By Jacquelin Boggs, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM; In Partnership with Zoetis, USPC’s Official Equine Health and Wellness Sponsor
It’s almost time! After waiting for nearly a year, your foal is ready to arrive. Unlike human babies, most foals are born without a medical team—so knowing what to expect and what to be on the lookout for is essential to starting foals off on the right hoof.
Calculate Your Mare’s Due Date
Estimating a mare’s due date isn’t an exact science, but a basic calculation can give you a good idea of when she will foal. First, confirm the date she was bred, then count forward 320 to 360 days (median 340). This is considered the normal range for a full-term foal.
As foaling approaches, watch for the following cues:
- 2 to 4 weeks in advance: Her udder (mammary area) develops.
- 1 week to 1 month in advance: The muscles around her tail head relax and loosen.
- 2 to 6 days out: Her udder fills with milk.
- 1 to 4 days beforehand: Her teats begin to ooze a small amount of colostrum, which is called waxing.
- 1 to 2 days in advance: The calcium concentration in her milk increases.
- 1 day before delivery: She relaxes her external genitalia and perineum area (the area under the tail).
Prepare a Delivery “Go Bag”
Human mothers often have a “go bag” packed and waiting as their baby signals it’s ready to arrive. You too can prepare a foaling kit with essential supplies. Create a stall-side kit that includes:
- A clean wash bucket
- Iodine or chlorhexidine scrub/ivory soap or baby shampoo
- Roll of cotton
- Betadine solution
- Clean towels
- Exam gloves
- Tail wrap
- Notebook and pen to write down key times and changes
- Navel dip (50/50 2% chlorhexidine water) to dip 3 to 4 times a day for the first couple of days based on your veterinarian’s recommendation
- Weight tape
- Store-bought enema
- Foal bottle and nipple (lamb or baby), 35 mL oral syringe
- Black plastic heavy-duty trash bag for saving the placenta +/-baling twine
- Optional: Colostrum refractometer to measure quality of the colostrum, if recommended by your veterinarian
Learn About the Three Stages of Labor
Mares progress through the following three stages of labor (typically within 8 hours).
- Stage 1: Initial uterine contractions. The mare may lie down and get up, sweat, and appear uncomfortable. At the beginning of labor, your mare may display signs similar to colic. This stage is variable in length and can last several hours. There’s no need to intervene.
- Stage 2: Starts with rupture of the chorioallantoic membranes (the outer membrane in the placenta) and ends with delivery of the foal. This stage starts when the mare’s water breaks, then a white membrane called the amnion becomes visible, ending with the foal being delivered. The foal should be delivered within 15 to 30 minutes of the water breaking.
o Emergency scenario: If the membrane protruding from the mare’s vulva is red instead of white, carefully cut it with scissors (being careful not to cut the foal), and call your veterinarian immediately. This is a “red bag” delivery, which indicates the placenta has detached too early and is depriving the foal of oxygen.
- Stage 3: Delivery of the placenta. Within three hours post-foaling, your mare should pass the entire placenta. Save the placenta in a bucket or a plastic trash bag to keep it moist. Your veterinarian will want to evaluate it during the physical exam to confirm the entire placenta has passed and check for any abnormalities.
o Emergency scenario: Call your veterinarian if your mare doesn’t pass the placenta within 3 hours. A retained placenta, even a small tag, can cause infection, septicemia, and possibly laminitis.
If all the stages are progressing normally, it’s ideal to leave the mare to foal in peace. Once the foal is delivered and everything looks normal, observe them from outside the stall to allow the mare and foal to bond. There’s no need to rush in and disturb the pair. Also, allow the umbilical cord to break naturally when the mare or foal stand. This is preferred over cutting the umbilical cord.
Monitor a Newborn Foal’s Behavior
Watch your foal’s behavior using the 1-2-3 rule:
- A foal should stand within 1 hour and nurse within 2 hours of foaling, and the mare should pass her placenta within 3 hours of foaling.
- Contact your veterinarian immediately if any of those newborn foal milestones do not occur on time.
- Foals should also be able to rise on their own and nurse at least every 30 minutes.
