The Birth of Your First Foal - What To Expect

A Note Before You Read

This Hub describes what to expect during labour and birth based on our own experiences, it is not intended to replace professional assistance. Please forgive the frequent references to contacting the vet - if you are new to foaling it is advisable to seek assistance if you are unsure that things are progressing normally, as much for reassurance as for anything else.

Preparation

Your mare has successfully carried her foal for eleven months and very soon she will deliver the baby, hopefully letting you witness the event at a discreet distance. It is a wonderful experience to witness and it pays to be well prepared in advance so that everything is to hand when needed.

The foaling kit should have been prepared and your mare should have been using her foaling box or paddock for the last six weeks or so before birth.

NOTE: The following is not intended as a replacement for professional assistance - if you are in any doubt or have any concerns please contact your veterinary surgeon for advice.

"Being born is so exhausting!"
"Being born is so exhausting!"
"Awake now!"
"Awake now!"

Signs Of Impending Labour

As the foaling day comes closer your mare will start to become more uncomfortable and may seem restless. Her appetite will start to decrease and she may even stop lying down. Her udder will stay full even after exercise and there may be deposits on the teats that look a bit like brown sugar granules. This is caused by the first secretions from the udder which will become more milk-like a day or two before the foal is born.

Many mares "wax up" a couple of days before foaling, this looks like the drips from a burning candle on the teats. Some mares, however, may wax up long before this and others not at all. You may also notice marks on the inside of the mare's thighs where milk has dripped down and dried.

As the first stage of labour approaches the mare's vulva will soften and lengthen and now is the time to get out your foaling kit and put the tail bandage on her. She should be kept under discreet and quiet observation. It is advisable not to leave her for more than two hours, although at this point we never leave the mare for more than half an hour, even when under CCTV observation. You may notice some milk begin to run from her teats as she goes into the first stage of labour.

First Stage

Note: Not all mares will show the signs detailed below.

The mare will become more restless and begin to pace around the stable or paddock, stopping to. look round at her belly. She may begin to sweat - some may just be a little damp on the neck whilst others can be soaked or not sweat at all - she will, if nothing else, feel much warmer. The first signs are not dissimilar to colic in some respects. Her pulse and breathing rate will also have increased noticably. She may start to get up and down, sometimes just staying on her knees or changing her mind before she gets that far, the foal can often be seen moving as well.

Eventually the mare will lie down, sometimes quite heavily and with a groan and this is usually the point where her waters break, there may be a trickle, but more likely a rush, of pale brownish fluid which heralds the imminent birth of the foal. Make a note of the time when this happens.

Do not interfere or fuss the mare at this stage, just keep your observation discreet and quiet, keep the number of people to a minimum, yourself and maybe one other person the mare knows. We use CCTV cameras on our mares which also record, if you have one of these you can show your friends later! Make a note of the time you noticed labour starting, the first stage usually, but not always, takes somewhere in the region of a hour to a hour and a half. If this stage seems to be taking longer or the mare seems inordinately distressed call the vet for advice.

Soon after birth
Soon after birth

Second Stage

The majority of mares lie down to deliver their foals although we have had some that will stand during delivery, only lying down right at the end.

An important point to note - if you see what appears to be a red bag appearing during delivery telephone your veterinary surgeon immediately.

In a normal presentation the first thing you will see are the front feet of the foal inside the "bag" (i.e the membrane or amnion), one slightly in advance of the other and pointing downwards towards the mare's hocks. The feet have a jelly-like padding to protect the mare from damage and this comes off soon after the foal stands.

The foal's nose should appear next, probably still covered by the membrane (amnion). Things get tougher for the mare now, she has to deliver the shoulders and quite often she will get up and walk around before pushing again, this can help position the foal if it is not quite in place. With a few big pushes the foal should slip out of the birth canal and you can note the time of birth, often the mare will rest with the foal's hind legs still inside, this is perfectly normal and stops the umbilical cord breaking too early. If the membrane is still over the foal's nose you can break it away and gently clear the nostrils of any fluid.

If the mare is getting tired or the foal seems large you may need to help her deliver the shoulders. Very gently and only when the mare is pushing pull the foal's forelegs one at a time in the direction of birth - that is, once the knees are in sight the direction is in a curve downwards, not straight behind. Please, please only attempt this if you are confident - if in doubt phone your vet.

The delivery of the foal usually takes 10 - 20 minutes. If the mare seems distressed, overly struggling or if she has been is second stage labour for half an hour, phone your vet for advice.

Third Stage

During the third stage the mare delivers the afterbirth, or placenta. This can happen immediately or several hours later. Once she has recovered a little from delivering the foal, the mare will stand up, which is usually when the umbilical cord breaks. Gently spray the foal's naval (where the cord has broken, the little stump of cord will wither away over the next few days) with the iodine spray from the foaling kit to help prevent infection.

If the mare doesn't immediately deliver the afterbirth, tie it clear of the floor with string. To do this tie some string tightly around the hanging membrane and fold it back up in a loop and tie again, it may be necessary to tie up another loop to keep the afterbirth clear of the floor. If it is not delivered within six or so hours call the vet for advice. Once it has been delivered, put the afterbirth in a clean bucket ready for vet inspection and if possible remove the worst of the soiled bedding for the comfort of the mare and foal. It is recommended that a vet checks the mare, foal and afterbirth within 24 hours just to check that all is well.

Learning to suckle, with help from Mum.  Not the most flattering picture of the mare, she is actually a lovely thoroughbred (see below).
Learning to suckle, with help from Mum. Not the most flattering picture of the mare, she is actually a lovely thoroughbred (see below).

The Foal

Make sure that the foaling stable is bedded well with straw as the foal will make many attempts to get to its feet before succeeding, although most are up within an hour. If it doesn't stand in about two hours it will be necessary to help it yourself, if you are unsure, call the vet or an experienced friend for help.

When it comes to suckling, the foal will probably make a few mistakes before thrusting its nose into the right place, but most get there fairly quickly.

Sometimes, however, the mare may not be co-operative, perhaps because it is her first foal, in this instance you can help, but be careful of your own safety as some mares can be "foal-proud", i.e possessive of their baby and willing to protect it by kicking out. Put a headcollar on her and stand her against a wall with her tail pointing into the corner. Remember to be gentle and quiet with her and do not get cross, perhaps offer her a feed to distract her. If the foal hasn't suckled by the time it is three hours old, contact your vet to administer colostrum which contains antibodies for the foal.

Once the foal has suckled and all seems to have gone well, you can go and have a nice cup of tea or coffee and enjoy telling your friends about your new arrival, assuming it's not the early hours of the morning of course!

Summary

Up to 48 hours before (sometimes longer) : Uncomfortable, restless, loss of appetite, secretions on udder, "waxing up"

1st Stage: Restlessness, rise in temperature, sweating, colic-like appearance, increased pulse and breathing, contractions. Duration usually about one and a half hours.

2nd Stage: Appearance of feet then muzzle, delivery of the foal. Duration usually about 10 - 20 minutes.

3rd Stage: Delivery of the afterbirth. Duration can be immediately - 6 hours.

Growing fast!
Growing fast!
All grown up - 5 years old
All grown up - 5 years old

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