Foaling Considerations

Spring is always an exciting time of year with all the animals bearing their young. Horses foaling in spring should be afforded shelter at the very minimum and a clean, well- bedded stall is optimum.

Many people claim it is better to foal a mare out in the pasture however that is not always the case. Mares prefer to be secretive and as such will often go to the farthest reaches of their available space to foal. They also tend to foal at night when lighting is poor.

If the mare has complications during delivery it is very difficult to deal with when you are out in the dark away from facilities and the proper equipment to deal with the situation. It is also time consuming having to run back to a phone to call for assistance.

Even when a mare foals normally and has no difficulty, the foal will not be able to see hazards such as fences, debris, holes in the ground etc. Foal's eyes do not fully develop for several weeks post foaling.

Then there is always the risk of injury to the foal from other horses, stray dogs or other predatory animals such as bear or cougar in some rural areas.

Pastures that have ponds, streams or large water tanks are also hazardous. Foals can fall in and not be able to get back out. Each year numbers of foals fall victim to such things and become tragic statistics.

Many people claim that horses should be able to foal unattended. After all they do in the wild don't they? Well yes they do foal in the wild, however many wild mares die giving birth and many foals die at birth or shortly thereafter due to not getting out of the embryonic sack soon enough or falling victim to predators. Complications of birth or weak foals spell doom to an unattended foal. In the wild it is estimated only 10% of the foals live to see their first year.

There are many reasons why mares should be attended during delivery. First one must realize that since domestication of the horse man has taken charge of the situation that nature had previously attended. In short, wild horses that are not strong, healthy, well suited to their environment or built properly for reproduction fall victim to a natural culling process.

Over the course of time this process weeds out any inferior individuals and standardizes the group until all the mares of a band will be similar in size, shape and reproductive soundness. The herd sires are also of the same type and general conformation which makes less likelihood of foals being too large for delivery.

In man's world mares are bred that are not carefully developed for reproduction and are perhaps not built well for the task. In today's world mares are frequently bred to the largest stallions available without thought as to whether the mare is capable of delivering a foal from such a stallion! This puts a different light on the subject entirely.

There is an old study whereby a number of Shetland pony mares were bred to draft stallions. The result was each mare foaled unassisted and produced a healthy, viable foal. From that study the powers that be deducted that a person could breed any size stallion to any size mare without a problem.

Anyone who has had to deal with the trauma of pulling a foal that is too large for a mare certainly knows the fallacy of that little tidbit of inaccuracy.

Equine fetal development is relative to the size of the space available for growth and development. Therefore if a mare is very short barreled she is far more likely to produce smaller foals than a mare that has a very long abdomen. In the case of the Shetland mares, their available space for growth was so limited that they "sized" their foals well and were able to deliver because they have been bred for centuries as pulling beasts with wide hips and therefore good pelvises. Even so, in today's world many Shetland mares still have difficulty foaling!

Many times long barreled mares bred to small stallions produce very large foals all the same because that foal had lots of room to grow and develop. If that mare with the long barrel happens to have a small pelvis this becomes a serious problem!

By the same token a short barreled mare bred to a very large stallion, one that is considerably bulkier or taller than she, can produce foals too bulky to pass through the pelvis as well. The shape and size of the foal MUST conform to the shape and size of the pelvis! Unfortunately without a good repro examination one cannot tell the size or shape of the pelvis. Large mares can still have misshapen or small pelvises.

Any time a person is considering breeding a mare it is a sound practice to have a thorough veterinary reproductive examination of the mare to ascertain the size and shape of her pelvis and the breeding soundness of her reproductive tract. This sort of examination should be conducted by a skilled reproductive veterinarian and not just the local "cow' vet.

Foaling mares can be an extremely rewarding and exciting endeavor. There are certain clues as to when the mare will be ready to foal that will shorten the "watching" time considerably.

The mare's shape goes through a stage where the belly drops low and looks pointed at the bottom. This is called "V" shaped. A few days later that "V" will flatten out and at that time the mare will also develop other symptoms.

Heavy milk veins will run along the mare's belly. The udder will fill and the teats will begin to broaden and fill out. Early milk will taste salty and be very thin like water. As the mare nears term the milk will begin to change. It will loose the salty taste and begin to taste bland to sweet. At the same time the milk will begin to feel thicker and get sticky. When the milk gets sticky and is no longer salty to taste the mare is generally within 48 hours of foaling.

The milk need not be white for the mare to foal. It may be clear, amber, cloudy, or white but it will nearly always be sticky and bland to taste no matter the color.

The day of foaling most mares will begin to feel warm to touch particularly on the face and neck. In actuality their body temperature drops, but the blood flow is redirected to the surface to cool making them feel warmer than normal.

Other symptoms are a slackening of the tail, the inability to clamp it down. There will be a distinct softening of the muscles around the tail head and in many cases it will appear the mare has lost weight there.

When standing behind a mare that is immanent to foal her sides will be difficult or impossible to see. This is called 'slab sided" and means the foal has engaged and in position to be born.

By this time the mares vulva will be elongated and very relaxed. The lining of the vulva will turn red or streaked with red. This is the blood flow being redirected to the muscles that will be forcing the foal to the outside world.

The onset of labor is heralded by the breaking of water. From that moment on it should take no longer than 20 minutes for the mare to deliver. If she is contracting without progress for more than a couple minutes then she is having difficulty and may need assistance. In past decades it was estimated only 10% of domesticated mares had difficulty foaling. A more recent study shows that closer to 30% are now having some difficulty foaling.

Some mares, if they labor strong and hard enough will eventually get the job done. The problem is once a foal is in the birth canal there are only a few minutes allotted it before the pressure on it's ribs collapses it. They die of suffocation or from crushing due to contractions. Therefore, while the mare does manage to expel the foal, often it is dead on arrival.

Some mares will manage to deliver, even a live foal but in the process she may tear herself badly or cause rupture to herself whereby she bleeds excessively. Some of these mares die from their efforts or need veterinary surgery to repair the damage done. These sorts of things can often be avoided by merely attending the mare at birthing and lending needed assistance where necessary.

Even when things go text book perfect there is also the aspect of managing the foal. Foals born in pasture are often secreted away by their dams. It is natural for a mare to hold her foal away from everyone during the bonding period. Once the foal has been kept away from humans for a few days they become leery and may not welcome contact. There are some who will be curious enough to venture forth and welcome attention but many more will not.

Foals attended at birth and imprinted generally become people-friendly and accept human contact as part of their world. They become far easier to handle and manage in a non-combative way.

Fortunately the large majority of mares foal just beautifully on their own. It is the few who cannot for some reason manage on their own that we "foalwatch". With just a little consideration and preparation foaling can be a very enjoyable and rewarding time.




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