Care for the Mare and Foal During/After Foaling
what a normal birth looks like |
when to give assistance |
premature placental separation |
foal is in an abnormal position |
foal does not start breathing |
umbilical cord does not separate from the foal |
when to call a veterinarian | problems
with the mare after foaling | foal care after birth
The foaling process: Mares typically go through three different stages of
labor. Stage one is defined as the first stage or preparatory stage of
labor. Mares in this stage of labor often look as though they are having a colic
problem. They act uncomfortable, sweat, move away from other animals, and may
even lie down and roll. This stage lasts from 1-4 hours. If the mare is in this
stage for longer than 4 hours, or if the mare acts like she is in severe pain, a
veterinarian should be called.
Stage two is active labor when the mare is pushing and straining. It
begins when the mare’s water breaks and ends with the birth of a foal. It
usually lasts no longer than 45 minutes. Stage three is defined as the
time when the mare expels the placenta.
What to do when the mare is going into labor:
- Move the mare to the predetermined foaling area.
- Clean the anus and vulva area with clean, soapy water. Rinse the area
thoroughly to remove any soap.
- Wrap the mare’s tail with vet wrap.
- Make sure the caslick (if present) has been removed.
- Leave the mare alone and remove all distractions (dogs, other
horses etc.). Many mares will stop the birthing process when disturbed.
What a normal birth looks like: Second stage labor begins with the water
breaking. During this time the mare may spend much of the time laying down and
on her side. It is normal for her to get up and down a few times. After the
water breaks, the amnion (the transparent, bluish colored sac that surrounds the
foal) will appear. The feet can often be seen through the sac. The soles of the
feet should be turned down. After the feet appear, the nose should soon follow.
With some intense contractions and some breaks in-between, the foal’s shoulders
are often delivered. At this point the foal may begin to breathe.
Before the shoulders are delivered it is not uncommon for membranes to still
be covering the foal’s nose. This is not a problem because the foal is still
receiving oxygen through the umbilical cord. After the shoulders are delivered,
the hips and hind limbs are often delivered quickly without any problems. The
time from when the water breaks to the complete delivery of the foal should take
no longer than 45 minutes.
When to give assistance: One of the most common mistakes that a horse
owner can do is try to give assistance when it is not necessary. The vast
majority of mares will foal without any problems. There are really four major
situations when a mare may require an owner’s help. The rest of the time help is
either not needed or the problem is serious enough that professional veterinary
help is required. The following information outlines these four situations:
- Premature placental separation: This is where, at the beginning of
the foaling process, a thick "red bag" or "red ball" is showing out of the
mare instead of the typical white to clear membrane. This situation is an
emergency and IMMEDIATE attention should be given by the person(s) attending
the mare. The "red bag" should be broken/torn and the foal should be
immediately removed. This situation is called premature placental separation
and will result in suffocation of the foal if it is not treated immediately.
Once the foal is removed, a veterinarian should be contacted.
- The foal is in an abnormal position (dystocia): A foal that is
being born in a normal position will come front feet first with the soles of
the feet pointing down. The head will soon follow. During the beginning of the
birthing process, the foal must rotate from laying on its back to where the
foal’s spine is next to the mother’s spine. If the foal is not in this
position, the mare will have trouble giving birth and correction of the foal’s
position is necessary. The problems that can be encountered may include a foal
with its head back or with a foot retained. The foal may not have completely
rotated and may be upside down. Some foals may be coming backward; this is a
serous problem that must be corrected fast. No matter what position or problem
the foal may be in, it is important to get veterinary help on the way. If the
owner feels comfortable in giving some assistance, follow these basic
- Wash hands and arms with soap and disinfectant. Have the finger-nails
trimmed short. Being as clean as possible is essential to preventing
- Be very gentle in any physical efforts to help. The mare and foal are
subject to injury if the manipulations are not done correctly and gently.
Never use more pulling force than can be delivered by one person; jacks,
mechanical tools, and vehicles should never be used to pull.
- Use plenty of lubrication (J-lube) on hands, arms, and in the uterus.
