Great expectations: a guide to foal birth

Wwhat to expect, and when to call for help, when your mare is foaling

Newborn filly Jelena WDS, by Jazz C, and her dam Alessandra WDS (Image: Kieryn Walton)
Newborn filly Jelena WDS, by Jazz C, and her dam Alessandra WDS (Image: Kieryn Walton)

It is that exciting time of year again when our foals are about to be born. You may be hoping for the birth of a future Olympic star, a forever friend, loyal trekker or the perfect child’s pony, but do you know what to expect when your mare is expecting a foal? What is normal? And how do you know if things have gone wrong and you need to get help?

When will my foal be born?

Eleven months and 11 days – or about 342 days – is commonly quoted as being the length of a normal horse’s pregnancy, but it can vary from this considerably.

Healthy live foals are born regularly at anything from 315-375 days’ gestation; about one in 100 foals will be born after a gestation of well over a year, and still be completely normal. A gestation length of less than 320 days results in a foal that is termed premature; the severity of problems this causes varies with each foal.

The gestation length can also vary with the time of year the foal is due; as the season progresses the gestation length naturally shortens. And there are lots of other factors that affect the duration of the pregnancy; some recent studies have even found that mares in New Zealand have a longer average gestation length (349-352 days) compared to the average of 342 days in other countries.

So, unfortunately for us, it is very difficult to predict the exact day/night of foaling. You can look for signs such as ‘waxing up’ of the teats (small drops of colostrum on the ends of the teats) but these are not consistent and sometimes happen right before foaling. Testing for calcium levels can be done on the mare’s milk too but again, it is not 100% accurate.

It is advisable to be prepared early and be aware that most mares will foal at night (but certainly not all, so you can’t even rely on this!).

The three stages of birth

Stage 1: The mare becomes unsettled; she may paw the ground or lie down and get up. This stage can take from 10 minutes to three hours. Stage one ends with the waters breaking.

The vet should be called if stage 1 is taking more than three hours.

Stage 2:  This is the exciting birth of the foal itself. The stage only lasts 15-30 minutes as the mare uses strong contractions to push out the foal. You should see one foot appearing (the right way up) at the vulva, slightly in front of another foot, and then after a few more pushes the nose of the foal will appear on top.

The vet should be called urgently if stage two is taking more than 20 minutes, if a red bag appears at the vulva, if the foal’s feet are upside down, if only one foot appears, if the head appears with no feet or the feet with no head, if the feet are on top of the head, if the foal is coming backwards or if there is a lot of straining with no progress.

Stage 3: This is the passing of the placenta (afterbirth) and should happen within three hours of the foal being born.

The vet should be called if the placenta hasn’t been passed by three hours after birth; call urgently if it has been six hours.

Within a few minutes of birth, the foal will begin to show signs of sitting up (NZHP)
Within a few minutes of birth, the foal will begin to show signs of sitting up (NZHP)

A home birth

It may be advisable for your mare to go to a stud farm to foal. These have 24-hour foaling watch and access to rapid veterinary help. If you do decide to keep your mare at home to foal, then hiring (or buying) a foaling alarm would be a good option. These alert you if the mare lies down for a certain length of time, so you can check to see if she is foaling and may need assistance. You do get some false alarms, but this is better than trying to watch your mare around the clock.

Remember that if your mare had a Caslick’s operation this will need to be opened before foaling to prevent tearing.

If you do need to call the vet for assistance, then try to keep the mare walking while you wait for the vet to arrive. By doing this you are aiming to prevent further straining which would cause the complication to get worse.

Most of the time, though, all goes well with the birth and you are greeted with the amazing sight of your newborn foal!

Foaling kit

You should have a kit ready and close by in case of problems during foaling. This should include:

  • Halter and leadrope (may seem obvious, but you don’t want to be looking for these in a panic)
  • Headtorch with spare batteries
  • Vet’s phone number
  • Lubrication (you can get this from your vet)
  • Tail wrap/bandages
  • Antiseptic soap
  • Towels
  • Bucket and water
  • Scissors (to use in case of a red bag delivery following the advice of a vet)
  • Foaling ropes (if you are confident using them if necessary)

The newborn foal… now what?

Once the foal has arrived, you will want to know that everything is okay. Your vet can examine the foal and sometimes routine treatments are given and/or tests are done eg. for blood antibody levels. Discuss ahead of time with your vet to find out when they like to do this, and what they recommend for your situation.

You also need to know what normal behaviour for a healthy newborn foal is. It is advisable to monitor your mare and foal from a distance without disturbing them; this way you will get a true indicator of their behaviour.

What should my normal newborn foal do?

Standing: If everything has gone as normal with the birth, your mare will likely stay lying down for 5-10 minutes. Leave her alone if there are no problems. The mare needs a short rest from her exertions and it allows the umbilical cord time to deliver blood to the foal, stretch, constrict and break naturally.

