Preparing For A Safe
and Successful Foal Delivery
CARING FOR THE FOALING MARE AND NEWBORN
If your mare has made it through 11
months of pregnancy, you’re probably home free. Labor
and delivery, while miraculous, are generally uneventful.
In most cases, you will simply need to be a quiet
observer - if you are lucky enough to witness
the birth. Mares seem to prefer to foal at night in
privacy, and apparently have some control over their
delivery. Despite your frequent visits to the barn, your
mare may give birth the minute you step away. While this
is disappointing, don’t worry, it is probably natural. She is unlikely to need
your help anyway. However, in case problems arise, it is
advisable to have your veterinarian’s telephone number
A SAFE PLACE TO FOAL
What your mare will need, however, is
a clean, safe, quiet place to foal. Horses have been
giving birth on the open range for many years, and this is
still an acceptable choice. Allowing the mare to foal in
the pasture even has some advantages. An open grassy
area is likely to be cleaner than a stall and provides a
healthy environment with adequate room to foal. You
won’t have to worry about the mare crowding into a
corner or foaling too close to a wall. However, many
owners prefer to confine the mare to observe her
Should you choose to foal your mare
in a stall, provide one that is a minimum of 14’ x
14’. If possible, the stall should have a floor that
can be readily cleaned and disinfected. Dirt or clay
floors make sanitation more difficult. Also, provide
adequate clean bedding. Straw (particularly wheat straw)
is preferable to shavings, as it won’t cling to the
wet newborn or mare the way small wood particles can.
Remove manure and soiled bedding promptly, and disinfect
the stall between deliveries.
Mares provide clues that they will
soon give birth. However, the timetable is far from
absolute. Some mares may show all the signs like
clockwork; others show practically none. The following
is a general guideline, but be prepared for surprises:
- The mare’s udder begins filling with milk 2-4
weeks prior to foaling.
- The muscles of the vulva and croup relax. The
tailhead may become more prominent a few days prior
- The teats become engorged 4-6 days prior to
- “Waxing” of the teats occurs. (A yellowish,
honey-like secretion [colostrum] appears 1-4 days
prior to foaling. The secretion may drip, and the
udder may even drip milk several days prior to
- The mare becomes anxious and restless. She may
appear to be colicky. She may kick at her belly,
pace, lie down and get up, look or bite at her
flanks, and sweat. She may frequently raise her tail
and urinate. Generally, this is the first stage of
labor. (However, be aware that colic remains a
possibility. If such behavior is prolonged for more
than an hour or two without progress towards
foaling, contact your veterinarian.)
PREPARING FOR BIRTH
Most mares foal without difficulty.
It usually is best to allow the mare to foal undisturbed
and unassisted. If a problem becomes apparent, contact
your veterinarian immediately.
What you can do:
- Write down your veterinarian’s phone number well
in advance of the birth and keep it by all phones.
- Keep a watch or clock on hand so you can time each
stage of labor. When you’re worried or anxious,
your perception of time becomes distorted. The watch
will help you keep accurate track of the mare’s
progress during labor. Take written notes so that
you won’t have to rely on memory alone.
- Wrap the mare’s tail with a clean wrap when you
observe the first stage of labor. Be sure that the
wrap is not applied too tightly or left on too long
as it can cut off circulation and permanently damage
- Wash the mare’s vulva and hindquarters with a
mild soap and rinse thoroughly.
- Clean and disinfect the stall as thoroughly as
possible. Provide adequate bedding.
- Test strips that measure calcium in mammary
secretions are available commercially. These strips
aid the owner in predicting when the mare will foal
because sudden increases in calcium are associated
with imminent foaling.
UNDERSTANDING LABOR & DELIVERY
Labor is divided into three stages:
Stage one begins with the onset of
contractions and generally lasts 1-2 hours. During this
phase, contractions move the foal through the cervix and
into position in the birth canal. The fetal membranes (allantis)
may become visible at the mare’s vulva. When the sac
breaks, signaled by a rush of fluid, stage one ends.
Stage two is the actual expulsion of
the foal. This phase moves relatively quickly. If it
takes more than 30 minutes for the mare to deliver,
there could be a problem. Call your veterinarian
immediately. If labor seems to be progressing, wait and
watch. Even in a normal delivery, the mare may stand up,
lie down, and roll several times in an effort to
properly position the foal for delivery.
Normal presentation of the foal
resembles a diving position, with front feet first, one
slightly ahead of the other, hooves down, followed
closely by the nose, head, neck, shoulders, and
hindquarters. If you notice hoof soles up, the foal may
be backwards or upside down, and you should call your
veterinarian immediately. If you suspect any deviation
from the normal delivery position, call your equine
Stage three labor begins after
delivery and is the phase during which afterbirth
(placenta) is expelled. Most placentas are passed within
1-3 hours after the foal is delivered. If the placenta
has not passed within 3 hours, call your veterinarian. A
retained placenta can cause serious problems, including
massive infection and laminitis.
