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Normal signs of behaviour before and including foaling in mares

This mare foaled in the afternoon, four hours after these photos were taken.

This mare foaled in the afternoon, four hours after these photos were taken.

Veterinarian Angela Smith BVSc outlines the foaling process and signs to look for in a mare who is about to deliver.

Before foaling

One of the first signs is the distended udder. During the last month the udder usually enlarges. The mares udder may fill up at night while she is resting and shrink during the day while she exercises. When the udder remains full through out the day then foaling is probably imminent. The mare should be watched closely.

Filling of the teats

as the udder enlarges. The upper portion of the teat is stretched in a manner that is difficult to distinguish it from the rest of the udder. The lower portion of the teat remains small but as foaling gets nearer the teat enlarges and is reflected outward by the increasing pressure from within the udder.

Relaxation of the muscles of the pelvic area

- relaxation of this region usually occurs about 3 weeks prior to foaling. These changes allow the fetus to pass through the birth canal with greater ease. This process is gradual and may not be seen on all mares but in most a distinctive change in the appearance can be seen. A hollow develops on either side of the root of the tail as muscles of the hip and buttock area start to relax. This area can be examined each day when the mare is checked. The abdomen becomes increasingly pendulous as it enlarges and about a week prior to foaling it may appear to shrink as the foal shifts into position in preparation for foaling. This change is not always seen in all mares.

Waxing 

- when wax like beads appear at the end of each teat ( they are droplets of colostrum). They can appear anywhere between 12-36 hours prior to foaling or a week or two before foaling, and sometimes fails to occur in some mares. So this not a reliable method of predicting foaling occurrence as it can be so variable between individual mares.

Relaxation of the vulva 

- Within the last 24-48 hours before foaling the mares vulva can be observed to swell and relax in preparation to stretching several times it’s normal size to allow passage of the foal.

Milk flow

- Appearance of wax on the end of the teats can also be accompanied by droplets of milk. Although wax and milk secretion usually indicate delivery will occur very soon, many mares foal without either . While some mares drip or stream milk for several days prior to foaling. Unfortunately, mares that stream milk prior to foaling lose large amounts of colostrum, the vital first milk that contains antibodies and a laxative for the newborn foal. Mares showing spontaneous milk flow should be closely watched , not only for the onset of foaling but also to determine how much colostrum is lost during this period. If the mare is losing a significant quantity it should be collected and frozen. Colostrum can be thawed and fed to the new born foal at birth.

Restlessness

- Many mares exhibit behaviour changes-during the last few weeks of gestation a mare can become cranky, restless and as she enters the 1ststage of labour , the mare usually wants to be left alone. She may walk continually in pasture or stall, switch her tail, look at her sides, kick at her abdomen. These signs are also indicative of colic, but if the mare eats, drinks , defecates, urinates frequently then the first stage of labour is probably in progress.

Sweating

-As labour approaches the mare often breaks into a sweat. The mare’s neck, flanks may feel warm and damp or a general sweat over all the body may occur.

Parturition, or the process of foaling

The progression of the physical changes that occur in foaling are divided in to three distinct stages.

-stage one – positioning of the foal

-stage two – delivery of the foal

-stage three – expulsion of the placenta

The ability to recognise each stage and to follow the normal chain of events that occur during each phase allows the attendant of the mare to be able to assess whether that mare needs assistance. To be able to recognise if the second or third stage of labour is delayed or altered in some way from the normal expectations. Fortunately ~ 90% of mares foal normally.

First Stage

-this is when the foetus gradually shifts from a position on its back, rotating until its head and forelimbs are extended in the birth canal. The outward signs are, restlessness, sweating of the flanks, as the uterine contractions become more severe, the mare may become very nervous, pacing, walking fence lines, looking at her flanks, kicking at her abdomen, she may paw the ground, may even get up and down several times to help position the foal. Pastured mares usually move away from other mares and may seek an isolated corner of the paddock. While some mares show few signs during this stage others show marked distress for several hours. Transitory contractions that occur without cervical dilatation cause the mare to show signs of distress then ” cool off ” several times before the foal actually moves into the birth canal. Once these signs are recognised the attendant should check the mare then observe from a discreet distance.