- Only perform those procedures that you feel comfortable with. If things
are not going well, quit and let a veterinarian or someone with more
experience get involved.
- To delay the birthing process, try and get the mare to stand up. This
will often interrupt foaling until a veterinarian can arrive.
- Determine the position of the foal. First, find the most exposed leg and
determine if it is a front or a hind leg. To do this, find out if the next
joint above the fetlock (ankle) is the knee (carpus) or the hock. If it is
the knee, the joint should bend the same way as the fetlock and it is a
front limb. If it is a hock, it will bend the opposite way of the fetlock
and the leg is a hind limb.
- Always pull when the mare is having a contraction. Before doing any
pulling, make sure the foal is in the proper position and that both legs are
accessible. Be careful not to pull on one hind leg and one front leg.
- Correcting a foal that is coming backwards with the legs extended
into the pelvis: This is a foal that is coming backwards, but has the
hind legs coming first. Because of the chance that the foal may drown in its
own fluids, it needs immediate help! Start by making sure that the foal is
right side up. If it is not, correct it by crossing the legs and placing
pressure on the upper leg while rotating. Next, pull the foal out quickly.
This is the one time that it is not necessary to wait for the mare to
strain. The whole idea is to get the foal out as fast as possible without
injuring foal or mare.
- Handling a foal that is coming backwards without the legs extending
out of the mare (breech): This is probably the most difficult birthing
problem to handle. In almost all cases, a Caesarean is required to correct
this problem. The best thing to do in this situation is to get a
veterinarian there immediately.
Correcting a foal that is coming head first, but is still upside down:
First, try and get the mare to stand up; this will often correct the problem
by the time the mare lays back down. If this does not work, attempt to use
the foal’s legs and gently rotate the foal so that its back is towards the
mare’s back. If this procedure is not done easily, seek professional help.
Correcting a foal that has a leg retained: If the mare is not in
active labor, the limb can often be found and gently moved towards the
outside. This can sometimes be difficult and has the chance of damaging the
mare’s uterus; therefore, use plenty of lubrication on hands, arms and in
the mare’s uterus. With one hand, try to cup the end of the hoof on the
leg(s) that is retained. This will protect the uterus and allow the limb to
be pulled towards the pelvis. If more space is required, one hand can be
placed on the chest or head of the foal. Then while pushing the foal back
into the uterus, the other hand can be used to cup and pull the retained
limb into the pelvis.
Handling a foal that is coming frontwards, but has the head tucked
between the legs or to the side: These situations can sometimes be
corrected if the mare is not very far along in the labor process. For foals
with their head turned to the side, one hand can be placed on the chest of
the foal. Then, while pushing the foal back into the uterus, the other hand
can be used to grasp the head (sometimes using the eye area) and pull it
into a normal position. A foal that has the head between the legs is even
more challenging. These foals are identified by feeling mane or maybe the
poll of the foal between the legs. If after a few attempts to correct this
problem no progress has been made, call a veterinarian. In many of these
cases, a Caesarean is required.
The foal does not start breathing or membranes are obstructing the
breathing: In a normal birth, the foal does not take its first breath
until its shoulders are delivered. At this point, the sac or amnion that
covers the foal’s nose and head is almost always broken. If the membranes
remain on the foal’s head after it has been completely delivered, remove the
membranes. If necessary, wipe or suction out any mucus or fluid from the
nostrils. It may also help to elevate the foal’s head, with the nose pointed
towards the ground. This can help the fluids drain out the nose. A foal that
is not breathing can be stimulated by placing a finger or piece of straw up
its nose. The ear can also be twisted. Both of these will help the foal take a
breath. Additional details about artificial respirations and CPR can be found
on page E195.
The umbilical cord does not separate from the foal: On only rare
occasions should the umbilical cord be separated from the foal by the owner.