You can discuss with your vet before the birth about applying 2% iodine or 0.5% chlorhexidine to the umbilical stump. If there is continued bleeding from the umbilicus once it breaks, then ring your vet for help. A lot of studs clamp the cord but in a home situation avoiding the use of a clamp (if possible) is advised.

Within 2-3 minutes of birth your foal should move from lying flat out to almost sitting up (lying on its chest with its head up; termed lying in sternal).

Foals are usually very strong and have a powerful instinct to try and stand. Your foal should stand within one hour of birth; call your vet if your foal hasn’t stood up after two hours. This is important as the foal needs to stand to feed off the mare and get the all-important colostrum (discussed next).

New foals usually manage to clamber to their feet within an hour of birth (NZHP)
New foals usually manage to clamber to their feet within an hour of birth (NZHP)

Nursing: Your foal should drink from the mare within two hours of being born. They should have a strong instinct to find the udder and teat despite still being wobbly on their feet. Call your vet if it is longer than four hours and your foal still hasn’t sucked.

The time taken to stand and drink off the mare is extremely important as your foal needs to get enough good quality colostrum (the thick first milk produced by all mammals) to supply it with antibodies and other important substances. The antibodies can only be absorbed from the intestines into the foal’s blood stream for the first 24 hours after birth, and most of the absorption needs to happen within 12 hours after birth. A foal is born without any antibodies (no antibodies cross the placenta) and so relies on drinking the colostrum for protection against infection.

There are tests that can be performed on both the colostrum (to ensure it is good quality) and on the foal (to ensure the foal has absorbed good levels of antibodies). The absorption of antibodies is so important it is probably a good idea to discuss with your vet whether you need to be considering any of these tests.

Foals have a strong instinct to find the udder, and should drink within two hours of birth (NZHP)
Foals have a strong instinct to find the udder, and should drink within two hours of birth (NZHP)

Passing manure: What goes in must come out! A filly foal passes urine for the first time around 11 hours after birth and a colt foal at around six hours after birth. They then will urinate at least every two hours with a total of 6-8 litres a day. The urine will be clear. This is a very good easy indicator that your foal is probably getting enough to drink and is well hydrated.

The first lot of faeces that are passed is called the meconium. This is the dark brown/black sticky substance that you see. Foals will often start straining a little to pass this a few hours after birth and most is passed by 24 hours. Drinking colostrum helps with passing of the meconium. Sometimes the meconium doesn’t pass in the first 24 hours and veterinary advice should be sought, as this can be a cause of colic.

What goes in must come out! Your foal should pass meconium within a few hours (NZHP)
What goes in must come out! Your foal should pass meconium within a few hours (NZHP)

The foal’s first few days

Young foals should spend around a third of their life lying down. They have their first sleep by around 90 minutes to four hours old, and their first ‘play’ by two hours of age. Even galloping has been seen by six hours of age! They normally drink frequently, even up to seven times in an hour, so their life is spent sleeping, drinking, urinating and playing!

They typically spend almost all of their time (studies estimate 95-99%) within 5m of their dam; a young foal who is spending a lot of time away from the mare is cause for concern.

Volanti (by Voltaire II) with her dam Maquita (NZHP)
Two weeks old: Volanti (by Voltaire II) with her dam Maquita (NZHP)

Don’t forget to look at your mare too. Is she bright and moving freely? Sometimes mastitis can initially look like lameness.
If the mare is dripping milk or has a very full udder then it often is a sign that the foal is not getting enough milk and needs to be examined very carefully.

If you are at all concerned about your foal, do ring for advice sooner rather than later. Newborn foals can go downhill fast if they have an infection and/or are not drinking enough. Once they are really sick the cost of treating goes up and prognosis for survival goes down.

Look out for:

  • a foal not drinking enough (look at the foal, the mare and the foal’s urination)
  • a foal who is lethargic
  • swollen joints
  • crooked legs and/or lameness
  • the colour of the gums – they should be a healthy pink (not white or yellow)
  • signs of colic
  • abnormal swellings eg. hernias
  • diarrhoea
  • the foal being ‘not quite right’

    Gums should be a healthy pink, not white or yellow from jaundice
    Gums should be a healthy pink, not white or yellow from jaundice

Summary

Most foalings happen without any problems, and sometimes happen the minute you stop watching to quickly go and get a cup of tea! But if things go wrong they go wrong rapidly, so it is advisable to foal at a stud that offers a 24-hour foaling service.

Most foals are up and drinking very quickly, and go on to double their birthweight in the first month with no problems, but again, if things go wrong, they go downhill quickly. Monitor your foal carefully and be prepared to call for advice on any concerns.

Being aware of what to look out for and when to call for veterinary attention can mean the difference between life and death for your foal. Talk to your vet if you need more information after reading this. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice. In most cases everything will be perfectly fine and you will get to enjoy that precious leggy foal slowly turning into a cheeky yearling!

Good luck for the exciting foaling season ahead.