Waiting for a foal to arrive is often as nerve wracking as waiting for a baby! Even more so if it is the first time your mare has foaled. There is lots you can do to prepare to make the big day easier.

Reducing Infection Risk

Flu and tetanus vaccinations should be kept up to date, with an additional pre-foaling tetanus (or flu and tetanus) booster given at approximately 4-6 weeks prior to the estimated due date, to boost transfer of antibodies via colostrum to protect the foal. If your mare is not currently vaccinated, she will need a course of tetanus (or ideally flu and tetanus) vaccinations at 8 and 4 weeks prior to foaling.

Additional vaccinations recommended during pregnancy include equine herpes vaccinations (EHV-1,4) at 5, 7 and 9 months of pregnancy, to reduce the risk of abortion. Rotavirus vaccination can also be considered. Your mare should be kept up to date with worming throughout pregnancy – speak to your veterinary surgeon or suitably qualified person (SQP) to discuss whether any changes to your normal worming programme are required.

Calculating your mare’s due date

It is helpful if you know the date of covering (either natural covering or AI date) for you mare, to be able to calculate an approximate due date. Pregnancy length in a mare can be anywhere from 320 to 362 days, but most will foal between 330 and 345 days. Generally, 11 months plus one week is a good guide. It is common for mares to go “overdue” of the calculated date but be patient – a foal will arrive when he or she is ready!

There are various things to watch for which may indicate your mare is due to foal imminently – development of the mare’s udder/teats, waxing up (drops of colostrum at the end of the teats), slackening of the muscles around the mare’s pelvic area, dripping of milk from the teats. Note: if your mare is running milk during pregnancy or prior to foaling, you should contact your veterinary surgeon for advice, as it could indicate inflammation of the placenta, and may also mean that the mare has lost her colostrum before the foal arrives.

You may wish to use a foaling camera, or foaling alarm, dependent upon your circumstances. A number of different types of foaling alarm are available; if this is something you want to consider, discuss the options with your veterinary practice, and be sure to have it fitted in plenty of time ahead of foaling.

What do you need to get ready?

You will need to decide whether you will allow your mare to foal out in the field, or whether she will be stabled (with or without a foaling camera) as the due date approaches. Consider resting the paddock for 3-4 weeks before your mare is turned out, to reduce viral, bacterial and fungal infection risk, and also to reduce the risk of worm infestation. Water troughs or buckets, and ideally fencing, can be disinfected with a multi-use disinfectant.

If you choose for your mare to foal indoors, the foaling box and any buckets and other stable equipment should be carefully disinfected ahead of the due date, and a fresh straw bed with deep banks put down (this is preferable to shavings, as straw is less likely to stick to the foal). Using a multi-purpose disinfectant effective against bacterial, viral and fungal infections on the walls, floors, doors and any other surfaces is recommended, as young foals are particularly susceptible to infections before their immune system has chance to develop. Aerosol foggers may also be useful indoors for hard-to-reach places. If the foaling box will be used for multiple mares and, it should be thoroughly disinfected between foalings. Ensure that your mare is familiar with her foaling box in plenty of time, especially if she is not usually stabled. If required, a rug without leg straps or without a filet string is recommended . You can also wash the mare’s udder, vulva and hindquarters with an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal shampoo prior to the birth – but be sure to rinse any soap off thoroughly.

Keeping a tail bandage to hand is also a good idea, which can be placed if you think your mare is due to foal imminently – be sure not to leave a tail bandage in place for too long as this can cause problems. If your mare is foaling away from home, plan to move her at least 3-4 weeks before her due date so that her immune system can produce antibodies specific to the new environment, which she can then pass to her foal in colostrum.

On the day itself

Be sure to have spoken to your veterinary practice ahead of time regarding what you will do when your mare starts to foal. Some mare owners will prefer to ask their veterinary surgeon to attend even if the foaling appears to be progressing normally, whereas experienced stud staff may be confident to monitor the mare during foaling and check the foal after it has been born, and only ring their veterinary practice if they have concerns.

Make sure you have your veterinary practice’s phone number to hand (e.g. stored in your mobile phone and written up in the feed/tack room and outside your mare’s stable) in case you need to ring them in a hurry. Needless to say, it is always advisable to have your mare and foal checked by a veterinary surgeon after the birth. In addition, a blood sample (for IgG) should be taken from the foal at 24-36 hours old, to check that the foal has received adequate antibodies in the mare’s colostrum.

Stages of a normal foaling

As with any mammal, there are three stages of a normal birth:

Stage 1. During this stage, the foal moves into position within the uterus to be born – a normal presentation is both of the foal’s feet together, one slightly in front of the other, with the foal’s head in between. Your mare is likely to become restless, she may paw the ground, roll, curl her lip, look at her tummy or develop patchy sweating.

Many of these signs are similar to how a horse presents with colic, so speak to your veterinary practice if you are unsure what is going on. This stage can last from 20 minutes to several hours, and the mare’s waters will break at the end of stage one. Try not to disturb your mare during this stage, as this may slow the progression of her labour.  

Stage 2. Delivery of the foal – this should happen within 15-30 minutes of the mare’s waters breaking. Typically, a mare will lie down during this stage to deliver the foal. As outlined above, the foal’s feet should appear first, then the nose. If the white amniotic sac does not break as the foal is delivered, this should be torn away from the foal’s nose and mouth so it can breathe. If you see a red-velvety bag at the vulva, this is called a “red-bag delivery” and is a genuine emergency – speak to your veterinary surgeon to ensure you know what to do if this situation arises.

Try not to disturb your mare at this point, as if the foals hindlimbs stay in the birth canal for a few minutes longer, blood can drain from the placenta to the foal. Check the foal’s umbilical cord post-delivery to ensure it is not bleeding excessively – apply pressure with clean gauze or a clean towel if you are concerned.

Stage 3. Passing of the placenta – generally the mare will pass this within 1-3 hours. See below for more information.

Once the foal has arrived

Remember the golden rule of 1, 2, 3.

  • The foals should be able stand unaided within 1 hour.
  • He or she should be nursing within 2 hours.
  • The mare should have passed the placenta within 3 hours.

Check whether the placenta appears to be intact and, if possible, keep the placenta for your veterinary surgeon to examine if they are going to attend. If your mare has not passed the placenta within 3 hours, contact your veterinary surgeon as a matter of urgency – a retained placenta can lead to complications such as metritis (uterine infection), endotoxaemia or laminitis – and in some cases can be fatal.

Make sure that the mare and foal’s behaviour are as you would expect – both in terms of their own behaviour, and their behaviour towards each other. Colostrum in the first few hours of life is essential, so speak to your veterinary surgeon if the foal is not nursing normally within 2-4 hours. The foal’s navel should be treated with iodine, hibitane or antibiotic spray on a regular basis until it has started to dry. Once dry, the umbilical stump will drop off on its own.

Take home message

Ultimately, although there is much you can prepare and plan for a foal’s arrival, do not hesitate to contact your veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns, as time is of the essence during foaling itself for a good outcome for both the mare and foal.

Article written by Dr Jessica Putnam BVMedSci(Hons) BVM BVS(Hons) MRCVS – 30th June 2021