Foaling Alarms

The birthing event is one of the most amazing processes of Mother Nature. We can’t help to be awestruck by the event each time it occurs on our farm. It is one of the most invigorating experiences we have known. We have also been stricken by the other end of the spectrum of emotions by arriving at the barn in the morning to find a mare has foaled and the foal had perished. The reason for the death of the foal was it simply could not struggle to free itself from the amniotic sac. As a result an otherwise normal foal simply suffocated after a normal birth due to our lack of attendance.
 
Anticipating that special foaling for eleven months only to have the long wait end with a dead foal or the mare is discovered with a dystocia (mal-presentation) and a life-or-death situation for both she and foal, is cause to investigate options for being warned when a mare begins to foal.
 
We have heard a number of strategies from folks when they anticipate a mare is about to foal. They make periodic trips to the barn to observe the mare. Most frequently people say that they go to the barn on a two hour schedule. Others who are more energetic go to the barn on an hourly basis. It is our understanding this is a practice that has been passed down from experience with large horses. We know from our experience with foaling in both full-sized and miniature horses that the foaling event for miniatures occurs much quicker under normal circumstances. Most of our routine foaling are completed within 5 minutes from the onset of active labor and rarely longer than 10 minutes. As stated above, miniature foals frequently remain in the amniotic sac in a normal birth. For these reasons, it is easy to see why trekking to the barn on an hourly basis is not an adequate system for monitoring the mare’s progress toward foaling. If a person goes to the barn and spends 5 minute observing the mare, that leaves 55 minutes of the hour when the mare is unobserved. Assume a mare has a routine foaling that takes 5 minutes. The foal emerges but remains encased in the amniotic sac. One can see, conceivably, there can be as many as 45 minutes before the foaling would be discovered and the resultant foal would no doubt have died of suffocation. We have also heard of people who have taken up residence in a stall adjacent to an expectant mare. Believe it or not, they have slept through the foaling. I’m embarrassed to divulge this inner secret but I was talking on the telephone in our tack room with the door open. A mare went down, not 15 feet from me in direct sight. She proceeded to have a foal without my knowledge. Fortunately, there were no complications. Did I feel stupid!
 
For those who are concerned about maximizing their chances for successful foaling there are alternatives available. If you haven’t read our discussion related to Milk Test Strips, you may find this information useful as one source for determining you mare’s time of foaling. We have installed a closed circuit TV system in our barn and have cabled the signal from the cameras to our house. If nothing else, the cameras provide 24 hour a day observation of the expectant mare if she is kept in a foaling stall. Closed circuit TV has the limitation that it requires someone to remain awake at all times to keep an eye on the mare. This may be a feasible proposition with one or a few mares whose foaling dates are spaced out over time. For any farm that has a number of horses to observe through a typical three+ month foaling season, the lack of sleep for foaling attendants can be a major problem. Closed circuit TV systems can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on how elaborate the system. Closed circuit TV is easily obtained from security or surveillance companies listed in the yellow pages of the phone books. Occasionally, electronics super-stores have simple closed circuit systems available for very reasonable prices.
 
In the early ’80s we became aware of specialized electronic devices that had been developed specifically to “notify” of a mare that is foaling. Since that time we have utilized three of the systems that are available. All of these systems are designed in a similar manner related to how they relay information. There are two primary components and an optional third component. Each system has some form of triggering device that is with the mare. When the mare begins foaling this triggering device sends a signal to a “base station”. The base station receives the signal from the mare and either sets off an alarm in the barn or transmits the signal to the third component of the system, a pocket pager or phone dialer depending on how the system is configured.
 
TECHNO-JUNKIE
 
Joanne, I sware, is somewhat of a “techno-junkie” when it comes to any new fangled do-dad for her horses.  So as a result every time she has heard about a new form of birthing alarm she has seen the NEED to acquire one.  Anyway, over the years we have invested in and used most of the different types of alarm systems that have been developed.  So please understand that as we discuss each of these systems that it is based only on our personal experience.  Certainly we would encourage anyone who is contemplating using an alarm system to fully investigate all of the different types and talk to others who may have used each of them before making a choice.
 
