A MATTER OF SURVIVAL
The horse is a flight animal. Its greatest defense against predators always
has been flight. The strongest and fastest survived and passed on their genes
related to speed and agility. But what about the foal?
Adaptation made the foal one of the most precocious newborns of the animal
kingdom. It must be delivered quickly, in a favorable location, and be ready
to travel, fast, with its mother in a matter of hours. To a large extent, all
of these characteristics remain in horses of today.
Given the opportunity, mares will seek secluded and secure places to deliver
their foals. They can interrupt delivery up to the last critical minutes if
danger is perceived. Ideally, they will wait until darkness to gain extra cover
and time. Then, when committed, they produce the foal rapidly, rise quickly
to guard it, and in a few hours are ready to lead it away. We still see this
behavior in mares under the controlled conditions we tend to impose upon them
LOCATION AND PREPARATION
Location: In the ideal situation, mares would deliver in
individual grass paddocks, reserved only for that purpose. Suitable
time would elapse between foalings for the ground to "clean itself
up" and harmful bacteria to be killed by normal environmental conditions.
Foals then would be delivered in conditions as clean as possible.
The area would be small enough to allow an observer to see the entire
paddock, both day and night, and appropriate lighting would be available.
This scenario assumes foaling takes place when the spring has advanced
to mild weather conditions. This is as close as possible to an area
a mare would select, and still be under observation.
The realities of supervising the foaling of mares in all sorts of
climates dictate a different approach. The usual compromise involves
a large loose box and with lighting that can be reduced to low levels.
CCTV is often used nowadays to observe the mare without disturbing
her. Observation should be arranged so that mares are seen at least
three times an hour until labour seems imminent, then it obviously
should be continuous. An old, experienced broodmare will take great
delight in fooling you when you are gone for more than 20 minutes,
but the real problem lies in the mare which gets in trouble with
presentation and position of the foal. In those rare situations,
quick assessment can make the difference between life or death. In
general, the least intervention in the process is the best approach.
The general philosophy should be that the great majority of foalings
will be successful without your help. Putting this to practice requires
the attendant have knowledge to recognize potential problems before
It is advisiable to put a headcollar on the mare when she begins the
first stages of labour. Some mares can be very 'foal proud' once they
have given birth and deceide that no-one is coming near them or the
foal. At this time a tail bandage could also be applied. Other items
to have available are blue spray, warm water and towels and your vets
phone number (Just incase!)
This is divided up into three stages.
During this first stage the fetus begins active participation in
positioning itself for delivery. The typical position of the fetus
during the latter part of pregnancy is reclining on its back. The
head and forelimbs are closer to the pelvic area in the great majority
of cases, resulting in anterior presentation for delivery. Occasionally
the hind limbs are closer, resulting in posterior presentation.
In the anterior situation, as the uterus begins to contract, the
fetus reaches up and back, with both head and forelegs pointing
toward the pelvic canal. This is a very important function in aligning
for delivery, and failure to do so can result in a difficult birth,
often a problem with abnormal, weak, or dead fetuses.
Also during the first stage, the pressure of the uterus contracting
against the fetus and the fluids start the cervix dilating. By
now, the mare might be quite restless, maybe getting down and
up and sweating a bit. If she's in an environment that doesn't
really suit her, she might resist lying down until the very beginning
of second stage labour.
Rupture of the outer membranes (allantochorion) occurs as the
pressure from contractions forces the fluids out through the
membrane. Normally this rupture occurs right at the spot where
the membranes lie over the cervix (cervical star).
The passing of these first fluids (allantoic fluids) to the outside,
or "breaking water," marks the official start of the second stage
of labour. At that point, the mare cannot turn back, and begins
vigorous abdominal pressing to supplement the uterine contractions.
In most cases she is lying on her side during this phase. The last
of the allantoic fluid (usual total volume up to five gallons)
is expelled during these abdominal presses.
As the fetus is moved back into the pelvic canal, it begins
to rotate so that its head, then neck, and finally back are
lined up with the top of the pelvis. This position is ideal
for delivery. Now the inner set of membranes (amnion) becomes
visible at the vulva. These membranes are milky white to bluish
white in color and look like a baloon. It is pushed to the
outside by the forefeet, one slightly in front of the other.
