Yippee, eureka, the miracle has worked! My mare is in foal, but now what? Trust me, I’m a doctor: Marieke Hermans: veterinarian at Equivet´s is known for her healthy interest and extensive knowledge as well as experience both in gynaecology and obstetrics. Count yourself lucky: nine out of ten births are brilliantly taken care of by Mother Nature. But what in case you happen to get that one foal needing extra help? We will describe the process of the delivery with Marieke as our guide talking us through those eleven months and ten days.
For breeders countdown starts, but when exactly? Marieke calculates: ‘It´s understandable that breeders want to be present at the moment of birth and fortunately Nature does its job well in 90 to 95% of cases. Just being there is usually enough. Unfortunately though, when things go wrong it tends to be serious and every minute counts.’ So when has the time come? Marieke admits: ‘In this respect horses are no different from humans, it´s not possible to pinpoint the exact day or date. The average time of gestation is 340 days. Remember, average! So never get too fixated on a specific date. Around a fortnight after impregnation the mare will be tested to confirm pregnancy. Many breeders start counting as from this date, but obviously it´s the date of impregnation, not confirmation, that counts’, Marieke remarks: ‘Perfectly normal and healthy foals can be born any time between 300 and 400 days. For an even better estimate of the date your calculations should also be based on external characteristics of your mare. The most important external feature is the udder which starts to swell two to three weeks prior to the delivery. A straightforward sign because this indicates that milk production is getting underway. As soon as you see droplets of milk the foal usually arrives within 24 to 48 hours. But don´t forget, these are all mere indications. Ultimately it´s Nature that defines the time of birth. Some mares with small udders show no signs of milk droplets but still drop their foals. Vice versa some mares can produce milk for over a week without getting into labour. All we can do is provide some general guide lines and establish averages.’
Fortunately, we have by now reached the stages of labour. You are well-advised to have your mare timely vaccinated against Rhinopneumonitis. Marieke recommends vaccinating every pregnant mare: ‘Rhino is really bad news causing abortions, premature births, weak and sick foals. It´s true though that vaccinations don´t give a 100% guarantee. There´s no absolute surety but it does help to heighten resistance and reduce risks. Just as important is separating your sport horses from the gestating mares. Sport horses go to events where they can contract the virus and transmit it to the mares when coming home. It´s always good practice to keep your brood mares in more or less quarantined conditions. So don´t let them mingle with sport horses or especially young stock, because these are even more susceptible to infections. When groups cannot be separated for practical reasons it´s wise to have all horses vaccinated, a procedure which should be followed for all vaccinations. As a rule mares should be vaccinated at five, seven and nine months into pregnancy.’
Rhino is caused by the Equine Herpes Virus (EHV) and it has a devastating effect on breeders when an infected mare loses her foal. A horse infected with the influenza variety of Rhino will show symptoms like coughing and/or nasal discharge, swollen legs and fluctuating high temperatures. However, a pregnant mare infected with Rhino will show no symptoms whatsoever, which makes it impossible to detect the presence of Rhino. The gestating mare carries the virus and passes it on to the foal with the terrible result of losing the foal somewhere between the seventh and eighth month. Fact is that there are no noticeable symptoms either in the mare´s appearance or behaviour. One morning the breeder finds a dead foal in the stable, or the foal will be born prematurely. So it´s possible the mare will give birth to a live foal but it will be so weak that it´s bound to die within a couple of days anyway. You then have the option to take it to an equine clinic for extra care. The only way to retrieve the exact cause of death is by way of an autopsy. Rhino is a stealth killer. Correct procedure is to have all horses vaccinated twice-yearly, gestating mares three times during the course of pregnancy.
Already taken care of. What about nutrients? Is it necessary to put pregnant mares on an adapted diet? Marieke nods her approval: ‘In the first few months caring for a pregnant mare is the same as for any other horse. That includes the usual de-worming programmes, turnout in the field and feeding habits just like before. As for the farrier, equine dentist, just stick to your routine. A mare must be comfortable in herself but there´s no need to change day-to-day patterns. Even riding is okay up to nine months into pregnancy. Pregnant women also keep on working, don´t they! By riding we mean hacking out, definitely not competitions! Pregnant mares only develop a need for an increased energy intake during the final four months. The ideal diet invariably includes a good, rich meadow. If you´re unable to provide that you can always feed fibre and good-quality hay. Special fertility mixes for mares are available on the market which are slightly richer in proteins and sugars. It´s up to the breeder, really, what to choose. Key is to supplement feeds whenever necessary. It all basically comes down to common sense. Some pregnant mares may use up more energy than others and this is easy to spot, especially when she suddenly starts losing condition.
