Keeping an eye ondelivery of healthy foals

Caitriona Murphy

Although most mares will give birth without help breeders must be vigilant for possible foaling complications

While 95pc of mares will deliver their foals without any difficulty, many breeders become anxious when their mares' due dates are up.

Even though most mares need no assistance, it is important to have someone observing the foaling process.

Here, Teagasc equine specialist Wendy Conlon outlines the three stages of labour and describes what happens to both the mare and foal during each stage, as well as what the breeder should be doing at each stage.

"Make sure that if the mare was stitched that she is opened before she is due to foal," Wendy says.

Stage 1

"The first stage of labour is all about preparation and takes anything from one day to one hour," she says.

The mare starts to become more restless than usual and may start pawing at the ground or pacing around. She may develop patchy sweat on her chest and behind her elbows and could have an increased temperature. The mare might look anxious, glancing at her flanks and frequently passing dung and urine.

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In stage one, the foal enters the birth canal, extending its front legs and head into a 'diving' position.

"Oxytocin is the hormone that is released to stimulate the uterus to contract. When the concentration of oxytocin becomes strong enough, the placenta will break at a weak point near the cervix and the fluids will spill," says Wendy. "This signals the arrival of the second stage of labour."

Stage 2

The second stage of labour is delivery, which usually takes 15-20 minutes but can take up to an hour. The breeder should watch from outside or quietly enter the mare's stable.

The mare's waters will break, seen as a thin yellow-brown liquid discharged from the vulva. She may lie down or stand and lie repeatedly. Once the water has broken, events must go forward, so with each contraction you should see progress.

Within around five minutes of her water breaking, the white bubble-like amnion appears between the lips of the vulva.

"If the amnion hasn't broken after 10 minutes, carefully tear it open with your fingers," she says. "If instead of the amnion you see a velvety red membrane, then the entire placenta has become dislodged and is being delivered with the foal. This condition, known as premature separation, can lead to suffocation of the foal.

"Rupture the membrane with blunt scissors so delivery can continue. In this case, prompt delivery of the foal is critical."

As the foal emerges from the birth canal, he should be presented with his head sitting on his forelegs. The front hooves should appear soles down, with one foot slightly ahead of the other. His legs should continue to emerge, with the nose just over the knees. Once the shoulders appear, the mare will probably take a rest and her next push should complete the birth.

The breeder should immediately clear any obstructions from the foal's nostrils.

"After delivery, leave the umbilical cord unbroken for blood to return to the foal from the placenta," says Wendy. "Saturate the foal's navel stump with iodine to stop infection."

Monitor the newborn's condition. A healthy foal should be up on its feet within 20 minutes, so if it hasn't made much progress in an hour, call your vet.

Stage 3

The third stage of labour is the recovery stage, and takes between one and three hours.

During this phase, the mare rests and nuzzles or licks her foal, before getting to her feet and encouraging the foal to find her udder.

Immediately after being born, the foal should shiver and rustle into the sternal position -- sitting up on his chest bone. He should stand and nurse his mother within two hours of birth.

"If the foal hasn't nursed in two to three hours, milk the mare by hand and give the foal his first feed from a bottle," says Wendy. "If he doesn't suck, have an experienced person give him colostrums by stomach tube."

The mare completes the birthing process by passing the placenta. Don't be tempted to pull out the placenta as you risk tearing it and leaving part of it behind in the mare. However, you can tie the placenta in a knot so that it doesn't drag on the ground.

Retention of foetal membranes or retained placenta is one of the most common post-foaling problems in the mare and can lead to complications such as acute metritis, septicaemia, laminitis and even death. Call the vet if the placenta is not expelled normally within three hours.

Foaling problems or dystocias can occur when the foal is not presented in the normal 'diving' position.

"For some abnormal presentations, veterinary assistance would be ideal, but there may be no time to wait for outside help to arrive," says Wendy.

• Normal breech: In what is known as a normal breech, the breeder will see the soles of the feet facing up, but no head, and the foal's hocks will follow instead of the knees.

"Delivery must be rapid because of the danger of suffocation should the umbilical cord be pinched," says Wendy. "Once both hind feet are out as far as the hock, the chances of a successful delivery are excellent, so long as the stifles do not hang on the rim of the pelvis."

• Elbow lock: One or both feet are back close to the muzzle with one or both elbows caught on the rim of the pelvis. This forces one or both shoulders upright, jamming the birth canal.

"Brace your hand on the foal's head and pull each leg forward," says Wendy. "Staggering the forefeet by about six inches narrows the foal's torso, giving the wider parts a better shape to get through."

• Hip lock: The foal seems to get hung up after his shoulders have cleared, threatening to pinch the umbilical cord and cut off the oxygen supply.

"As soon as the next contraction begins, apply steady downward pressure on the front legs towards the mare's heels," she says. "If necessary, gently rotate the foal from side to side to help free his hips from the mare's pelvis."

There are certain circumstances in which veterinary assistance is essential.

"For the following dystocias call your vet, then get the mare up, walk her slowly and wait for the vet to arrive," she insists.

• Abnormal breech: You can see the foal's tail but no legs or head. There is no way the foal can be delivered from this position. The foal must be pushed back in by the vet and the hind feet pulled out first.

• No head visible: The forelegs are emerging, but the head is pulled back and locked in the mare's pelvis. The foal will have to be pushed back in and the head brought into position before delivery can proceed.

• One foot, head visible: The second forefoot is back, possibly pressing where the next contraction could cause serious damage to both mare and foal. Find and cup your hand over the foot and guide it to safety as the foal is delivered.

• Head, no legs or feet: This is the worst possible position, where both forelegs are caught on the mare's pelvis and must be brought out. The head and neck must be pushed back in and forefeet retrieved by hand or with obstetrical straps.

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