal should the mare stand on it. Some mares will be too footsore without their shoes so discuss this with your farrier. It is very important to maintain good routine foot care throughout pregnancy especially as mares get heavier to avoid discomfort and lameness.
Ideally, your mare should be following a worming program recommended by your vet. Foals will also eat the mares dung as a normal process during the first few months of life so good mare management is essential.
Influenza and tetanus vaccinations should be up to date with a booster given in the last four to six weeks of pregnancy to boost the antibody levels in the colostrum for the foal.
Equine herpes virus can also be vaccinated against and will help reduce the risk of Herpes associated abortion. All in-contact horses should also be vaccinated. Mares are vaccinated at five, seven and nine months of pregnancy.
Rotavirus vaccine may be used if there is a history of rotavirus associated diarrhoea on the yard.
Prebreeding swabs and blood samples.
It is good practice and many studs will require that your mare is swabbed for Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM) and has a blood sample taken to test for Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA) before she is allowed to attend the stud. Please check their requirements.
Some mares require to have their vulva stitches so that they are able to conceive. This is usually to improve the vulval seal and prevent infectious agents from entering the vagina. These stitches must be removed prior to foaling to prevent the mares vulva and perineum being torn. This is usually done a couple of weeks prior to foaling when significant mammary development develops. Be careful in maiden mares as they often have limited development and can catch you out.
Stable and Paddock Preparation
The length of pregnancy in the mare is variable and usually lasts between 340-370 days. Mares will usually foal at night and can either foal in a large clean straw bedded stable or a clean paddock. Good lighting and clean water should be available. Ideally, a small well-fenced paddock should be near the stable for turn out in the first few weeks. The paddock should be clean and level, without any hazards, and preferably rested prior to foaling.
Mares should be moved to the foaling site at least one month prior to foaling to allow their immune system to respond to any pathogens prior to foaling.
Most mares foal without complication but they must be monitored closely without disturbance when foaling is imminent to ensure problems are not missed. Stables can be fitted with low-level lighting and cameras so the mare can be observed from a distance. Sweat alarms and milk secretions can also be used in higher-risk mares. Mares have a knack of foaling when no one is present to watch.
Signs of Impending Foaling
Changes that indicate foaling can start from several weeks before to much closer depending on the mare. Signs include development of the udder, swelling in front of the udder, softening of the pelvic ligaments causing hollowing of the quarters, lengthening of the vulva, changes in temperament and waxing up of the teats.
Mares produce very important first milk called colostrum during the last month of pregnancy. This is rich in antibodies which are passed to the foal to protect it from infection. Colostrum is only produced once and if lost cannot be replaced. Some mares may drip or run milk before foaling. If this occurs the colostrum can be collected and frozen to later be thawed in WARM water (do not microwave) and fed to the foal within six hours of foaling.
The Three Stages of Labour
It is best to try not to disturb mares whilst they are foaling unless there is a problem.
There are three stages to labour
- The foal moves into the correct position to be born. This stage can take several hours and the mare may be restless, flank watch, get up and down and sweat.
- Stage two begins with passing and breaking of the water bag and ends with the birth of the foal. Mares should lie down for this stage, usually on her side and obvious forceful contractions will be evident as the mare pushes out the foal. When the foal’s head is out it may be necessary to remove any membranes that are over the nostrils.
- The average length of stage two labour is 17 minutes, it all happens very quickly. If after this time when the mare has been making forceful efforts to pass the foal and there has been no progress you should seek immediate veterinary attention.
- This stage involves passing the placenta. As the mare stands after foaling the placenta should be tied up at the level of the hocks to avoid the mare tearing it if she steps on it. The mare will usually pass the placenta within an hour of birth. If it has not been passed within three hours immediate veterinary assistance should be sought. Once passed the placenta should be placed in a clean bucket and stored somewhere safe (where dogs can’t get access) until the vet has examined it to ensure it is complete.
The First Few Hours of the Foal’s Life
Once the foal has been born the mare will usually lie quietly in sternal for a few minutes.
Often the foals legs stay inside the mare and for a while with the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta inside the mare with blood passing from the placenta to the foal. The umbilical cord will break at the natural weak point when the mare stands up and should not be clamped or cut. Once the cord has broken it should be treated with a 0.5% chlorhexidine solution. Minimal interference is recommended.
Foals should stand within an hour and should look for the mare’s udder. The foal should have been observed suckling within the first two hours of life. Some maiden mares may need to be restrained to allow the foal to suckle for the first time. If the foal has not suckled within the first 4 hours veterinary advice should be sought. The foal absorbs antibodies from the colostrum through the gut wall. The foal must receive adequate good quality colostrum within the 12 hours of life for the foal to receive enough antibodies to protect it during its early life.
The ideal time for a vet to check your foal is between 12 and 18 hours after foaling.
The first faeces should be passed within six hours of birth. In foals, these droppings are called meconium. Sometimes the meconium can become impacted and this can be a common cause of colic in young foals. This is particularly common in colts. The vet may administer an enema to the foal to help with passage of meconium.
The first urine is usually passed around eight hours after foaling. It is very useful to record and monitor these functions as it can provide valuable information to the vet should there be any issues.
Post-foaling Vet Check of Mare and Foal
If there are no issues with foaling and the passage of the placenta then ideally a vet should examine your foal between 12 and 18 hours following birth. The vet will examine both the mare and the foal and will check for congenital problems like hernias, limb abnormalities and fractured ribs.
A blood sample may be obtained from the foal to check that the foal has received enough good quality colostrum to protect it until its immune system develops.
Foals may be given tetanus antitoxin if the mare did not receive a booster vaccine in the four to six weeks prior to foaling. Vaccination against equine influenza and tetanus should be started around 5-6 months of age.
Future Mare Management
Following foaling, you should continue to monitor your mare for any signs of discomfort, colic or inappetence. If the mare is to be covered again in the coming season then we should re-examine the mare seven days following foaling at the foal heat to do pre-breeding checks for the coming season. If the mare was previously Caslicked then these should be replaced at this stage.
Future Foal Management
The mare and foal are usually turned out in a safe nursery paddock following foaling. If there are any limb abnormalities these should be examined by the vet first and advice taken.
The foal will initially get most of its nutrition from the mare’s milk. Once it has started to pick at the mare’s feed it may be appropriate to give a proprietary stud feed or mineral supplement.
Please discuss early worming with your vet. From around six months tape worming should be included and then the foal can be fitted into your standard worming program. It is very important that droppings are regularly lifted from the paddock to reduce challenges to the foal. Regular worm egg counts can also be useful.
If the foal has a wound or foot abscess before vaccination has started then it is sensible for them to have an injection of tetanus antitoxin to protect them.
Foal Heat Diarrhoea
Many foals will develop mild diarrhoea around 7-10 days of age when the mare has her first post foaling season. If the foal is bright and continuing to suck then all that should be required is that the foals rear end is cleaned regularly. If the foal is off the suck please contact the practice immediately and speak to one of our vets.