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What is Foaling?

By KD Morgan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Foaling is the process of a mare (dam) giving birth. The term is generally used in a broader sense, including the initial idea of breeding your mare and extending through her pregnancy, labor, delivery and the health check of her foal.

Choosing the appropriate sire for your dam is a consideration. You should consult a professional if you are looking for specifics in terms of what you desire of your foal, as well as genetic traits and markings. It is important to consider the whole horse when making these decisions, not just visual characteristics. Behavioral traits will also be passed on to your foal.

A healthy mare is the best preparation for her pregnancy. There is a great advantage in choosing an optimal time for foaling that will provide comfort for both your mare and her foal during the first few months of life. Ideally, foaling should take place in May or June, depending on your geographic location and weather patterns.

The gestation period for a horse is 11 months (approximately 340 days). One option in calculating your foaling date is to take the breeding date, add one year and subtract 25 days. A mare’s age, breeding history, as well as the weather can play a significant role in the actual time of foaling.

Your mare should have free choice hay and/or pasture. If your hay or pastures are low in clover, you should slowly introduce 10-20% alfalfa to help meet her increased calcium and protein needs. Avoid sudden changes in her diet, including hay types. Salt and clean water should be available at all times.

During your mare’s pregnancy, she may be ridden for the first several months if she is accustomed to it and enjoys the exercise. Grooming is a good way to keep her digestion healthy. This will also extend your bond with her so that when her foaling time comes, she will be familiar with your extensive hands-on treatment. You should also spend time cleaning her teats and genitals. It is especially helpful to acclimate a maiden mare to being handled in sensitive areas to prevent any resistance in permitting her foal to nurse.

Most mares go through their pregnancies with few complications. Signs that things are not progressing properly are the normal signs of ill health for any horse. Going off her feed is common for mares in later stages of pregnancy. This will usually only last a few days and then she will resume her normal eating patterns. If she stops eating completely, this is a sign to contact your veterinarian. Water consumption should never drop off.

Other complications are signs of colic, decreased manure production, weight loss, lameness, edemas in all four legs, nasal or ocular discharge, fever or a change in respiration. Any of these symptoms or other unusual behavior is an indication to contact your veterinarian. Your mare will naturally be more grumpy and uncomfortable towards the end of her pregnancy so by familiarizing yourself with her moods and activities at the beginning, you will be able to detect signs that should be of concern.

Your mare’s bag, or milk cistern, will begin filling about 2-4 weeks prior to foaling. If she streams milk before foaling, much of the vital colostrum will be lost. If this happens, milk your mare and freeze the colostrum for her foal. Do not use a microwave to thaw the colostrum, as this will kill the natural antibiotic and immune boosting advantages. Some maiden mares may not produce milk until after foaling.

Colostrum is a syrupy substance that is your mare’s first milk. It is imperative that your foal gets this colostrum within 24 hours of birth. This gives the baby protection from both bacterial and viral disease during the first two to four months of his life. In addition, the colostrum will provide a mild laxative for the foal. If for any reason your mare is not able to nurse or you have not secured her colostrum ahead of time, alternative sources of colostrum are available through your veterinarian.

Preparation of your mare’s birthing stall should be done at least one week prior to foaling. You want to give yourself time to disinfect and dry out the walls, re-bed the stall and allow sufficient time for your mare to become comfortable in her surroundings. The stall should be bedded with straw to prevent suffocation or irritation to the foal’s lungs or eyes. Feed and water buckets should be positioned so they do not interfere with birthing.

If you prefer your mare to foal in pasture, be sure that there are no streams or water sources that could entrap her foal. There is also the danger of the foal ending up outside the fence-line and being unable to get back to his dam. It is much safer to allow foaling in a spacious stall.

Your mare will normally wax 24-48 hours before foaling. This is when her milk becomes more thick, white and sweet. The vulva will also elongate and a hump will appear at the tail, which indicates the foal is in position. The dock becomes soft and flexible. Your mare will express discontent once labor begins. She will show signs of sweating, pacing, tail swishing and frequent urination. This is the time to braid her tail and put her in her stall.

Alert your veterinarian that birth is eminent but allow your mare to deliver without assistance if possible. She will appreciate your company, confidence and comfort if you have bonded with her beforehand. If you are insecure about the birth, then bringing in your veterinarian or a midwife for assistance is best.

Your mare will first expel her plug as her water breaks. The plug is the color and consistency of a liver. Delivery will be within 15 to 30 minutes after this. Your mare will lie down on her side with her legs extended. If she delivers standing up, be sure to catch the foal and ease him to the ground.

You will first see two front hooves and a nose tucked between them. This is a sign that the foal is in the correct position and you can allow the birthing to proceed naturally. Your mare will generally rest twice during delivery, once after the shoulders have passed and once when the hips have passed. During delivery, if more than 10 minutes pass with no movement, gently pull with the next contraction but stop as the contraction ceases. If the foal feels stuck, rotate to the side.

Call the veterinarian if:

  • only one foot is presenting
  • more than two feet are presenting
  • nose is not visible
  • nose presents without the front feet
  • feet present upside down
  • foal is stuck

Delivery will take about 30 minutes. Your foal will often begin breathing before he is completely delivered. The umbilical cord will become detached on its own as the foal passes out of the birth canal. If it is still attached, cut it leaving a 3-inch (7.6 cm) stub. Dip or swath the umbilical stub with gentle iodine.

Next allow your mare to imprint her foal. Also be sensitive to her privacy with her baby, especially if she is a maiden mare. Even a gentle horse that is generally affectionate will be more protective at this time. Your mare needs to secure her baby’s recognition and help him nurse.

The foal can take up to 2 hours to stand but this is usually accomplished within 30-45 minutes. This is when he will begin nursing. The first defecation and urination is very important. The feces are called meconium, which is a sticky yellowish manure that is the result of accumulated waste matter from the fetal digestion. It is no longer recommended that foals receive enemas, but rather allow this elimination to happen naturally.

Your mare will expel her afterbirth within 3 hours. The placenta is expelled inside out. Lay it out to make sure it is complete and the horns are present. You can also fill it with water to check if there are any missing pieces. Once you are confident that the afterbirth is complete, remove it from the premises and bury it in a location that will not attract wild animals back to the foal.

Your foal’s development will continue naturally and quickly. He will be running and galloping within a few hours. He will begin imitating his dam grazing within a couple days and start creep feeding within a week. If at all possible, allow your mare and her foal on pasture beginning the second day. It is best to keep them separated from the herd for a period of a week, longer if she is nervous with her foal. Ideally they should be put in with other dams and foals. Pasture turnout will speed recovery and reduce stress for both your mare and her foal.

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