Schedule a Newborn Foal Exam
If the delivery goes as planned, call your veterinarian promptly to schedule a newborn foaling exam to take place within 12 to 24 hours of foaling. During the healthy newborn exam, your veterinarian may:
- Check the foal’s temperature, pulse, and respiration (TPR). A foal will have a slightly higher-than-normal heart rate and temperature than an adult horse. Normal vitals for foals are:
o Temperature: 99° to 101.5° F
o Pulse: 80 to 120 bpm (can be variable immediately after foaling, from 60 to 130 bpm)
o Respiration: 20 to 40 bpm (may be higher the first 30 minutes post-foaling, up to 80 bpm)
- Check that the foal is nursing.
- Examine the mouth, nose, and eyes.
- Listen to the lungs and heart.
- Evaluate the umbilicus.
- Palpate all the joints.
- Check for any angular limb deformities or laxity of the tendons.
- Check that the foal is urinating and defecating.
- Draw blood to check for the passive transfer of antibodies (IgG) and identify possible infections, serum amyloid A (SAA), or other diseases.
The Mare’s Post-Foaling Physical
Your mare also needs a post-foaling exam, which veterinarians typically schedule simultaneously with a newborn foal exam. Your veterinarian will check your mare’s reproductive tract, including but not limited to a vaginal exam, to ensure there wasn’t any inadvertent tearing of the vaginal wall or cervix and to check that the placenta has been passed. The exam might also include checking her TPR and evaluating her udder. Another diagnostic test you may want to discuss with your veterinarian is the Stablelab® EQ-1 Handheld Reader. This tool can help support the following:
- Quantify SAA levels (a biomarker for identifying early signs of inflammation due to infection) within 10 minutes1
- Can help screen for infection in broodmares and newborn foals to watch for early signs of inflammation caused by infection
- Could provide an extra layer of decision-making confidence for your veterinarian, as it has been shown to be 30 times more sensitive than a thermometer at detecting infection2
Reasons to Call Your Veterinarian Prior to the Newborn Foal Exam
It’s critical to call your veterinarian immediately if any of the following scenarios occur:
- The foal doesn’t stand within 1 hour of delivery.
- The foal doesn’t nurse within 2 hours of delivery.
- The foal isn’t nursing multiple times an hour.
- The foal isn’t urinating or appears to be straining, or urine is leaking out of the umbilicus.
- The foal hasn’t passed the first feces (which is black and hard) called meconium, or is straining.
- The foal looks dull, depressed, or non-responsive.
- The foal has a temperature greater than 101.5° F (only take a temperature if you’ve been properly trained to do so safely, or call your veterinarian).
- The foal appears to be panting or has an unusually high respiratory rate.
- Milk is coming out of the foal’s nostrils.
- The mare appears to be colicking (showing abdominal pain after delivering her foal).
- The mare hasn’t fully passed her placenta within 3 hours.
- The mare is streaming milk (indicates the foal is not nursing).
Additional Resources for Foaling
Your veterinarian is a wealth of knowledge and can guide you through your mare’s final trimester and foaling time. Additional resources are available online through the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), research universities, and veterinarian practices. Here are a few trusted sources I like to share with horse owners:
- AAEP—“Foaling Mare & Newborn: Preparing for a Safe & Successful Foal Delivery”
- Colorado State University Equine Reproduction Laboratory mare services
- University of Pennsylvania PennVet—“Setting up Foals for Success: Ten Things to Do”
- University of Guelph mare and foal care tool and preparation slideshow
You may also be interested in related content, “Spring Tune-up: Wellness Tips for Your Horse.” Once again, congratulations on welcoming your new foal to the world! Be sure to visit zoetisequine.com to read the latest horse health care tips from our equine veterinarian team to support your horse’s well-being in every season.
- Oertly M, Gerber V, Anhold H, et al. The accuracy of serum amyloid A in determining early inflammation in horses following long-distance transportation by air. AAEP Proceedings. 2017;63:460-461.
- Zoetis Inc. Data on file. Study report no. TI-04856.
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