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The Foaling Process And When To Call The Vet

As discussed in a previous article, knowing when your mare is going to give birth is not just as simple as counting the days and often involves many nights of interrupted sleep checking her. Udder development, waxing up of the teats, and relaxation of the pelvic ligaments either side of the tail head are all reasonable indicators but above all else the mare foals when she is ready, usually in the early hours of the morning and often when the weather is good.

The first stage of labour is characterised by the development of coordinated contractions of the uterus. These internal changes present as restless behaviour similar to that of mild colic. The mare looks at her flanks, frequently lies down then gets back up, stretches and passes small amounts of faeces. Patchy sweating is common. As the first stage of labour begins the foal makes purposeful movements to get into the normal birthing position with both front legs and the nose pointing towards the cervical opening. The mare probably assists the foal repositioning itself with her getting up and down and rolling and this behaviour should therefore not be discouraged. The length of this stage can last anything from a few minutes to several hours. Mares appear to be able to interrupt this stage if disturbed. First stage labour ends with the breaking of the waters.

Second stage labour is defined by delivery of the foal and involves strong abdominal contractions. Foaling is an explosive process requiring the active participation of the foal. Weak or dead foals are often problematic as they fail to take an active part in the delivery process. The average duration of stage two is twenty minutes but can be as short as ten minutes or as long as sixty minutes with maiden mares generally taking longer than those who have had many foals. Most mares lie on their side, many get up and down at least once or twice in what is believed to be a further attempt to get the foal into the right position. One hoof is generally slightly in front of the other and the foals head should be between the knees. This rapid stage is most forceful when the foals chest is passing through the pelvic canal. Forceful straining and contractions stop once the foals hips are delivered and the mare will often have a rest at this stage with the foals hind legs still in the pelvic canal.

The third stage of labour involves expulsion of the foetal membranes and typically takes between thirty minutes and three hours. This stage can also see the mare getting up and down repeatedly with some abdominal pain (colic) as the uterus contracts strongly. The placenta should be allowed to hang from the mare but if it is dragging on the ground or hitting the hocks it should be tied up in a knot so that she does not tear it off or injure the foal kicking at it. Once the placenta has been delivered it should be kept in a suitable container and kept cool until it can be inspected by a vet. The vets inspection of the placenta is mainly to determine if it has all been passed or if there are any fragments retained.

Immediately after foaling the umbilical cord will separate on its own either as the foal moves about trying to get up or when the mare gets up. It is probably best if the umbilical cord is allowed to break naturally and if this occurs immediately after birth it is not a reason for serious concern but if the mare and foal are resting quietly still attached by the cord we advise that they are left until a spontaneous rupture occurs when one of them moves.

After foaling the mare should be allowed to rest as labour is extremely strenuous. She may lie quietly for thirty to forty five minutes and during this time the mare should not be disturbed without good reason.

The Decision For Interference

Because foaling is such a rapid and explosive process in comparison with other species prompt attendance and speedy action is the most important requirement if things are not going as expected because complications can quickly arise. However, despite the need for speed, a little time spent discussing the problem with the vet on the telephone allows the vet to explain if and how any IMMEDIATE action must be taken.

The vet should be called when :-

  1. There is no evidence of strong contractions and / or no progression in the delivery process 15 minutes after the water breaking.
  2. The normal colour of the breaking waters is a clear yellowish fluid, if this fluid has a brown discolouration this indicates some degree of foetal stress.
  3. One foot and the head OR two feet and no head OR only the head are presented at the vulva.
  4. If a red velvety surface appears at the vulva instead of a shiny grey membrane. This is called a “red bag delivery” and is caused by premature separation of the placenta. Telephone instruction will be given to rupture this membrane and assist delivery immediately. THIS IS A TRUE EMERGENCY SITUATION.
  5. If rectal perforation occurs. This can be recognised by the foal’s leg appearing through the anus of the mare. THIS IS A TRUE EMERGENCY SITUATION.

Should anything other than a normal presentation (i.e. two front feet and the head at knee level) be suspected keep the mare up and walking around the box whilst waiting for veterinary assistance, this will reduce straining and the possible worsening of the situation by impaction of a badly positioned foal in the pelvic canal.

Foals which become stuck at the shoulders or hips need help. A gentle but steady pull is needed whilst rotating the foal slightly.

To sum up, if in any doubt at all that things are not happening as they should please call your vet sooner rather than later. We would all rather have an unnecessary journey to see a perfectly healthy mare and foal then be called too late.

Richard Stringer BVSc MRCVS of Stringer Equine Veterinary Practice