The foaling season brings with it a new crop of foals and preparation for this busy time can begin weeks and months in advance.
The average gestation period of mares is 335-340 days, but can be anything from 320-370 days, which gives first-time owners little comfort as they spend days on end watching their mare closely for signs of foaling.
Most mares will give birth between the hours of 10pm and 2am, a time-schedule that was programmed into wild horses by Mother Nature so that the foal would be ready to move with the herd at daybreak.
However, mares foaling today are far removed from the wild, and vets Liam O'Flynn and Bill Murphy, from the Ballybrown Equine Clinic in Co Limerick, have some valuable advice for mare owners.
"First of all, your mare will need a clean, safe quiet place to foal," says Liam. "A big loosebox with a floor that can be readily cleaned and disinfected is ideal.
"A good, high bed of straw is necessary, as shavings will cling to the wet newborn. Promptly remove manure and soiled bedding from the box and disinfect thoroughly between foalings."
Some mares provide clues that they are about to give birth but others do not and the vets point out some common signs of foaling in the countdown.
"Most mares foal without difficulty and it is usually best to allow the mare to foal undisturbed and unassisted but if a problem is apparent, contact your vet," urges Liam.
There are certain things the owners can do to prepare for foaling, having read the signs of impending birth.
The first is to write down the number of your veterinary surgeon well in advance of foaling and keep it by all phones in case of emergency.
When you spot the first stage of foaling (see panel below), bandage the mare's tail firmly but not too tightly. This will keep the tail out of the way during foaling but must be removed after she gives birth to prevent damage to the tail.
Next, wash the mare's udder, vulva and hindquarters with a mild soap and rinse thoroughly.
Clean and disinfect the stable as thoroughly as possible and provide adequate bedding prior to foaling.
As all this work is ongoing, you can use test strips that measure calcium in the mammary secretions.
"These strips aid the owner in predicting when the mare will foal; sudden increases in calcium are associated with imminent foaling," says Liam.
There are three distinct phases of labour in the mare.
The Ballybrown vets advise mare owners that, in the excitement of birth, it is important to remember some tried and true guidelines:
Twisting and pulling the cord stimulates closure of the umbilical vessels and reduces the likelihood of haemorrhage from the cord stump.
If there is persistent bleeding after the separation, pressure can be applied to the stump for several minutes by squeezing with the thumb and finger.
If a mare looks like she needs help at any stage during foaling or you suspect that the foal is not in the correct foaling position, call your vet immediately. If caught early enough during labour, your vet may be able to reposition the foal for a normal delivery.
"Unless a dire emergency, do not pull the foal," warns Liam. "An exception to this rule might include a backwards presentation, because the foal can suffocate unless delivered promptly.
"But under no circumstances should you ever pull a foal with anything more than your own muscle power, and only during a contraction -- that is, when the mare is straining," warns Liam.
"Incorrect pulling risks damage to the mare's reproductive tract, injury to the foal and premature separation of the umbilical cord, which will deprive the foal of oxygen."
Encourage the mare and foal to rest as long as possible and give them the opportunity to bond undisturbed. Treat the umbilical cord with an antiseptic solution soon after the cord breaks and for several days thereafter to prevent bacterial infection. The Ballybrown vets recommended tincture of iodine.
Observe the mare and foal closely for the next 24 hours.
So what should owners be looking for after the foal is born?
"You should monitor both the mare and foal for several things," advises Liam.
"Firstly, that the foal is breathing normally and is bright and alert to its new surroundings. The foal should make attempts to rise within 30 minutes after birth.
"Make sure the mare is not aggressive and is curious and accepting of her newborn.
"Occasionally a mare will reject its foal and, in that case, the foal should be removed and reintroduced with the mare restrained by a handler. Foal rejection is more common in maiden mares.
"The foal should stand and nurse its dam within two hours of birth and if the foal has not nursed within three hours, call your vet because the foal could be weak and need assistance or medical attention," urges Liam.
Finally, the foal should pass the meconium (the first sticky, dark stool) within 12 hours after birth. If not, the owner may need to administer an enema, taking care not to damage delicate internal tissue in the rectum.
Many foals begin life with weak legs.
"Don't be overly concerned if the foal is down on its pastern and fetlocks for the first day or two of life," insists Liam. "They will generally straighten up.
"However, if you see extreme deviations of limbs or note other physical abnormalities, or the legs do not straighten themselves, contact your vet."
After foaling, the mare should be bright and alert and should be allowed to eat as soon as she is ready. She should also have a plentiful supply of clean, fresh water to replace any fluids lost during the exertion of foaling.
Once the placenta is passed, examine it to make sure it is intact, particularly at the tips of the horns.
"The afterbirth will be Y-shaped and should have only one hole, through which the foal emerged," says Liam.
"If you suspect the mare has retained part of the placenta, call your vet to examine both the placenta and the mare."
During the first 24 hours after foaling, owners could monitor the mare's temperature and other vital signs to make sure they are normal. A raised temperature (outside the normal range of 99.5-101.5 F) could be an indicator of infection.
The foal must receive an adequate supply of colostrum, the mare's first milk in the first 8-12 hours of life. Colostrum is extremely rich in antibodies and provides the foal with passive immunity to help prevent disease until its own immunity kicks in.
If the foal is too weak to nurse, it may be necessary to milk the mare and call a vet to stomach tube the foal with colostrum.