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Mares require close supervision and care by horse owners to ensure successful foaling

When a mare is foaling, it is important to stick with a strict timetable, according to a veterinarian specializing in neonate foals. 

Mary Rose Paradis, who serves as the section head at the large animal hospital at Tuft’s University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, discussed care of newborn foals and birthing mares during a recent webinar. Carlos Gradil, a reproductive specialist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, also spoke about newborn health and mare care during the webinar. 

Foaling

Since 80 percent of foals are born at night, both Paradis and Gradil emphasized the importance of monitoring mares while they are giving birth. 

“I think it is important to be there, because things can happen quickly,” Paradis said. 

Once the hooves are visible, the foal should be born within 30 minutes. 

“Sometimes, the shoulders will get stuck, and you may need to pull out and down and rotate the legs to help the foal out,” she said. 

Dystocia, which affects one percent of birthing mares, can be difficult to predict, Paradis said. Mares can have systemic conditions like the uterus failing to contract, a twisted uterus or pelvic fractures that prevent the mare from being able to give birth. Foals have a long neck and long legs, and everything has to align for them to be born, Paradis said. If the foal is too big, malformed or there are twins, the mare may not be able to deliver. 

Stages of foaling

“Once it is born, the foal has a strict timetable,” Paradis said. “If anything falls outside that timetable, a veterinarian needs to be called immediately.” 

A foaling mare basically proceeds through three stages before she gives birth.

During the first stage, the mare will appear uncomfortable and will stand up and lay down. She will also sweat as oxytocin causes the uterus to contract. 

“Once the water breaks, the foal should be born in less than 30 minutes,” Paradis said. 

Gradil recommends having a clock available to serve as a foaling time sheet, so an owner knows when to intervene or call for help. A standard foaling kit should also contain a large stack of clean towels to help dry and stimulate the baby, a pair of scissors and a solution to disinfect the umbilical cord. 

Owners may also want to have a placental bag handy to save the placenta for the veterinarian to analyze. 

“The placenta should be passed within three hours of birth,” Gradil said. “It should be saved to make sure it’s complete. Pieces could be left behind in the uterus that could cause infection.” 

He also urged owners to knot or tie the placenta to keep it from dragging on the ground as it is passed.

Once the foal is born, it should be able to sit on its sternum within a minute of birth, Paradis explained. Within 10 minutes, it should develop a suckle reflex and be moving its tongue. It should attempt to stand within 30 minutes and be standing within an hour. 

“Within 90 minutes, it should be latched onto the udder and nursing,” she said. 

Colostrum 

“It is important for the foal to receive high quality colostrum,” Paradis said. “The equine placenta is different from a human’s because large antibodies can not pass through the placenta, so the foal is born without any antibodies against the bacteria it will meet in its new environment.”

The foal obtains these antibodies through passive transfer, she continued. 

“The first milk the mare makes contains antibodies passed from the mare’s bloodstream. The foal absorbs these antibodies in the intestine to help protect it against bacteria,” she said.

In some cases, the foal may not get enough colostrum. This most commonly happens when the mare leaks it out prior to giving birth, so when the foal is born, it only receives milk. 

“The mare will only produce it once, so once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said. 

Getting help

If there are problems at birth, if the timetable isn’t followed, or the foal is weak, doesn’t stand or doesn’t suckle within 90 minutes, it can affect passive transfer. 

“If the foal hasn’t suckled by 90 minutes, call the veterinarian and have him come immediately,” Paradis said. “The foal can’t wait three hours because it will be too late for absorption.” 

Paradis said the owner might want to milk out the mare and feed it to the foal through a stomach tube. 

“People don’t realize that if the foal can’t suckle from it mother, it may not be able to suckle from a bottle either. It is important to get that colostrum directly into the stomach,” she said. 

In some cases, if the placenta starts to separate before the foal is born, it may deprive the foal of oxygen. As a result, the foal may not develop a good suckle reflex or be able to find the teat or curl its tongue to suckle. 

The foal, which is commonly known as a dummy foal, may also be born with neurological problems that cause seizures, Paradis said.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..