Monitoring your mare is your first and most important diagnosis. Marieke points out a few dangers that should immediately put breeders on the alert: ‘Always keep an eye on the udder. When the udder starts leaking fluids in the eighth or ninth month or you notice any vaginal discharge then call the vet. Early signs of milk and any discharge are two crucial alarm signals that shouldn´t be there and both are sure signs that something is amiss. It could be the result of a twin pregnancy or infection of the uterus (uteritis) but always requires prompt veterinary treatment.
If the mare starts producing beestings too early there´s unfortunately nothing you can do about it. Even vets have no cure to stop such premature production. The golden rule is not to meddle with the udder. In the case of premature milk production a good precautionary measure would be to get in touch with fellow breeders to find out if they might have some extra beestings for you.
Firm udders and waxing-up, it´s only a matter of time now. The breeder will also notice that the hindquarters will slacken a bit, mainly around the top of the pelvis and behind the vulva. Induced by hormones the body softens to generate some extra stretch for foaling. This is most clearly felt on both sides of the tail. We all know this is much more difficult to detect in surrogate mares because breeders know their own mares a lot better than new, unfamiliar surrogate mares.
A not to be overlooked detail is vulvaplasty, or apposition, as Marieke explains: ‘On insemination we may establish that a mare sucks in air because the vagina is too highly situated relative to the pelvic floor. We then partly stitch her up because the suction of air implies sucking in bacteria which could trigger an infection of the uterus. A vulva that was stitched up must be surgically reopened two weeks prior to the expected foaling because tearing of the vulva during delivery could cause many complications.
There are a few gadgets to alert you to the moment of birth and these have to be installed more or less a week before the expected date. But Marieke hastily adds that these gadgets cannot be trusted implicitly. The anti-roll girth gives off an alarm when the mare lies down. There are, though admittedly not many, mares that drop their foals while on their feet but these anti-roll girths are also known to frequently trigger false alarms. This system therefore should be combined with a camera that sends a visual image to your smart phone when the alarm goes off. This is a great help to judge the situation. A similar system exists in the shape of a collar.
A more expensive but also more effective device is a small box containing a magnet that is attached to the vulva. When birthing is imminent the vulva starts to dilate and sets off the alarm. False alarms are less common unless the mare damages the box by rubbing against the stable wall, the worst case scenario. It´s an efficient device but comes at a price: around 1,300 Euros (VAT excluded) just to monitor one single mare. Most breeders who opt for this system have more mares and purchase extra magnets priced at € 200 each. It is, however, a re-usable system. ‘This device is only practical when you live very close to the stable because once the alarm goes off there´s hardly time to so much as slip on a pair of trousers...’ Marieke informs us.
Marieke Hermans describes the ideal setting for giving birth: ‘A stable measuring five by four metres really is the absolute minimum. There must be enough room for the mare to be comfortable and relaxed when she lies down and there must be some space left for the breeder too. An anti-slip surface is an absolute must. That sounds straightforward, but there are breeders who prepare scrupulously clean stables. Of course hygiene is important but it´s not good practice to completely muck out the stable for the delivery. Next thing the stable will be covered in layers of fresh straw or shavings, which is done with the best intentions in mind but all it does is create a slippery surface. Terribly dangerous for the mare and the newborn foal. Heaps of muck isn´t a good idea either, even though a thin layer of muck is a good option. Stick to a deep litter with a sufficient supply of fresh straw. Mare and foal should never be exposed to a concrete surface. Newborns have very delicate and thin skin which is easily damaged. Another key element is peace and quiet, some mares even hold back when there´s too much going on. This is the reason why so many foals are born during the night. Basically the field is not a bad place for the delivery because it´s usually quiet and the surface is very suitable. It´s just that weather conditions must be good too and the herd must be safe and harmonious, but even then there´s a fair risk of accidents. Fields are never without their dangers. For instance when the mare drops her foal in a corner or close to the fencing there´s always a chance the foal rolls under the fencing so that dam and foal get separated. The risks are simply too high to leave it all to coincidence. There´s nothing against a natural delivery in the field, but I´d rather opt for a spacious, quiet stable, any time.’