These situations may include when the foal must be moved for safety reasons or
when the mare will not get up. In almost all cases, a section of the cord
about 1-2 inches from the foal’s abdomen will begin to constrict. This is the
location where the cord will naturally separate and where, when necessary, an
owner may tear the cord. To separate the cord, grasp on either side of the
constriction and tear the cord. To prevent pulling out the abdominal contents
of the foal, do not pull against the foal’s abdomen. Disinfect the umbilical
stump with diluted chlorhexidine once the cord is separated.
Bennett, Dwight G. "From Breeding to Weaning," Western Horseman Inc. 1999
Beeman, Marvin. "Foaling," Western Horseman March 1992: 22-28.
When to call a veterinarian:
- If the mare’s milk leaks for more than 3-4 days and she has not given
- The mare is in hard labor for more than 20 minutes without any progress.
- The soles of the foal’s feet are facing up and the foal cannot be rotated.
- The foal is coming backwards (breach) or the foal is in an abnormal
position that has not been corrected.
- The placenta has not passed in 3-6 hours. If the placenta is still hanging
from the mare, do not pull it and do not cut it. Let the natural weight of the
placenta help in its removal from the uterus. If it is dragging on the ground
or causing the mare to hit it as she walks, tie it in a knot or wrap a plastic
bag around it to keep it contained and clean.
- If the foal has not passed the meconium (first stool or manure, that is
dark in color) within one hour of standing or after an enema has been given.
- The foal (especially a male) has not urinated and the abdomen seems to be
- It is determined that the foal has not received sufficient passive
Problems with the mare after foaling:
- Uterine rupture: The uterus of a mare may be torn or ruptured as a
result of a uterine torsion, a difficult birth, or when a foal’s feet punch
through during the birthing process. A uterine rupture is a serious health
threat to the mare and should not be treated lightly. In some minor cases, the
tear may not be noticed until the mare begins to act sick. Typically,
infection enters the abdomen through the rupture and the mare develops
peritonitis. These mares act colicky, may have a fever, and then go into
shock. Severe ruptures can often lead to the mare’s death. Any time a mare has
had a difficult birth or a uterine torsion, the uterus should be examined by a
veterinarian for evidence of a tear. When possible, the veterinarian will try
to repair the rupture. The horse is usually placed on high doses of
antibiotics and watched carefully for signs of problems.
- Postpartum hemorrhage/hematomas: Blood is associated with almost
every birth due to minor damage and rupture of small vessels; however, in
older mares that have had previous foals, rupture of larger vessels can occur.
These larger vessels, such as the uterine artery, carry a significant amount
of blood; when ruptured, they can cause the mare to bleed to death in a very
short time. Most mares that have significant amounts of bleeding will be weak,
want to lay down, and have pale gums. If the bleeding causes a hematoma
(large, blood filled mass) to form in the uterus, she may act colicky. Mares
that develop this problem should be completely confined and not allowed or
made to get up or walk. The mare should be confined to a stall for 3-4 weeks
after foaling. These mares are also prone to hemorrhage again during another
- Uterine prolapse: A uterine prolapse occurs when the uterus is
turned inside out and pushed out of the mare’s vagina. This problem occurs
during or immediately following foaling and is common after a difficult birth.
This problem is easily identified by observing a reddish colored mass being
pushed out the vagina of the mare. The prolapsed uterus should be kept clean
and free of contamination until a veterinarian arrives. The prolapse can then
be corrected by the veterinarian. The mare should also receive intense
treatment with antibiotics, fluids, and pain medications as needed.
Foal care after birth:
It is recommended that each foal
has at least 600-800 mg/dl of IgG (an antibody) when tested. Any foal
measuring less than 400 mg/dl should be considered to have a failure of
passive transfer (FPT) and additional steps need to be taken. These FPT
foals will require supplemental colostrum or plasma administration.
- Perform a physical examination immediately after birth:
- Make sure the foal is breathing. Any membranes should be removed from
the nose and if fluid is thought to be in the nostrils, a large turkey
baster can be used to suction the fluid out. Respirations can be stimulated
by placing a finger or piece of straw in the foal’s nostrils.
- The heart should be beating strong and faster than 60 beats per minute.