All of these systems are well constructed and dependable in the manner in which they transmit their signals. The major differences are the manner in which the first component, or triggering device is attached to the mare. Our personal pros and cons for each are as follows
 
BREEDER ALERT or EQUIPAGE
 
These systems (two brands) are centered around a small transmitter about the size of a package of cigarettes carried in a pouch on the underside of a halter. The “pouch” fits flat against the bottom jaw of the mare. The system works by utilizing the mare’s normal foaling position to trigger the alarm. The triggering device is in ready mode while the mare goes about her daily activities. She can graze, eat hay or grain and proceed about any normal activity with this device fastened to her halter. When she lies down in the horizontal position, the device is activated. If she remains in this position for more than 15 seconds, the alarm is sounded. The mare must remain within about 200 feet of the base station to trigger the alarm. Additional “pouches” can be purchased so more than one mare can be wearing a halter at a time.
 
PROS & CONS – This system is easy to use in that it only involves placing a halter on the mare in order to have her monitored. There are no invasive procedures as with the other systems described. It has been very serviceable over years of duty. The pouch transmitter has a replaceable battery. The one major drawback of this system comes if a mare tends to lie down and sleep. It is obvious that every time the mare goes to sleep, the alarm will be sounded. A false alarm is given. This system waits for 15 seconds to send a signal. If the mare’s head remains out flat for more than 15 seconds, the alarm sounds. The device continues to signal the pager for approximately 90 seconds if the mare’s head remains prone. After 90 seconds, the signal stops. If the mare lifts up her head, the system is reset and it will trigger the pager the next time that the mare lies out flat. We have had mares that will lie down three or four times per night. They may lay out prone for 5 or 10 minutes a number of times during each of those sessions. Each time she lies out flat, the pager goes off. You can imagine what it can be like if this device is on three mares who lie down frequently. It is almost imperative to have a closed circuit TV system coupled with this device. If we were unable to verify whether a mare was sleeping or not, we could end up being on a merry-go-round to the barn checking the signals that this device is giving.
 
In our situation with multiple mares being monitored at once, we have become so warn out by false alarms and resetting this device, we have turned off the pager saying to ourselves that we will wait the 90 seconds until the base unit quits sending signals. What has happened, however, is we have fallen asleep due to fatigue, failed to turn the pager on, a mare foaled unattended, and we have lost the foal. The false alarm circumstance must be addressed when utilizing this system. Some folks take shifts with the alarm while their partner sleeps.  Some folks (if they have the luxury) stay up all night while someone else monitors the pager during the day while the first catches up on the Z’s.
 
FOAL ALERT
 
This system centers on a triggering device that is sutured across the vulva of the mare. There are actually two attachments to the vulva. The small transmitter measuring approximately 1/2″ square by 2″ long is attached to one side of the vulva with two sutures. A small magnet is attached to the other lip of the vulva with one suture. The magnet measures approximately 1/8″ by 1/2″. The triggering device is armed by the magnet being inserted into the transmitter. This creates a bridge across the vulva by the suture material attached to the magnet. The triggering device sends its alarm signal when the foal passes through the lips of the vulva and causes the magnet to pop out of the transmitter. The mare must remain within about 200 feet of the “base station” in order to cause the alarm to be sounded and pager to be activated. Multiple triggering transmitters can be purchased and used at the same time so that a number of mares can be monitored at the same time.
 
PROS & CONS – The advantage to this system is that there virtually no false alarms. No triggering signal is produced unless the bridge across the vulva is broken and the magnet separates from the transmitter. This is certainly advantageous in a situation where there are numerous mares that are being monitored at the same time. It also provides an opportunity for the foal attendant to get sleep at night and feel confident that she/he will be notified in case of a foal passing through the vulvar lips. There are a number of negatives we have found by using this system. Certainly the act of suturing requires a degree of expertise or veterinary assistance. Inherent with suturing are the potential risks of infection at the sites of the sutures if they are not monitored and cleaned periodically. In some cases, mares become irritated with the transmitter on their vulva and attempt to rub or itch it. Obviously there is a risk of dislodging the magnet or tearing the device away from the mare. In order to minimize this situation we have heard of folks placing electric wires in their foaling paddocks and stalls to discourage the mares from backing up against fences and stall walls. A daily cleansing of the transmitter area will help the itching.
 
