What to expect when your mare is expecting

Welcoming a newborn foal into your stable is an exhilarating time, but can also be a little intimidating for novice horse owners. Thankfully, nature and the broodmare will do most of the work. But knowing what to expect and having the right supplies on hand will go a long way toward your peace of mind and a smooth birth for your foal.

Your horse’s pregnancy

The gestation period for broodmares averages about 330-345 days, almost a full year! Most mares carry only one foal at a time. It is common for mares to foal at night, when barn activity is minimal. Newborn foals usually weigh about 10% of the broodmare’s weight, so your 1,000lb thoroughbred will likely have a foal that weighs around 100 lbs, while your 2,000 draft horse will give birth to a whopping 200 lb foal!

Preparing for a smooth delivery

As your horse’s due date approaches, prepare a place for her to give birth. In good weather, clean, level, grassy pasture makes a great foaling location. Take care to make sure the area is free of items that might harm the foal, such as barbed wire or ponds. If your mare will foal indoors, she will need a large, clean, well-ventilated stall with straw bedding, not shavings, which could be breathed in by the foal. Apply a tail wrap before the mare begins labor for easier cleanup after foaling. Perhaps most importantly, identify a good veterinarian or experienced horse owner who can help with any complications that you don’t feel prepared to handle alone, and put their phone number in your mobile phone.

Also critical in the last weeks is the preparation of the birthing kit. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:

  • Flashlight: To better see all angles of your laboring broodmare and new foal.
  • Several clean, old towels: To cover the bedding during birth, dry off the new foal and clean up birthing fluids.
  • Sharp Scissors & Dental Floss: For cutting and tying off the umbilical cords, if needed.
  • 7% Iodine Tincture and an Empty Prescription Bottle: For dipping the foal’s umbilical cord. A pill bottle is a good size & shape for holding the iodine during dipping.
  • Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies or your hands.
  • Sterile Lubrication: In case your veterinarian advises you to assist with the birth.
  • Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
  • Halter & Lead: In case you need to restrain the broodmare.
  • Bottle and Nipple: In case the foal is not able to nurse immediately after birth.
  • Colostrum Replacer or Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings if the foal is unable to nurse.
  • Foal Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition if the foal is not able to nurse effectively.
  • Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in newborn foals and help rehydrate the broodmare after laboring.

At about 330 days’ gestation, start checking on your broodmare every few hours, or put a video baby monitor in the birthing stall for more constant monitoring, to look for signs that labor may be approaching. Signs may be subtle and depend on the broodmare, but some common things to look for are:

  • Fuller Udder: The mare’s milk can begin coming in a full month before the foal is born, and the mare may secrete some clear or watery white milk as labor approaches.
  • Lengthening of the Vulva: The mare’s vulva will swell and become more prominent a few days before labor begins.
  • Colostrum Secretions: When the secretions turn yellowish and thicker, she will likely foal within a few days or hours.
  • “Dropping”: When the mare looks more hollowed out around the tailhead, it is a sign that the pelvic ligaments are softening in preparation for the foal moving into the birth canal.
  • Restlessness: When labor is approaching, it can be hard for the mare to get comfortable, and she may paw the ground.
  • Any Unusual Behavior: Any behavior that’s out of the ordinary for your mare may be a sign that you are about to witness the miracle of birth!

Your role in the birthing process

Most broodmares need little assistance with delivery. The first stage of labor lasts about 1-4 hours. In this stage, the broodmare will seem quite restless, circling her stall or paddock. She may also show signs of colic, such as sweating or looking at her sides as if she has some abdominal distress, which would be caused by early contractions. Your mare may not show all these symptoms, but you will almost assuredly see a significant change in behavior. Second stage labor begins when the mare’s water breaks. The mare may stand up and lay down several times before the foal is delivered. But this stage happens quickly, and the foal will likely be on the ground within half an hour.

The first part of the foal to appear should be the nose and front toes, which indicates a normal birth position. If you do not see both hooves or if the foal is in breech position (rump first), it would be a good time to consult the veterinarian or experienced horse owner you have identified for some professional advice. Another common problem in stage 2 is often referred to as “red-bag,” where a feathery red bag (the placenta) emerges from the broodmare before the foal. It is important to discuss with your veterinarian ahead of time what to do if you see the placenta because your intervention may be necessary.

After birth, the foal will begin breathing on its own, and rest on its sternum for a while. After half an hour, the foal will usually try to stand up. For the first few hours, stand back and let the foal bond with his mother and nurse. The mare will usually pass her placenta or afterbirth a few minutes to a few hours after standing up after birth. If you see any signs of aggression in your broodmare against her foal, restrain her and call your veterinarian.

Feeding in the first hours and days

The first eighteen hours is critical for the long-term health of your new foal, and he will naturally start nursing within two hours to meet his nutritional needs. But if the mare dies, is in distress, or otherwise cannot effectively nurse her new foal, having bottles, nipples, and emergency nutrition on hand will be imperative.

Colostrum, the thick, yellowish first milk provided by the mare, jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that could not be passed to the foal in utero. The newborn foal’s body is uniquely designed to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream via the intestines, but only for the first 12-18 hours of life. Absorption of these critical antibodies on the first day helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.

The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn foal because it contains antibodies that are specific to her herd and surroundings. But if the foal does not nurse within 1-2 hours or you are worried that he is not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from the broodmare, a colostrum replacer or supplement will help provide this critical immune support. Feed colostrum replacer by bottle every 2 hours for the first 24-48 hours of life, according to package directions, if the foal does not begin nursing properly.

Milk Replacer: After the first two days, if the foal is still not nursing effectively, switch to milk replacer to provide the balanced nutrition he will need for growth and development. Always choose a milk replacer that is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of foals, and follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition.

Electrolytes: The birth experience exposes newborn foals to various microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea. Because diarrhea can easily lead to dehydration, it is important to supplement the mother’s milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.

With proper preparation, monitoring and newborn nutrition, you will give your new foal the best chance of a long, healthy life and be able to enjoy his companionship for many years to come.