Welcome to the World! Preparing for Foaling SeasonMarch 30, 2022
Foaling season is an exciting, highly anticipated time. Breeders have waited for nearly a year, and soon, they’ll meet the foal that so much effort, planning, and hoping has created.
While foaling often goes smoothly, it can also go very wrong, and even once born, foals can be susceptible to all sorts of illnesses and injuries. Luckily, thorough preparation and planning can help ensure you’re ready to deal with these situations if they do occur.
The Decision to Foal Out a Mare at Home
One of the biggest decisions that mare owners face is where they plan to foal out their mare. It’s important to consider the pros and cons of each option and decide on a foaling location well in advance. It’s possible to foal a mare out at home, but owners might also want to consider sending the mare to a veterinary or breeding facility to foal out. Which decision is right will depend on your experience and the resources available at your barn.
Allyn McCracken, the owner of Bannockburn Farm, LLC in Bowling Green, Ind., explains that mares’ nutritional needs change during the last few months of their pregnancy. They can’t have fescue hay in those late stages, and they also can’t be turned out on fescue grass. She recommends the mares be provided with a large stall and, in areas with fescue grass, a small paddock without any grass.
Mo Swanson, owner of Rolling Stone Farm in Slatington, Penn., explains that when it comes to foaling stalls, bigger is better. She recommends a stall that’s a minimum of 12×12 feet for a smaller horse and notes that combining two stalls into one can create the space that the mare and foal will need. “Make sure that the stall has no sharp edges,” she recommends. “Takedown any hay racks, since foals can get in trouble with metal.” She also suggests that owners ensure that any bars present in the stall door are close enough to prevent a foal’s hoof from becoming caught.
It’s also important to consider whether you have the means to establish a foal watch. When you start noticing signs that your mare is going to give birth soon, it’s important to watch her around the clock – a big job if you’ll be monitoring the mare on your own. McCracken suggests that owners hire someone to oversee the night watch since people are generally present in the barn during the day.
With a little creativity, it’s also possible to monitor the mare around the clock. “When I first started breeding mares, I slept in the barn,” says Swanson. “I set my alarm for every hour, opened the stall door, and checked on the mare.” Swanson has since incorporated more technology into her night watches. She currently uses hardwired cameras in her barn. Swanson has also used alert systems that go on the halter, and even an alarm that’s sewn into a mare’s vulva that alerts when the mare’s water breaks.
There are pros and cons to sending your mare to a professional facility to foal. A professional facility will have experienced staff who can act quickly in emergencies, and sending a mare away to a facility may be necessary if you’re unable to create a safe foaling stall and turnout for the mare and foal. McCracken explains that foaling out a mare can be intimidating when you’re new to the process, and some owners may be more comfortable leaving the job to the professionals.
Swanson explains that there are risks in sending a mare to a facility, too. “When you take a mare to a clinic, germs are abundant. You have to weigh whether you’re afraid to foal out a mare by yourself if something were to happen.” When a mare is brought into a facility just days or weeks before she foals, this can risk the foal not receiving the antibodies it needs to fight the germs that are present in that stall and facility. “There are places, like private farms, that foal out mares, which may be willing to take a month before foaling,” says Swanson. That longer-term arrangement gives the mare a chance to build up antibodies against the germs present in the stall, which she’ll then pass on to the foal. “You can send your mare to a facility, or you can keep her at home and be careful,” explains Swanson. “Often the mares are more comfortable foaling in their home space, too.”
Preparing for Foaling: The Months Before
There’s plenty of work to be done in the months leading up to foaling. This is the time to ensure that your foaling kit is well-stocked and ready to go. Close communication with your veterinarian is also important. “If you’ve never foaled out a mare before, you should inform your veterinarian of the upcoming delivery and make sure he or she is willing to come out in case of an emergency,” recommends Swanson. Some veterinarians are more comfortable addressing foaling problems than others, so take the time to ensure you have emergency help ready if you need it.
Mares also need vaccinations leading up to their due dates. “We vaccinate the mare a month before, which boosts the antibodies that are passed onto the foal through the colostrum,” says Swanson. “Foals are basically born without any immunity to anything. They get that immunity by nursing and the antibodies that are in the colostrum.”
To further support the foal’s immunity, Swanson recommends preparing the foaling stall a month before the mare’s due date. She power washes and disinfects her foaling stall before bringing a mare into the stall. For the month leading up to foaling, that mare only enters that stall. “That gives the mare time to develop antibodies to the germs in the stall because it takes about a month for the mare to develop immunoglobulins that will be passed on in the colostrum to the foal,” she says. “You’re then guaranteeing, or helping to guarantee, that when the foal is born, once it has the colostrum, it will get the antibodies to the germs in that stall.”
While most farms use shavings or sawdust bedding, it’s important to change that bedding over to straw before a mare foals. “We mostly use sawdust,” says McCracken. “It’s easier to get rid of and we’re on a big farm.” But shavings are dusty and can get easily stuck on the foal and mare, so McCracken beds deeply with straw before the mare delivers.