Marieke swiftly assembles a foaling package consisting of a tail bandage, a thermometer, some disinfectant, a feeding bottle and some towels. And don´t forget your cell phone! ‘It´s key to be present when the moment has finally come. Just to make sure that all goes well. If that´s the case you´re not supposed to interfere. Human intervention is not per se necessary, on the contrary. The birth of a foal is the best of experiences, nothing comes even close to seeing a foal come into this world, the mare turning round to inspect her foal and their very first neighing. It´s a wonderful moment but absolutely not a great idea to mobilise all your friends and neighbours. Allow the mare to drop her foal in an atmosphere of quiet and serenity.
The foal is wrapped up in two sacs and the allantoic (water sac) is the first to rupture. The water breaks and the allantoic fluid is expelled, followed by the amniotic sac (sometimes called foal sac or feet sac) with the foal inside. The first phase with the contractions can last two to four hours. Any labour lasting longer than four hours spells problems. This could be the result of wrongful presentation of the foal but alternatively it could be caused by the so-called red bag delivery: the waters don´t break and instead of the ordinary bluish-white membrane literally a red sac emerges. This actually means the foal is coming out with the red bag still in place, a complication caused by premature passing of the afterbirth (placenta). The placenta is the foal´s source of oxygen so when the placenta is passed too early the foal will be deprived of oxygen. In normal deliveries the placenta (afterbirth) arrives after the birth. When you find the second sac to be still intact at the moment of birth you can open it by hand at the place of the nose so that the foal will be able to breathe. It usually ruptures in the process, but if not you need to intervene. Just opening it around the foal´s nose will do the job.
In normal deliveries contractions last for four hours at the most. At some point within this time frame the water breaks and subsequently the foal is born within half an hour. If this takes longer the foal will be deprived of oxygen which is considered an acute emergency. Once the water has broken the forelegs and nose should be visible within ten minutes. If not, call your vet! Every ten minutes you should be able to see progress or more foal. It could be that you´re expecting a fairly heavy foal and that your mare has a rather narrow pelvis. In that case it´s okay to intervene. Softly pulling on the legs is allowed. Sometimes the situation calls for more strength when pulling but this is best done after consulting with the vet. And never forget that pulling is only allowed during contractions! It´s also important that you should pull downwards, towards the mare´s hind legs. In many cases the hind legs will remain a bit longer in the birth canal... that´s just fine, simply leave them there. It´s Nature´s way. The mare senses that the foal hasn´t completely come out yet and therefore remains recumbent. After a while she will start moving and shifting which helps to deliver the hind legs as well. She won´t be able to push out those last ten centimetres. It´s Nature´s way of providing a moment´s rest for both dam and foal.
After the birth just leave the mare to lick her foal dry, that´s how she stimulates and encourages her newborn. Give them some time to recover. If however, your mare shows no signs of trying to stand up after half an hour something´s clearly wrong. This again is cause for calling the vet. Mare and foal must make contact following the birth and once the mare gets to her feet the umbilical cord will break. If this doesn´t happen by itself you need to break it manually, never cut it like it´s done with humans. Cutting the umbilical cord is simply done with the fingers about five to ten cm below the foal´s navel where you feel a weak spot that breaks off easily. It´s however highly unlikely that interventions are needed at this stage. If you do need to give a helping hand then break the umbilical cord about five cm below the foal´s belly at the point where you can clearly see an indentation/stricture. You can see it as well as feel it and it´s the point where it´s meant to break.
Normally the mare guides her newborn to her udder. When however the foal doesn´t get to its feet or doesn´t succeed in finding the udder you have to express milk into your feeding bottle or help the foal find the udder. If the mare doesn´t stand still get hold of her and discipline her when she tries to kick at her foal. Never feed milk to a foal that´s lying down, it has to be lying upright on its breastbone. Other eventualities could be that the foal doesn´t register what it´s supposed to do or alternatively, the mare has no clue how to go about it because she´s a first-time mum. There may be too much pressure on the udder or the mare simply doesn´t understand what´s happening to her. These things shouldn´t be too much of an issue and are often easy to straighten out. But in any case the foal should be up on its feet within two hours.
