Preparing for a Successful Foal Delivery

Give your foals a healthy start to make your horse-breeding experience a success

A few simple precautions and a lot of common sense on the part of the owner can help most mares have a safe and successful pregnancy and produce a healthy, vigorous foal. Although some mares start the foaling season in early January, the majority will foal in April and May. So, now is the time to select a foaling location, begin assembling necessary supplies and chart a plan of action. Unlike human babies that can acquire immunity in their mother’s uterus, a foal must ingest colostrum (the yellowy substance in a mare’s first milk) within eight to 12 hours of birth in order to acquire protection against disease.

In the final month of gestation, a mare concentrates antibodies in her milk, but she can only produce antibodies against viruses and bacteria to which she has been exposed, either through vaccination or her environment. That is why it is so important to vaccinate a pregnant mare with tetanus, sleeping sickness, influenza or any other infectious disease that may be present in the environment 30 to 45 days prior to her expected foaling date.

After vaccination, the mare should receive a final veterinary checkup, and vulvular sutures (Caslick’s) should be removed. It is also important to move the mare to the location where she will foal at least 30 days prior to foaling. Sending a mare off to foal in the week before her due date doesn’t allow her adequate time to produce antibodies to the diseases in her new environment.

A Safe Haven

Next, you’ll need to decide whether your mare will foal indoors or outdoors. There are benefits and drawbacks to both, but if the weather will allow it, some breeders prefer foaling mares on good, clean grass pastures.

  • Foaling on pasture is more natural, generally more hygienic and much roomier.
  • The pasture or paddock should be grass-covered, fairly level and free of objects that might injure the mare or newborn foal, such as barbed wire, creeks or ponds.
  • Remove other animals from the pasture that might interfere with the mare or injure the foal.
  • It’s a good idea to select a grass-covered paddock near a fluorescent yard light to make checking on the mare’s progress easier.

If the decision is to foal the mare indoors:

  • Provide her with a clean, large stall (at least 14 by 14 feet) that is disinfected and well ventilated.
  • The bacteria encountered by the newborn foal in a dirty, poorly ventilated stall can easily override the antibodies received in the mare’s colostrum.
  • Before placing the mare in the stall, give the stall a thorough inspection and eliminate hazards such as raised nails, large splinters, and water buckets.
  • High-quality, dust-free straw is the preferred bedding, as wood shavings can be inhaled by the newborn foal or aspirated into the mare’s vagina, causing serious infection.

It’s always a good idea to make preparations for foaling well in advance and to have a plan in case something goes wrong. The vast majority of mares will foal at night when activity around the barn is minimal. Therefore, if a problem develops, you might be alone and on your own.

  • Write your veterinarian’s phone number down, as well as a backup veterinarian, and have both numbers handy in case a problem arises.
  • Have the number of anyone else that might be needed in case of an emergency.
  • If the mare is older or has a history of foaling problems, it wouldn’t hurt to have a stock trailer or roomy horse trailer hooked up and ready to go, just in case.
  • Place a dim light near the stall so you can observe the mare without bothering her.

Foaling supplies should include:

  • Clean stainless steel or new plastic bucket.
  • Watch to time each stage of labor.
  • Clean tail wrap material.
  • Flashlight.
  • Several large, clean towels.
  • Mild iodine or chlorhexidine solution for disinfecting the foal’s navel.
  • Sodium phosphate enema for the foal.
  • Halter and lead rope.
  • Mild soap to wash the mare’s vulva and hindquarters.
  • Sealable plastic 5-gallon bucket to store all of the foaling supplies. Leave bucket near the stall door.

Check into an alternate source of colostrum. Sometimes foaling complications or other problems interfere with a mare’s colostrum supply, so it’s wise to become acquainted with alternate sources. Many large veterinary practices or broodmare farms maintain colostrum banks and are happy to supply it in an emergency.

Welcome, Baby

Read up on the stages of foaling. Here we’re going to focus on ensuring that the foal is healthy with proper post-foaling care.

  • Healthy normal foals will begin to breathe immediately following birth and will rest on their sternum for several minutes before attempting to stand.
  • They will stand within 30 minutes of delivery and usually nurse within two hours.
  • The mare will usually rest on her chest for several minutes following delivery and then slowly rise, turn and begin nuzzling or licking the foal.
  • If the mare appears agitated or aggressive toward the foal, restrain her and consult your veterinarian for advice. A single kick from an aggressive mare can seriously injure or kill a newborn foal.

Once the mare stands, the placenta is usually passed within a few minutes to a couple of hours.

  • If the mare is stepping on the placenta or it seems to bother her, tie it up on itself with a piece of twine.
  • Under no circumstance should you attempt to cut it off or pull it out.
  • If the placenta is retained for more than three hours, notify your veterinarian.
  • Once the placenta is expelled, examine it to ensure that it is intact.
  • A retained piece of placenta can cause serious uterine infection and prevent rebreeding.
  • I ask my clients to place the placenta in a bucket of water, place a lid on it, and save it so that I can examine it when I do the mare-foal examination.

The foal should pass the meconium, the first sticky, dark stool, within 12 hours of birth. If this does not occur or if the foal appears to be straining, a mild enema may be administered.

Within an hour or so, the mare should be bright and alert, allowing the foal to nurse and looking for something to eat. Allow the mare to eat and drink as soon as she is ready.

Check the mare’s temperature every six to eight hours for the first 24 hours. The normal temperature for an adult horse is 100.5 F. An elevated temperature can indicate an infection, while a decreased temperature can indicate serious blood loss.

And finally, encourage the mare and foal to rest and give them plenty of opportunity to bond. As a general rule of thumb, I like to conduct a mare-foal examination within eight to 12 hours of a foal’s birth. I check the mare to ensure that she has not experienced severe trauma to her birth canal and is producing plenty of milk.

I examine the foal to ensure that all body systems are working properly, the navel is drying up and there are no birth defects present. I also examine the placenta to ensure that it is normal in appearance and weight and has been completely expelled. The birth of a foal is one of the most wondrous events a horse owner can experience. Good preparation will allow you to enjoy it to the fullest.

By Dr. Thomas R. Lenz