Foaling Signs to Watch For
As your mare’s due date nears, it’s important to monitor her closely. Since a mare’s gestation ranges from 340 to 343 days, Swanson starts to check a mare’s udders three months before the mare’s due date. “If they have rapid udder development well ahead of the due date, it can signal placentitis,” says Swanson. “If you catch it early enough, you can put the mare on antibiotics and save the pregnancy. If you don’t, the placenta is infected and the mare can abort the foal in the last trimester.” Swanson also checks the udders four to five times a day as the mare nears her due date.
“When the mare is ready to foal, she will start to walk around the stall a lot and paw,” says McCracken. “They will lie down and get up, and lie down and get up,” and eventually the mare will settle down and begin the foaling process.
McCracken advises that it’s best to let the mare foal on her own unless she looks like she’s having trouble. You’ll notice two front hooves with the foal’s nose and head pointed down between or on top of the knees. McCracken states that mares sometimes have trouble when the foal’s hips and shoulders need to pass through and that you can pull on the feet to help the mare at that point.
There are several potential foaling problems that you’ll need to be prepared for. If the foal isn’t properly positioned, you’ll need to be ready to help position it so that the mare can deliver it. There are many photos and videos available online that can help you learn how to recognize when a birthing position is right – and when it isn’t.
Placenta previa, also called red bag deliveries, are also emergencies that require you to act quickly. In a red bag delivery, the placenta detaches before the foal is delivered, meaning the foal is no longer getting oxygen through the umbilical cord. Swanson explains that you’ll see a red, bloody-looking sack instead of the typically clear amniotic sack. You’ll need to poke the sack with scissors to get air to the foal, grab the foal’s feet, and deliver the foal as quickly as possible.
You should also be prepared to recognize a dummy foal, a condition called neonatal maladjustment syndrome that occurs when a foal is birthed too quickly. Dummy foals can be disoriented, unresponsive, and may not be able to nurse. McCracken explains that foals usually need to be in the “squeezing” phase of birth for about 20 minutes, and an unusually rapid birth can result in a dummy foal. The Madigan Squeeze Technique involves strategically wrapping a rope around and squeezing the foal to simulate that birthing process and may help to reverse the effects of this condition.
Retained placenta can also be a concern. Swanson explains that your mare should expel the placenta within about six hours. If the placenta remains in the mare for too long, it can get infected and cause laminitis. You’ll need to call your veterinarian if the mare retains the placenta for more than six hours.
Caring for Your New Foal
Once your foal is born, be prepared to carefully monitor him. Watch your foal to make sure that he’s bright and alert, and that he’s able to stand and nurse. The foal’s first manure, called meconium, can be hard balls that cause the foal to strain a lot. Giving an enema can help the foal to pass the meconium, but if your foal is still straining, call your veterinarian.
You’ll also need to make sure that your foal is nursing and that he gets colostrum, which is the first milk from the mare. Swanson explains that the lining of a foal’s stomach is open when the foal is born. Since immunoglobulin molecules are very large, the open lining lets those molecules pass from the stomach lining into the bloodstream – but that lining only remains open for the first 24 hours after a foal’s birth. “Once you get past those first 24 hours, the only way to get immunoglobulin in the foal is to give a serum through the blood, which requires an IV infusion,” says Swanson.
She recommends that you have your veterinarian out during the foal’s first 12 hours of life. Your veterinarian can do a wellness check and test your foal’s immunoglobulin levels to ensure that he’s received enough colostrum.
When your foal is ready to be turned out, you’ll need a safe paddock that’s free of manure from other horses. Swanson uses Centaur fencing on her farm, which is plastic with a wire inside of it. She also recommends a three- to a four-rail wooden fence or no-climb fencing. She notes that electric tape fencing works well because of its visibility, but it’s important to avoid barbed wire and box wire fencing, which a foal could get a leg caught in.
Breeding a mare is an adventure, and while it’s highly rewarding, it also brings plenty of risks. “The biggest danger is that foaling is addictive, and you just become so in love with having the foal and the whole process,” warns Swanson. “It’s like Christmas in the spring. You can’t wait to see what you get. It’s the most rewarding thing, but it can also be heartbreaking.”
Sidebar: Essentials for Your Foaling Kit
A well-stocked foaling kit ensures you’ll have everything you need for the birth on hand, and you won’t have to leave your mare’s side to go gather items. Swanson suggests including the following items in your foaling kit:
- Plenty of clean towels to rub the foal down
- Scissors to cut the placenta in case of a red bag delivery
- Dental floss to tie off the umbilicus
- Clean stainless steel bucket, or a plastic bucket with a small garbage bag in it
- Antibacterial soap
- Enema (an enema designed for people is fine)
- Gloves – longer obstetrical sleeve gloves are ideal
- Tail wraps, like gauze, a standing wrap, or even an old knee sock
- Obstetrical lube or KY Jelly – be sure to avoid mineral oil and Vaseline, which are sticky
- A foal blanket or old sweatshirt for cold-weather foalings
- A cell phone and the numbers of a veterinarian and a friend or experienced breeder
You’ll also need a product like Nolvasan or SuperSeven Plus by Vetericyn to treat the umbilical stump. Swanson advises you to contact your veterinarian for their advice on which product to use. You’ll need several small containers to put the umbilical dip in. An old film case with a cap is ideal, and the small paper cups often used in bathrooms work well, too. You’ll need to throw out the container and the dip each time you dip the umbilicus to prevent contamination, so several small containers are ideal.
By Paige Cerulli