Our other major concern with this system is that of deliveries involves dystocia (mal-presentation of the foal). The incidence of dystocias such as breech birth or one front leg back or a head back is rare in full sized horses. It is more frequent, however, in miniatures. The manner in which this system is triggered, requires that some part of the foal or amniotic sac must pass through the lips of the vulva before the alarm will be sounded. Over the years, we have become very aggressive checking out the position of the foal as it enters the birth canal. We normally do this as the water is broken but prior to any structure coming through the vulva. This short period of time prior to when the mare starts active pushing provides us with a great opportunity to make sure the foal is oriented properly for birth and, if necessary, make corrections to its position. This system, however, does not provide for this opportunity. Either the amniotic sac or a structure of the foal as it passes through the vulva causes the system to send the signal. If there is a mal-presentation, the mare may have been attempting to foal for some period of time prior to the warning being given. We have also experienced a breech presentation foal where the foal’s rump completely plugged the pelvic opening of the mare and nothing was allowed to pass into the vagina. This system would not have notified us of the mare’s predicament in that case. Had we not been notified that the mare was lying down attempting to foal, we would have probably lost the foal and conceivably the mare as well. This system has
 
BIRTH ALERT
 
This system utilizes a small triggering transmitter that is in the form of a “tampon” placed in the mare’s vagina adjacent to the cervix. The tampon is a small cylinder about 1/2″ in diameter by 1 1/2″ long. The tampon in placed in an expendable cylinder of foam rubber that is treated with antibactericidal agents. When the mare approaches foaling, the tampon is expelled from the vagina. The temperature sensitive tampon/transmitter cools off to below body temperature. At a temperature of 98 degrees the triggering devices signals the base station and the alarm sounds. This system comes with a finder that locates a tampon when it drops to the ground. The tampon has a replaceable battery. Unlimited tampons can be purchased to monitor a number of different mares at the same time. The mare can be several hundred yards away from the base station and trigger the alarm for foaling.
 
PROS & CONS – This system also provides a very positive method for alerting about the onset of foaling. False alarms can occur on rare occasions because the tampon may slide out of the vagina but we have found situation can be usually explained away by difficulty in placement of the tampon in the mare. This system normally gives 5 minutes warning prior to actual onset of foaling. The system has worked well at notifying us regardless of whether there was a normal presentation or dystocia. The tampon is usually expelled prior to any actual contractions taking place or the mare’s water breaking. There are some negatives to consider. The placement of this device in the mare is invasive and requires willingness to place the device in the mare’s vagina or have the assistance of a veterinarian. There is some risk of irritation to the vagina by the tampon and the time that it can be left in place is restricted, in our opinion. We have had good results leaving the device in a mare for up to 10 days. Some mares do show evidence of minor discharge from the vagina after an extended period of time with the unit in place. Other mares show evidence of minor blood spotting on the sponge of the tampon upon removal. The anatomy of some miniature mares is incompatible with placement of this unit in a position that will allow it stay in the vagina. In these cases, the unit will pop out and give a false signal. Usually this will happen in a matter of hours after it has been installed. Infrequently the tampon will remain in the mare during the foaling process. We have had this occur on a couple of occasions. In both instances, the tampon moved to the outer portion of the vagina and cooled off enough to trigger the alarm. It was later found tangled in the afterbirth. We have found it advantageous to use this system closely with “milk test strips”. The milk strips give a reasonable general prediction as to how the mare is progressing toward foaling. When she gets close, we install the tampon. Normally the tampon is not in the mare for more than a few days. WE DO NOT KNOW IF THIS SYSTEM IS STILL BEING MANUFACTURED.
 
We are also aware of other devices that are in the form of surcingles that fit around the mare’s girth. We have no direct experience with these devices or how they work, therefore, reserve any comment on them.
 
All of these electronic birthing systems are definitely positive additions to any broodmare manager’s set of “tools”. They are not, however, the panacea for all birthing situations. We have found that we continue to rely on a wide variety of indicators to get a handle on when our mares foal. We continue to use our observation of the mares behavior, changes to her body, changes to the color and consistency of the milk, as keys. The electronic devices are wonderful additions and used to augment the old standbys of vigilance and “seat of the pants” signals when it comes to predicting foaling times.