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Basic Guide to Foaling, What to Expect when Horses Give Birth

Information on how mares give birth. What to do when a mare has a foal. What to expect in a normal foaling situation. Learn about how mares normally deliver foals. When to call a veterinarian, what can go wrong. How foals are born. Learn more about the natural birthing process of baby horses, which are called foals.

Mares are pregnant for 11 months. If all goes well she will then give birth to a healthy foal. Mares very rarely have twins. Once she has had the foal, she is known as the dam of that foal, and the father is known as the sire.

In general mares can foal on their own, the exception being the very stunted miniature horses, who often require assistance. Occasionally something does go wrong and the owner, or veterinarian, must act immediately to save the mare, and/or foal.

Of course every foaling is different, with each mare showing slightly different signs.

Normal Foaling

Normally a mare will start to “bag up”, in the last month, which means she gets an udder. Horse's udders are no where near the size of a cow's. In the final days wax may form on the tips of the nipples and in the day before foaling milk can often be expressed.

She will have gotten quite large, and in the last day the foal may appear to “drop” making her hip bones slightly more noticeable. Her muscles around her rear may soften, and her vulva may lengthen and appear swollen.

The mare who is about to give birth will often become restless, and may go off her feed. In the final moments before foaling she will pace, walk in circles, get up and lay down repeatedly.

When she is about to foal a sack may appear under her tail, she may lay down and the sack will break releasing the fluid to coat the birth canal. The foal will generally be born within an hour. Have your veterinarian's phone number ready!

The mare will have hard contractions – Another sac will come out – this one containing the foal. The foal is usually presented with one front foot slightly ahead of the other, and the head resting on top of the legs. The feet will be pointed downward. If the foal is presented backwards (rare but it does happen) two feet will be presented, but no head – a person must feel to check for knees or hocks, the mare can deliver this way but it is harder and the arc of the foals body is often opposite. Assistance is usually needed in terms of pulling a foal out (call a vet – this is opposite to how one pulls a properly presented foal).

Generally within an hour of the feet being presented the foal will be fully born. The mare will push and often get to the point where the shoulders are out, then rest a few minutes before pushing the rest of the foal out. An emergency situation is if both front legs are presented but not the head, or of only one leg is presented. The veterinarian should be called immediately. The mare should be encouraged to walk around so the foal goes back inside.

If the veterinarian is not close you may have to reach in and reposition the foal yourself. Call the vet to have them talk you through this – or an other experienced horse breeder.

If the foal is presented normally but the mare is making no progress, after 20 minutes you may want to assist (again call the veterinarian for guidance). If the front feet and head are presented, you will want to gently pull the front feet towards the mares hocks, but only in time with her contractions. Be sure to keep one leg ahead of the other as this makes the shoulders narrower.

Note that when the foal is fully born its umbilical cord is still attached and still pumping blood, the mare and foal will usually remain resting while this happens and when the mare stands the cord will break naturally – you should not rush to break this cord. However after it has broken you may wish to dip in in iodine (no rush this can wait a few hours to allow bonding).

It is a myth that a horse will abandon a foal that has been handled, however they prefer to give birth on their own and may become upset with too many people trying to help them. As such it is generally best to stay back and let the mare do the work, helping only if needed. The foal should also be allowed to stand on its own without human help.

mare with foal

photo source

Where to Foal

Most foals are born at night, pasture foaling is fine if the weather is good and predators are not a concern. Otherwise many people put the expectant mother in a foaling stall. A foaling stall is twice the size of a normal box stall. The stall should be bedded with straw rather than shavings. Problems occur in small stalls where the mare does not have enough room to deliver, and may be against a wall. The mare should be brought into the barn, and into the stall, several times in the months before she is due to foal if she is not use to being stabled.

Generally the mares prefer a dimly lit area for foaling, away from activity or other horses, and ideally people should stay out of the stall unless needed. You may wish to wrap the mares tail to keep it clean and out of the way.

Next Step

How to Halter Train a Foal

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Comments (1)
Ranked #4 in Horses

Excellent article on foaling tips. I would sleep in the barn with my mom when our mares were expecting. Horses are so loud at night in their stalls! LOL.

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