...and on the eighth day God created BABY FOALS to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever they darn well please, in divine grace.
Caring for a mother horse and her new baby can be one of the most rewarding experiences a horse owner can have, but also one of the most anxious.
There are very real risks involved for both mother and baby during and after the foaling process. Studying a good handbook on foaling during the light of day, well before the foal is due, will help you become familiar with what occurs and keep you alert for risks and how to deal with them should they arise.
Ready, set, prepare.
The foaling stall should be cleaned and set up well ahead of the birth. It should be well-bedded with straw, not sawdust as sawdust can stick to baby’s wet coat and clog his nostrils. It should be large enough for 2 animals, free from drafts and dimly lit. A 25 watt light bulb in the socket does nicely.
Your foaling duty kit should contain the following: A clean squeeze bottle filled with Betadine surgical solution (povidone) or Nolvasan (chlorhexidine). This is for disinfecting the umbilical stump.
A bright, dependable flashlight.
Two 36 inch long pieces of clean cotton string, for tying up the afterbirth as it hangs from the birth canal, so the mare doesn’t step on it.
Two 12 inch long pieces of clean cotton string, for tying off the umbilical stump in case it should bleed excessively.
Scissors for trimming the string.
A pre-warmed Fleet enema for the baby. Warm it in 95 degree water and store it in an insulated Thermos bottle.
A strong plastic bag for storing the afterbirth.
The actual foaling process is divided into 3 stages. (1)
Stage 1 is contractions. The mare will act anxious and may appear to exhibit signs of colic. The water will break and 2 to 5 gallons of fluid are released. This stage lasts from a few minutes to several hours.
Stage 2 is the actual expulsion of the foal from the uterus. As contractions continue it is important for the foal to be in the proper position for delivery. Picture the arc of a diver, with 2 front feet appearing, pointing downward, nose resting just behind them. These forequarters should pass through the birth canal rather easily, but sometimes as the hips pass through, the mare may have some difficulty. This stage takes from 10 to 20 minutes if no difficulties are present.
Stage 3 begins after the foal is delivered and ends with the expulsion of the afterbirth.
The following is a "what you see, what you do" walk- through of the birth from 0 to the first 15 minutes, up to the following morning. (2)
From 0 to 15 minutes, the foal is emerging from the birth canal, but his back legs may still be inside the mare. The milky amniotic sac could still be encasing his body and the mare could be in a post-birthing stupor.
You should gently tear away the part of the sac covering his face and pull it over the shoulders so it doesn’t obstruct his nose or mouth or get wrapped around his neck. Be careful not to upset the mare.
Do not attempt to pull him out of the mare. His hooves are thick and rubbery and his presence will stimulate continued contractions and get her started on expelling the placenta afterbirth.
Let the mare rest. Do not talk, do not let people come into the barn, don’t rustle papers, don’t pat her and keep dogs and cats away.
Within the first 15 seconds to 5 minutes, you should see the umbilical still pulsating with tension on it, and the foal laying on his side, with his hind feet still inside the birth canal. He will be breathing fast with nostrils flaring and making snuffling noises. Fluid will be coming out the nostrils and he may be shivering.
Do not cut the umbilical cord , let it break on its own. The break should occur about 1 ½ inches from the foal’s belly, causing less bleeding and reducing risk of infection. You will not have to tie it off if allowed to break on its own and there is minimal bleeding.
You may help the foal into the sternal position to help the lungs clear out the fluid that was in them during pregnancy. Remaining on his side may allow the fluid to pool on the downside lung , leaving him vulnerable to respiratory infection.
Rapid breathing is okay: for the first several minutes the foal may take 60 or more breaths per minute. Fluid drainage from nostrils is good as this confirms the lungs are emptying.
Shivering is also good. Shivering means the internal thermostat is working, thus raising the core body temperature. Remember, the average mean temperature of a horse’s body is 100 degrees F and he’s been inside his mother for 10 months. Do not wipe him off with a towel; that wet coat gives him his distinctive odor the mare will use to identify him as her own. This is why the stall should be draft free.
After about 10 minutes the foal may begin to flail a bit, trying to get up into the sternal position. At this time you may gently remove the hind legs from the mare if they’re still inside. This is a good indication that the foal’s balance and nerves are functioning. He may let out a whinny. Don’t let him knock his head on the hard floor; make sure there is lots of straw bedding to protect it.
The mare should nicker softly as her maternal instincts begin to take hold. Watch her closely to make sure she doesn’t pin her ears at the baby.
She may remain on her side, resting, showing signs of mild discomfort. If she shows signs of severe discomfort, accompanied by rolling or thrashing, she may be bleeding internally or colicking. Call the Vet immediately.
Do not try to get her up, rather, move the foal to safety. Stay close and wait for the Vet.
