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Back to basics

There are some basic necessities for the pregnant mare prior to foaling. Horses need access to a continuous supply of fresh, clean water. Equally they need access to large quantities of well-preserved fodder, perhaps supplemented with a well-regarded stud mix.

Spend your remaining budget on the other essentials -- teeth, feet, preventive health care and shelter.

Be careful that expensive supplements don't become a crutch and an excuse for bad husbandry and management. Even the best of feeds end their days as expensive manure if not chewed properly -- horses need regular dental care as they age.

Have mares fit (and healthy) but not fat at foaling. Recent studies have shown that horse owners fail to recognise obesity as a health issue. Excess fat places unnecessary strain on any horse's metabolism and skeleton, even more so the mare carrying a foal -- witness the number of older broodmares with laminitis and collapsed hind fetlocks.

Every farmer knows that lameness reduces mobility and therefore feeding. Pain reduces performance -- whether this is milk production, growth rates, speed jumping ability or rosettes in the show-ring.

Mares should be vaccinated:

  • Against tetanus for their own sake and for the protection this can give the foal via colostrum;
  • Against the herpes virus to ward off a storm of abortions in your brood mare herd;
  • Against influenza. An outbreak of this virus, as humans know, is never pleasant.

Pregnant mares should be well wormed and living in an environment that generally keeps worm and infection levels low. We're fortunate in this country that we have plenty of space -- horses need it and space dilutes disease.

Exposure to the elements in severe weather can cause needless weight loss. But individual, poorly ventilated, poorly insulated, dank, dark stables, with no room for horses to move or escape draughts and rank smells, make for poor living conditions.

Modern horse rugs, hedges, field shelters, group living, a dry place to lie and space to exercise and escape aggression provide much healthier solutions for horses.

When will she foal? Usually when least expected and when most inconvenient for you.

Some mares are fairly predictable, if you get to know them well enough over the years; others will hold off until they exhaust your patience and then foal as soon as you turn your back.

Mares, especially maidens, should begin to enlarge in front of, and high up at the base of, the udder in late pregnancy. The appearance of a sticky, waxy discharge on the teats of the developed udder of a full-term mare is a useful but not infallible sign of readiness for birth.

An engorged udder or actual milk production before full term, however, is a worry -- it may indicate an impending abortion, the delivery of a high-risk foal, or mean there'll be an insufficient supply of high-quality colostrum when it's needed.

Electrolyte levels in the milk change in a characteristic fashion with impending foaling -- these can be monitored with a water-hardness kit.

Laxity in the perineal ligament area around the vulva may also predict foaling.

Nesting behaviour and seeking quiet solitude may suggest a readying for birthing, while monitors that detect lying flat out, sweating or a parting of the vulva may just alert you to a foaling actually under way.


Check to see if your mare is still stitched behind -- can the vulva open fully to allow a foal to emerge? If not, get her opened. The repair job, the loss of a breeding season and the bill from not attending to this small detail can all be so easily avoided.

Prepare a large (3.5m x 3.5m) clean, deeply bedded stable that can be well lit if needed. Foaling in the field is fine once the weather is milder and brighter.

Intense noise, bright lights and unfamiliar surroundings prolong the lead-in period (first-stage labour) to active foaling itself, but once this latter stage begins things tend to happen thick and fast. There may be no (safe) time for a tail-bandage.

Tetanus anti-toxin (TAT) might be needed for the foal and mare. A ready supply of warm, clean water and an iodine/alcohol mix for the navel are useful assets alongside a calm temperament.

They say that experience is the one thing you needed yesterday. It takes time to accumulate, there are no shortcuts, and you can only learn so much from watching others. You really only learn when it's you who has to do the job.

The best foaling attendants are experienced, quiet and unobtrusive, lending assistance when needed -- for example to straighten a limb or free up the passage of the foal's hips through the pelvis -- but quick to leave when the mare and foal need time alone.

Don't rush to interfere early unless you see a red bag as the first thing that emerges when the mare starts to strain.

Mares often lie down, get up and lie on the other side -- this is nature's way of helping to position the foal correctly. If this up/down process, or if actual straining, is prolonged and nothing is appearing, either check inside or call for experienced back up. The mare may simply be colicky and not about to foal at all, or there may be a badly presented foal.

Don't rush to get the mare standing after foaling. Don't rush to break the cord, just be ready with your iodine for when it does.

Don't rush to get the foal suckling because you want to get back to bed -- a bit of patience may save you endless problems later.

Don't rush to pull a placenta hanging out the rear -- you're more likely to tear it and leave bits behind inside. Some breeds and some individuals are simply slower to get on with things than others.

Do supervise -- and provide gentle guidance -- until the mare and foal are bonded, the placenta is expelled and the foal is suckling. Foals are born pretty much defenceless to infection so they need colostrum early in life and lots of it.

Irish Independent