- If the umbilical cord is not broken, tear (do not cut) the cord about
2 inches from the foal’s abdomen. Tearing will help prevent serious
bleeding. Refer to page E195 for additional emergency treatment ideas.
- Most mares will want some time to mother the foal and allow it to nurse.
During this time the mare will lick and dry the foal. If the mare is not
interested and the foal is exposed to adverse weather conditions, the foal
should be dried with a clean towel. At this point if things seem to be going
well, the mother and foal should be left alone.
- Navel care and additional examination:
- Dip the cord in dilute chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) and again 6-8 hours
later. The chlorhexidine should be diluted with one part chlorhexidine to
four parts water. Because it can be too irritating, iodine should be
- Watch the cord and abdomen for redness or swelling. If these occur,
contact a veterinarian.
- Check the foal for congenital (present at birth) defects. These include
a cleft palate, hernia, limb abnormalities, or heart defects.
- The foal should be up, able to nurse, and act alert and responsive.
- Enemas: A squeeze type enema can be given if the meconium (dark
brown manure) is not passed in the first few hours after standing. These foals
may strain to pass some stool but not produce anything. Because the rectum and
colon can easily be torn, the enema should be given slowly and gently. Only
ONE enema should be given to a foal. A veterinarian should be contacted if the
foal continues to act uncomfortable.
- Colostrum management and checking for passive transfer:
- General information: Colostrum is the first milk produced by the
mare after foaling. A mare will typically begin producing this colostrum 1-2
weeks prior to giving birth. Colostrum contains the maternal antibodies
essential for disease prevention in the newborn. The mother, if properly
vaccinated prior to foaling, should naturally produce these antibodies and
will pass them to the foal in the colostrum. Antibodies are the immune
system components that identify a viral or bacterial invader and fight off
the infection. Protection passed from the mother to foal through colostrum
is called passive transfer. Failure of passive transfer will lead to
sickness, poor weight gain, and possible death. With time, a foal that has a
failure of passive transfer can have a fever, injected membranes (red and
inflamed), and diarrhea. With this as a background, heeding the following
suggestions is a must to ensure healthy animals:
- Each foal should consume at least 1-2 liters (2-4 pints) of colostrum
in the first 6-8 hours after birth. As time progresses, the foal absorbs
less and less antibodies from the colostrum. By the time the foal is 24
hours old, little if any antibody absorption will occur.
- Each foal should be checked for passive transfer at 16-24 hours of
age. This is done by taking a small sample of the foal’s blood and
performing a test that measures the amount of antibodies in the blood. An
example of one of these types of tests can be found on page
Feeding colostrum: (If a foal does not nurse normally after
delivery, feeding colostrum will be necessary.)
Obtaining, storing, and using the colostrum:
- Once the foal has been identified to have a failure of passive
transfer, feed approximately 250 mLs of colostrum every hour during the
first 24 hours of the foal’s life. A total of 1.5 - 2 liters is required.
If the failure of passive transfer has been identified after the foal is
24 hours old, plasma and additional treatments will be required. At this
point a veterinarian should be involved.
- Feeding additional colostrum can be accomplished using a stomach tube
feeder, allowing the foal to suckle, or letting it drink from a pan.
Measuring antibodies in colostrum:
- The best colostrum comes from the mother and can be milked from the
mare each hour it is needed. The average mare will produce around 300 mLs
of colostrum every hour.
- Colostrum that tests high in antibodies can be frozen for up to one
year. Thaw this milk in a hot water bath or in the refrigerator.
Tetanus: Some farms give each foal a shot of tetanus antitoxin
(1500 IU) at birth. Because of potential side effects, this should be done
only with direct veterinary advice. See page
- A simple and effective method of ensuring adequate antibody levels in
a colostrum sample involves using a colostrometer. This instrument
measures the amount of antibodies present in a milk sample.
Placenta: After the placenta has been passed, it should be filled
with water from a hose. All areas of the placenta should be expanded, looking
for any areas where part of the placenta may be missing. These areas could
still be in the mare and may result in a uterus infection. A mare that has
retained part or all of the placenta will often act sick, have a fever, and
experience colic-like symptoms.