The umbilical cord will probably break on its own, or you may have to break it at this time. If it bleeds, tie it off with the 12 inch piece of string.
At 10 to 30 minutes, after having rested, the mare will stand up, breaking the umbilical cord and the afterbirth will swing against her legs. You may tie it up with string at this time.
She will turn to look at her baby, licking him, nuzzling and nickering to him. Good mama; sometimes the mare may be too nervous to make the maternal bond. This is not uncommon, especially with first-time mothers and usually results from too much outside interference.
The new mother may turn her aggression toward you, but don’t take it personally.
However, she’s not fooling and you should take her seriously. Have her wear a halter beforehand so you and an assistant can handle her more easily.
You should stay in the stall to make sure the umbilical breaks and isn’t bleeding. If the mare is very nervous with your presence inside the stall, she may try to stand up too soon and this increases the chance that the cord will break prematurely and begin to bleed..
Shine your flashlight on the stump of the foal’s umbilical, some blood will ooze and then this should stop. Get the Betadine and thoroughly soak the stump. It should not be bleeding steadily or be spurting blood.
If this happens, tie the stump with a 12 inch string halfway between the foal’s belly and the end, give it a good knot and disinfect the whole thing, string and all. Repeat this procedure every 2 hours for a total of three times, then remove the string.
At 30 minutes to 1 hour your foal should be standing on shaky legs, with a wide legged stance, looking for his first meal. Baby foals can only see about 10 inches in front of them so chances are he’ll nurse everything from the wall to his mother’s chest, without coming close.
The mare will still be experiencing cramps, as the placenta has yet to be expelled.
Don’t try to help the foal get up or walk as moving and falling help him learn his own balance. Your broodmare stall should be soft and free from harm. Don’t try to help him find the udder, either, as the animals are not ready for that step at this time.
What you should see at 1 to 2 hours out is that the mare has expelled more placenta and is becoming more comfortable. She should be focusing more on her curious baby, who should be moving around, lying down, springing up and whinnying.
Do not give the mare any horse treats or even bran mash until the placenta is entirely expelled and the foal has nursed. You do not want to distract her or have her be so protective of her food that she kicks the baby as he comes poking in search of a nipple.
The sooner the mare passes the afterbirth the better. If it stays too long, it becomes tightly attached and is difficult for her to expel without tearing it. If pieces of the placenta remain in the uterus, there is high chance of infection because placental tissue acts like a magnet for organisms that come from the outside and move up to the inside.
Don’t pull the placenta, rather let the uterus contract it out naturally. Do examine the placenta when it finally comes out by taking it to a clean, well-lit area or put it into a heavy plastic bag.
I suggest calling the Vet, either to come immediately or in the morning to examine it, as this is very important that all of it come out. It’s always nice to have a professional opinion of the situation.
It is important that the foal have his first bowel movement within this 1 to 2 hour time frame. He will be switching from inutero nutrition to post-partum nursing. A Fleet enema is standard procedure for all newborns to encourage him to pass the meconium in his colon and prevent impaction.
It is also very important that the foal begin nursing 3 to 4 hours after birth as the colostrum contained in the mother’s milk is his ticket to immunity out in the world.
Basically, it comes down to "no colostrum, no foal," it is that important. The foal will weaken rather quickly without that essential mother’s milk.
From the 3 to 6 hour time frame you should see the foal passing several little piles of meconium, enough to fill a half-gallon milk carton. He should be popping up and down, stretching his legs, even cantering in the stall like a small rocking horse. He should pee, too, good evidence that his bladder is functioning normally.
Make a mental note when you close up for the night what your observations were and what time it was, so you have a time frame in case something doesn’t look right in the morning.
If weather allows, move the baby and mare to a clean, safe outdoor enclosure the following morning. The fencing should be post and board and you will enjoy watching the two of them moving about. Exercise is good for them and it will help push remaining fluid out of her uterus.
It is normal over the next day or two for her to pass a reddish brown fluid. Exercise helps reduce swelling in her udder, helping to make nursing less uncomfortable.
Remember to add bran mash to her (reduced) grain ration and provide plenty of fresh water.
The outdoors helps the two of them bond as she is his world and he is hers, both focusing on the other to remain nearby.
The above article is meant strictly as a guideline and not Veterinary analysis. Always consult a qualified Vet when your horse is pregnant or has given birth. Vets provide shot schedules and general advice and like I said, it is always nice to have that professional opinion.
They say blessed are the broodmares and blessed are the babies. I’d have to agree with that and will wrap it up this week to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, " Happy Trails to You."
(1) Evans on Horses, Selection, Care and Enjoyment by J. Warren Evans
(2) "Baby’s First 6 Hours," by Karen Hayes, DVM, MS. Horse and Rider Magazine, February, 2000.