The end of the first stage is marked by rupture of the allantoic membrane and a sudden release of allantoic fluid. A process that helps lubricate the birth canal. This usually occurs 1-4 hours after the onset of the first stage.

Second stage

- delivery of the foal is characterised by very strong contractions of the abdominal and uterine muscles. During this period the mare usually positions herself on her side with her legs fully extended to facilitate voluntary straining that aids her expulsion efforts. She may get up and down several times to help position the foal or may even move around with the foals head and legs protruding. If labour continues while the mare is standing someone should catch the foal and lower it to the ground gently to help it avoiding injury. If the mare should lie down next to a wall or a fence the attendant should make sure there is plenty of room for the foals delivery. If the mare is too close to an obstacle the mare should be made to get up and allow her to find a new position, where the perineal region is free.

A strong, healthy foal is the goal of all breeders.

A strong, healthy foal is the goal of all breeders.

The foal is normally presented in an upright position, with its head tucked between extended forelegs. (This the time the attendant usually checks the foal’s position by inserting an arm into the mare’s vagina after she breaks water. This should be done with a sterile gloved arm or after the arms are suitably scrubbed thoroughly in the appropriate antiseptic solution). As the head and neck appear, enclosed in the bluish-white amnion, the foal’s shoulders pass through the pelvic opening. One foot is usually positioned slightly in front of the other to help reduce the circumference of the foal’s shoulder and there-by ease its passage through the birth canal. After this critical period the mare usually rests for a short time then delivers the rest of the foal with relative ease. The amnionic foetal membranes are usually broken as the foal emerges or as it first attempts to lift its head. If the membrane is not broken immediately after the foal’s delivery the attendant should tear the membrane to clear the nasal passages so the foal can breathe and so as to prevent suffocation of the foal.

After the foal’s hips have passed through the mare’s pelvis the mare usually rests once more. The foal’s hindlegs may remain in the mare’s vagina for several minutes, in this time it allows the foal to receive essential blood from the placenta via the umbilical cord and should not be interrupted. In most cases, the time from rupture of the allantochorion to the post delivery rest period is completed in minutes, but a range of 10 to 60 minutes is considered normal. As the mare rises or as the foal

struggles to stand the umbilical cord usually breaks. Because the foal receives a significant amount of blood from the placenta via the umbilical cord, the cord should not be prematurely ruptured.

Third Stage

-Expulsion of the placenta is the last stage of labour. This usually occurs within three hours. However the normal range is 10 minutes to 8 hours. During this period the uterine contractions continue to proceed in an effort to expel the placenta. The mare will exhibit signs of discomfort.

The placenta is expelled inside out because the contractions cause inversion of the placenta as it comes away from the lining of the uterus. The purpose of these contractions is also to cleanse the uterus of fluid, debris and return the expanded uterus to its normal size.

As this stage may last several hours it may be helpful for the attendant to tie the afterbirth in a knot that hangs above the mares hocks. this will help prevent the mare from stepping on the membranes and tearing them out prematurely but also adds gentle pressure using gravity to aid in expelling the placenta.

The attendant should not attempt to pull the placenta from the mare’s reproductive tract as this could cause tears and leave remnants of placenta that could cause future uterine infections.

Retention of even small pieces of placenta is a potentially very serious condition. Once the placenta is passed it is a good policy to lay it flat on the ground and check it is all in tact.

There is new evidence that suggests that the weight of the placenta correlates to the condition of the mares reproductive tract. and also correlates to the health of the foal. The normal placental weight in light horses is 10 to 13 pounds.

The texture of the membrane is important. If the membrane is thick and tough or if it shows haemorrhagic spots, then placental infection might be suspected. When the placenta has been infected the foal will often show some abnormality at birth. Close examination of the placenta is important, if you have any doubts keep the placenta in a plastic lined and covered bucket with a small amount of water to keep moist till your veterinarian can examine it.