POSTPARTUM CARE FOR MARE AND FOAL
In the excitement of birth, it is
important to remember some tried and true guidelines:
- Allow the foal time to break the fetal membranes.
Once the foal breaks through, be sure it is
- Generally, it is not recommended to cut or break
the umbilical cord. If it has not broken during
delivery, it will usually break when the mare or
foal gets up. The cord should break at a site
approximately one inch from the foal’s abdomen,
where the cord’s diameter is slightly narrower
than the remainder of the cord. If it is necessary
to manually separate the cord, it should be held
firmly on either side of the intended break site,
then twisted and pulled to separate (Never cut the
cord!). Twisting and pulling of the cord stimulate
closure of the umbilical vessels and reduce the
likelihood of hemorrhage from the cord stump. If
bleeding persists following cord separation,
pressure can be applied to the stump for several
minutes by squeezing with a thumb and finger.
- Encourage the mare and foal to rest as long as
possible. Give them an opportunity to bond
Treat the umbilical cord with an antiseptic
solution, recommended by your veterinarian, soon
after the cord breaks and for several days
thereafter to prevent bacterial infection.
- Observe the mare and foal closely for the next 24
Replacers and Nutrition for Foals/Colts
IMPORTANCE OF OBSERVATION
Following birth of the foal, the mare
and foal should be monitored for the following:
- Foal is breathing normally.
- Foal is bright and alert to its new surroundings.
The foal should make attempts to rise within 30
minutes following its births.
- Mare is non-aggressive, curious, and accepting of
her newborn. (Occasionally a mare will reject her
foal. In such a case, the foal should be removed and
reintroduced with the mare under restraint. Foal
rejection is more common in maiden mares).
- Foal should stand and nurse within 2 hours of
birth. If the foal has not nursed within 3 hours,
call your veterinarian. The foal may be weak and in
need of assistance or medical attention.
- Foal should pass meconium (the first sticky, dark
stool) within 12 hours after birth. If not, an enema
may be needed.
- Mare should be bright and alert. Allow her to eat
as soon as she is ready, and supply plenty of clean
- Once the placenta has been expelled, examine it to
make sure it is intact. The afterbirth will be
Y-shaped and should have only the hole through which
the foal emerged.
- If you suspect the mare has retained part of the
placenta, call your veterinarian.
- You may wish to check the mare’s temperature and
other vital signs periodically within the first 24
hours to make sure they normal. An elevated
temperature may indicate infection (normal is 100.5
IMPORTANCE OF COLOSTRUM
It is essential that the foal receive
an adequate supply of colostrum. Colostrum, the mare’s
first milk, is extremely rich in antibodies. It provides
the foal with passive immunity to help prevent disease
until its own immune system kicks in. A foal must
receive colostrums within the first 8-12 hours of life
in order to absorb the antibodies. If a foal is too weak
to nurse, it may be necessary to milk the mare and give
the colostrums to the foal via a stomach tube.
If a mare appears to be leaking an
excessive amount of milk prior to birth, consult your
veterinarian. This pre-foaling milk is not typically
colostrum-rich. However, depending on your
veterinarian’s recommendation, the mare may be milked
and the colostrums frozen to give to the foal shortly
after birth. For orphan foals, or mares without an
adequate supply of colostrums, it is important to locate
a back-up supply. Without it, the foal is at an
increased risk of infections. Your veterinarian can test
the colostrums to determine whether it is rich in
antibodies. Also, the foal’s serum can be tested at
18-24 hours of age to evaluate IgG anti-body levels. If
IgG is inadequate, treatment for Failure of Passive
Transfer (FPT) should be instituted by your
OTHER FOALING CAVEATS
- If a mare appears to require assistance during
foaling, call your veterinarian.
- If you suspect a problem during the foaling
process (such as a foal which is not in the normal
birth position), call your veterinarian immediately.
If caught early enough in labor, your veterinarian
may be able to reposition the foal for a normal
delivery. Remember, a prompt delivery is crucial to
the health of the newborn foal.
- Unless it is a dire emergency, do not try to pull
a foal. An exception to this rule might include a
backwards presentation, because the foal can
suffocate unless delivered promptly. Under no
circumstances should you ever pull with anything
more than your own muscle power, and pull only
during a contraction (when the mare is straining).
Improper pulling risks damage to the mare’s
reproductive tract, injury to the foal, and
premature separation of the umbilical cord, which
will deprive the foal of oxygen.
- Many foals begin life with weak legs. Don’t be
overly concerned if the baby is down in the pasterns
and fetlocks for the first day or two of life. They
will generally straighten up. However, if you see
extreme deviations of limbs or note other physical
problems, or the condition persists, consult your
- It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian
do a post-partum examination of the mare and foal,
as well as the placenta.
A FINAL NOTE
Nature has provided an efficient
system for the mare to deliver and care for her young.
Be a prepared and informed owner so you can enjoy the
miracle of birth, keep your anxiety in check, and help
the new mother and foal get off to a great start.