With each successive push, the fetus is propelled farther
through the birth canal. About the time the head begins to
clear the mare, the intensity of abdominal pressing increases
dramatically because the shoulders are passing through the
birth canal. This is also the most difficult stage of the birth
process. The fact that one foreleg is advanced over the other
results in the shoulders coming through in a staggered fashion
as well. Finally with one or two heavy presses, the hips clear
the pelvis and the foal moves out of the mare, usually about
to the level of its hocks.
The second stage of labor is completed when the foal is clear
of the mare. From the breaking of water to the completed delivery,
elapsed time is about 15 minutes or less. If the waters break
and after 15 minutes nothing happens or if the foal is not
presented properly, a vet must be called. Occasionally the
mare will need assistance if the foal is large or you think
she appears to be struggling. To assist hold the front legs
above the fetlock joints and as she pushes you pull gently
but firmly towards the mare’s hocks. The amnion is sometimes
still intact and over the foal's head when delivery is completed.
Vigorous early head movements should cause the membrane to
tear. Newborn healthy foals are strong and react quickly to
external stimuli. They are urgently motivated to begin breathing.
It is extremely rare, therefore, for the amnion to remain intact
long enough to cause a problem, but if it does occur simply
tear away the membrane from the nose and clear the nostrils
Most mares, if undisturbed, will relax and rest at this point.
The exertion has been telling. During this pause, the umbilical
cord usually is still attached to the foal, which lies on his
side, rolling up on his sternum to make the job of breathing
easier. In totally unassisted foaling, the cord breaks either
when the mare gets up, or when the foal begins vigorous movement
and tries to stand. Once the cord has broken treat the stump
with either purple spray or iodine.
The mare and foal should then be left alone to bond, for
the foal to stand, pass its meconium and finally drink (which
can take up to three hours). It is important for the foal to
drink as soon as possible so that it gets the mares first milk
(colostrum) which contain antibodies which are vital to protect
the foal against disease. A vigorous, healthy foal will struggle
to his feet within an hour and will find his way to begin nursing
soon thereafter. Cooperative and experienced mares are helpful
during this period by moving to positions that are helpful
to the foal, and maneuvering him into the correct position.
The mare then will experience the third stage of the labour
process, delivery of the placenta or cleansing. This is accomplished
by further uterine contractions to squeeze the placenta out through
the birth canal. The time for this passage varies, with a normal
upper limit at two to three hours. If the mare shows no signs
of cleansing after about six hours it is advisable to call the
vet. Once the mare has cleansed check the afterbirth is intact.
Only one tear should be present, if another piece is torn or
a bit missing call your vet the next morning. It is important
no pieces are retained as this can lead to infection.
In the early stages of moving the placenta, there usually will
be some degree of abdominal pain from the contracting uterus. This
is manifested in colic symptoms, with the most severe being repeated
lying down, getting up, and rolling. Some additional sweating is
normal as well.
In the typical normal case, passage of the membranes will coincide
with the foal's nursing, receiving antibodies through colostrum,
and gaining strength and coordination. In other words, from the
perspective of non-domesticated horses, they are ready to travel
or to escape predators.
Read Part 1 Pregnancy
Part 3 'Care of the Foal' coming soon
For more information read these books:
THE COMPLETE BOOK OF FOALING By Karen Hayes
by Hungry Minds Inc Price: £25.00
Complete Book of Foaling
FOALING : BROOD MARE AND FOAL MANAGEMENT By Ron
and Val Males
by Merehurst Press Price: £11.64
: Brood Mare and Foal Management
MODERN HORSE BREEDING By Susan McBane
by Swanhill Press Price: £19.95
FROM FOAL TO FULL-GROWN By Janet Lorch, Bob Langrish
by David & Charles Price: £12.99
Foal to Full-grown
FOAL TO FIVE YEARS By Ann Hyland
by Cassell Illustrated Price: £14.99
to Five Years