The amnion has a translucent white appearance, while the allantochorion is normally red and velvety on one side and light coloured on the other. The placental membranes consist of the amnion that encloses the emerging foal and the allantochorion.

Sometimes brown bodies of putty-like consistency can be found when examining the placenta they can also sometimes be expelled when the mare’s waters break. These are harmless remnants that are believed to originate from minerals and proteins deposited in the allantoic cavity during gestation.

So in summary the following points should be noted and recorded by the attendant about the placenta.

  1. The time required to expel the placenta after the foal’s birth.
  2. Absence of any pieces (this can simply be checked by filling the allantochorion with water to check for holes or tears).
  3. The condition of the membranes, weight, colour, thickness, and presence of any haemorrhagic spots).

Occasionally the mare can show signs of colic after the third stage of labour is complete. If the pains are caused by cramping of the empty uterus are severe in the mare, veterinary attention may be required to relieve her discomfort during this adjustment period.

Post foaling the mare should be watched carefully for 4 to 5 days after foaling. It is normal for the mare to have a dark red discharge for 6 to 7 days, but if a yellow discharge is seen this indicates infection. This requires veterinary attention.

 

First published on Horsetalk on in 2006.

 

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Comments (19)

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  1. Jenny says:

    Hi.

    My mare is turned out with a stallion and was covered by him on Jan 7 this year, and a couple of days thereafter. She has declined his ‘attention’ ever since.
    We assume she is due to foal anytime now and are preparing accordingly. However, a few horsey experts have suggested that she would not be able to conceive so early in the year as the reproductive ‘cycle’ shuts down at this time and although they have not observed her, they guess she will foal in the spring. The vet did attend her for a scan in early september and on observation he said that she was definately in-foal and to save my money and not worry about a scan.

    She is huge, has softened at her tail area (about 3 weeks) and is definately showing signs of bagging up.
    Now I am getting really confused.!

    I Don’t want to move her away from her friends and bring her home here prematurely, but I dread her foaling outside in the field if I leave it too late.

    Your help or advice please?.

    Thanks,

    Jenny

    • Kayla says:

      Hello you should take her away and have her separate and keep a good eye on her. Hope everything hoses well and Good luck!

  2. Gwen says:

    We also have a mare that was bred early in the year,
    February 6-10, 2012. As we bought her bred and were told
    she was due January 6th, I started preparing a stall for her last
    week, the second week of December. It is her third foal.
    Last week she began hollowing in the hips and the area on the
    absolute bottom of her belly began to swell on both sides of middle.
    I have been keeping a close eye on her as her pasture mate is
    a large, protective Percheron.
    Two days ago, her vulva began to extend, her belly lowered and
    I just noticed at her two a.m. check that where her hips had hollowed,
    is now filled up as though she were straining.
    She has been separated from her pasture mate in a large stall with
    small run of her own every night.
    These are signs that the foal is moving into position.
    I walk her morning and night, for excersize and to assist in
    birthing.
    As a precaution, the mare should be separate. She isn’t going
    to worry about her ‘friends’ when her foal is due. Her mind will be elsewhere.
    Better safe.
    Hope your foal arrived healthy and bright.

  3. Bri says:

    I had my mare bred back in April and had her vet checked and they said she was definitely in foal. But she is due to foal the beginning of March but it seems like her belly hasn’t gotten to big. Most horses ive seen that are in foal have huge bellies, but she doesnt seem to have a big belly. Is there any signs i can look for instead of calling the vet for another ultrasound?

  4. Stace says:

    Bri,

    How long ago did you have the ultrasound? Has the mare foaled before? I would be concerned that she had aborted the foal, if she was not showing any other signs. Any temperament changes? Perhaps call the vet who did the ultrasound and ask their opinion – maybe they will do another at a discounted rate. If all else fails, do the ultrasound. Better to know, especially if she was pregnant and now isn’t – that is a problem to address (why did she lose, when did she lose, cause, prognosis for recovery and/or future foals).