‘Babies are born with antibodies transmitted via the uterus. This is not the case with foals, which is why it´s so important to get them drinking from the beestings or colostrum as soon as possible The mare produces these beestings only during the first eight to twelve hours. During its first six hours the foal needs to drink these beestings for around an hour and a half. After that period the antibodies can no longer be absorbed through the foal´s gut mucosal barrier and shortages can only be repaired by way of intravenously administering a plasma solution into the blood stream. Some breeders have got into the habit of expressing a bottle-full of beestings just to be on the safe side. When everything goes according to plan and the foal gets up and starts suckling right away then you can be assured that the intake of beestings will be sufficient. Occasionally a mare doesn´t produce enough beestings of her own. If in any doubt we can always check the foal´s blood for the presence of antibodies after the first 18 hours. This is a common procedure, unless your mare is known to have brought several foals before without any complications and the foal has been drinking well during the first few hours. Prevention is the best cure, especially in terms of foal sickness.
Exploring the world!
I have arrived in this world, am standing straight up on all fours and have suckled really well. Can I go out and play now? Marieke shows her firm side: ‘I strongly recommend keeping your newborn indoors for the first 24 hours. Weather permitting it can get its first taste of the great outdoors on the second day. Make sure to monitor your foal passes its first water and dung within a set time. For fillies that´s usually within four to six hours and for colts within twelve hours. The first droppings are quite firm and must be passed without problems. In case your newborn foal exhibits any signs of colic you must immediately call the vet! With adult horses you can give it a while and walk the horse for a bit but not so with foals.
Our foal is doing well, but what about the mare? Yes, she also needs aftercare, Marieke tells us: ‘The expulsion of the afterbirth must go well too, by which we mean it must be complete. You have to store it in a bucket, preferably in a cold place, so that it can be inspected by the vet. Really, it´s not necessary to store it in your fridge amid your vegetables and fruit... but having it inspected is a must. If the placenta hasn´t passed as a whole there´s the risk of infection of the uterus and even laminitis or worse, blood poisoning. After the delivery the mare´s temperature should not exceed 38,3°. For a mare who´s just become a mum it´s not that uncommon to ignore her food for the first twenty-four hours. She also needs time to recover. And within 24 hours we will be visiting anyway to administer the foal jab with extra antibodies, including tetanus, and at the same time will give both dam and foal a health check. A simple check of a blood sample can be used to establish whether the foal needs some extra plasma to activate their immune system. A healthy foal will sleep a lot, but might just as well get up straightaway, have a good stretch and start suckling.
Following the birth your foal must be correctly identified and chipped. The identification and DNA checks will be taken care of by your studbook. ‘You shouldn´t act too hastily to get your foal chipped. It´s better to give your foal a couple of weeks to gain strength. When a foal is too young when it´s chipped you run the risk of contracting an infection or a painfully stiff neck which makes it hard for the foal to nurse and therefore hampers its growth.
Sending your pregnant mare to a foaling clinic seems to be the new trend in the breeding world. A good idea, Marieke Hermans sympathises: ´Because I can easily imagine that not everybody feels perfectly at ease during the delivery. Particularly not when it´s that very first time. As long as Nature does her job and it´s a smooth process from beginning to end, witnessing a birth is a heavenly experience. On the other hand, quick interventions are literally a matter of life and death when something goes wrong. And doing just that requires knowledge and experience. We have also come to realise that many breeders neither have the time nor the skills for it. For most people breeding horses is merely a hobby and specifically around the time of the delivery it´s very time-consuming. So that´s when a foaling clinic can be a good alternative. For one thing because the staff there do have the time for it and secondly because they have the professional expertise to look after the mares and their foals. They will spot everything a novice breeder might overlook and will take immediate and efficient action when things go wrong. That stands to reason, they´re the experts. It´s a great development to see people take up breeding and show an interest for it. But for many it remains a hobby they need to combine with a fulltime job, which can be a challenge from time to time. It´s a matter of balancing the risks. Are you sufficiently equipped as a breeder? Do you live close to the stable-block? Can you guarantee to be there when labour sets in? You have to ask yourself this kind of elementary questions. And anyway, all risks and symptoms mentioned will be detected so much quicker in a foaling clinic. True, when you always take your mare to a clinic for foaling you´ll never learn to cope as a breeder. Still, I can clearly picture how insecure people may feel when their first foal is on its way. The breeding sector is more and more a professional business. People invest in much better blood lines, they purchase top mares, pay stud fees. It would be a shame if all these efforts and investments went to waste during the delivery due to a lack of skills and know-how. This isn´t about finding fault, it´s even quite understandable that not everyone is familiar with the routine and the reflexes needed to deal with it. I have collected a host of good experiences with these foaling clinics. It´s not my place to force these clinics on anyone and I´d be reluctant to rob anyone of such a unique experience as seeing a foal come into this world. But if you´re feeling insecure about doing it on your own I wouldn´t hesitate.`