    Good Luck, and prayers for you!

  5. Hannah Dunn says:

    I must undergo a Research Project and I have chosen to do it on the topic of a dam and a foal and the issues they face during a period of 4 months. This will involve the problems they will be presented with during the last month of the pregnancy, the birth and the raising and growth of the new born foal during its first 3 months of life. I will be looking at what are classified as ‘normal’ symptoms during the pregnancy and the process of the birth. This will also include the potential problems which may be faced. I will not however be talking about anything to do with the education and training side of raising a foal. I will merely be focusing on the problems which may be faced and how these could be minimised.
    The question I have chosen is:

    What are the potential problems with pregnancy, birthing and raising of a foal and how can these be minimised?

    could you possibly help by aiding me with some helpful information?

    Thank you!

  6. Mike says:

    My mare is waxing and vulva is long gated but not swollen a lot this is her 1st foal my vet not sure when she was foaled we are guessing she seems to be aggravated paseing fence line and hollow in hip area but no signs of sweating yet I’m checking her nightly around 1AM I have only had horses a few months 1st time owner I m terribly nervous any other signs I can look for in stage one everything I have read nothing real definite

  7. Christine says:

    I have a 10 yr old QH Mare she has a 2.5 yr old filly not with her now but she has had milk now going on 2 weeks. I have not bred her this last year so this is confusing. all I have to do is touch her & she squirts lots of milk.. thanks

    • Krista says:

      I had a mare that was mounted by our gelding pony and she started swelling in the teats and produced milk. It was a false pregnancy. I’ve never heard of it happening to anyone else but I guess it’s possible.

  8. Jerry says:

    Is it possable for a mare to come in heat while pregnatn? I didnt think so but my mare is pregnant and my stud keeps trying to mount her and she acts like she might be in season. I have walked the property to see if she had possable lost the colt but have not found any signs of that.

    Thank you,

    Jerry

    • Racquel says:

      My mare is due in the next two weeks , first time for us too, she was also showing signs of being in season when the boys were e around ,which made me doubt that she was in foal, so I rang the breeder and she told me not to worry too much,that it was more likely to be hormones, she also mentioned that she had a mare due to foal the next day, and as she walked the mare past the stallion… the mare was squirting all over the place, since then my mare is definitely looking like she is in foal and has stopped showing for the boys.

  9. Erenche says:

    How do I know if a horse has trouble foaling?
    I have a mare who is too old to foal and when I look at her body it looks like the foal might have turned. What is the signs that I have to look for? I really do not want to lose her.

  10. Julie says:

    I have a 6 year old mare that was bred by my 2 year old now gelding. I found out in Novemeber that she was due in about 60 days per my vet’s best guess. She is a maiden mare and is starting to show signs of foaling. she has been really nasty (cranky) over the last few weeks. Do you think she could foal earlier. We are not sure when she was bred as this was not a planned breeding and completely unexspected. Any advise would be great

  11. Lori Millsap says:

    Is it normal for made to spot blood before foaling

    • Kelli Howell says:

      My mare is also doing a heavy spotting she’s got milk – not due to end of March but acts like she is ready is this normal?

  12. Sadie says:

    Not all mares get huge when pregnant my mare is on her second baby! And she really doesn’t show till the end.

    I have also got a question. My mare is got the hollow hips, bagged up, and getting ready to foal any time. My question is do I take my stallion out of the pen with her before she has her baby? Or leave him in to protect her from wild dogs as she gives birth? Any help would be welcome.

    • Nancy Deans says:

      I would be afraid the stallion will kill the foal. I would definitely take him out. I have had stallions, and they are way more trouble than they are worth. Always into something.

    • Krista says:

      Sometimes the stallion will be ok but the mare will ususally separate herself when she’s getting close. That way he’s still in reach but I would take him out if you think he’ll bother her AT all

  13. Jan Govaere says:

    In addition to the above mentioned information about foaling mares, you might find it interesting to check some more videos at foalinmare.com, have a nice breeding season,
    chrz
    Jan

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