Over the years we have been present for literally hundreds of births at our farm. We will be the first to say that no two foaling events are the same. We learn something new from each birth that occurs. We can, however, see similar behaviors that occur in most of the cases. These repetitive behaviors are what usually end up being referred to as the “textbook delivery”. The one caveat that we will be the first to add to all of this verbiage is that “Horses don’t always read the TEXTBOOK”. With that being said we feel we can now make a few generalizations that usually apply. Miniature horses exhibit most of the typical pre-foaling behaviors as their larger counterparts and many excellent resources are available. We encourage you to go on-line or to your local library and find some additional reading material related to foaling. We will attempt to point out some important milestones during the birthing process. We use some of these as decision makers to evaluate our course of action in case we feel the birth is not proceeding properly. It should be emphasized that many of the decisions made and actions we take are forced upon us due to our inability to obtain emergency veterinary assistance for approximately one hour after calling.
We absolutely advocate observing the expectant mare closely as she approaches her foaling date. Observing, to us, means using some form of alerting system as well as closed circuit TV, sleeping in the barn, whatever it takes. Close observation 24/7 will pay dividends in the long run. We have heard of countless owners who have put themselves on a 2 hour schedule. By this we mean that they check on the mare once every 2 hours. There have been countless phone calls lamenting the fact that, “I checked on her just 2 hours ago and I just went down to find a dead baby laying in the stall.” Obviously the mare had decided to foal between trips to the barn and perhaps the foal failed to get out of the amniotic sac and suffocated. It is absolutely critical, in our opinion, to be witness to the foaling if there is any interest in maximizing the reproductive rate of the mare. Without closely observing subtle behavior changes that the mare makes it is very difficult to evaluate the onset of the birthing event. If a mare is observed closely in the weeks prior to foaling, it is fairly easy to observe differences from her routine behavior that are the telltale foaling signs.
The “Textbook Delivery” is usually described as having three stages. In order to coincide with the popular discussions on this topic we will describe our observations as they relate to these three stages.
Stage 1 – PRELIMINARY LABOR
Stage one labor begins a variable of time prior to the actual active birthing process. During this preparatory phase a number of changes are taking place. Normally the foal is moving into the normal “diving position” with head and front legs positioned at the mare’s uterine cervix. Pressure on the cervix causes the secretion of a hormone called oxytocin which initiates uterine contractions and begins to cause the cervix to open or dilate. These internal changes are accompanied by numerous behavioral changes. Most mares exhibit some or all of these behaviors during this preliminary phase of labor.
RESTLESSNESS – The mare usually paces about the stall more than normal. She may eat a few bites then appear distracted by something and move away from her food only to come back to get another bite and then move away again. She may repeatedly look back at her flanks. She may walk circles in her stall.
PAWING/NEST BUILDING – She may spend time pawing at her bedding with one of her front legs. Mares will frequently stop their restless pacing and paw the stall bedding then begin pacing again.
FREQUENT, LOOSE BOWEL MOVEMENTS – Most mares have a number of bowel movements in the hours just prior to foaling. Generally these are rather loose and more the consistency of “cow pies” than the typical horse “meadow muffins”. The mares also urinate frequently.
LYING DOWN AND STANDING UP – Usually as the actual active phase of labor gets closer, the mares will lay down for short periods of time (seconds to a minute) then get up. She will move about a little and usually lies down again. She may lay flat out, on her side or may keep her head up. She may also roll. Rolling a few times is not cause for alarm, however, if it continues it could indicate that the mare is attempting to reposition the foal. We view rolling carefully and watch the mare to see what occurs next and mark the time when the rolling started to have a point of reference.
YAWNING OR FLEHMEN DISPLAY – Many mares will repeatedly yawn or curl their upper lip in the flehmen display in the hours just preceding foaling.
ACTIVE CONTRACTIONS BEGIN – The mare may actually lie down and begin the rhythmic contractions of labor. These are very characteristic in which the mare lies on her side. Her feet are extended and become rigid in a regular pattern of strong contractions at a frequency of once per two seconds. The pulsations are very strong and unmistakable. Frequently the mare’s head and neck is actually arched backward strongly with each contraction and the mare may let out a corresponding groan or grunt that is audible from some distance away. Under “textbook” circumstances the mare may lie down and make a number of contractions, get up and pace the stall few times, lie down and have another series of contractions, then get to her feet again. This can occur four or five times in routine foalings. The culmination of this series of behaviors is that the “water breaks”. A gush of fluid is audible and a characteristic odor is present on the mare’s tail and legs if the water has been broken. Recording the time the water breaks is an important reference point. As stated earlier, if the mare has been rolling and active contractions have been proceeding for 10 minutes without the water breaking, we would be concerned that there could be birthing difficulties. Since veterinary services are not minutes away, our course of action is to scrub up and palpate the mare’s vagina to determine the position of the foal and take appropriate measures. Those with accessible veterinary services would be well advised to get help on the scene as a precautionary measure if the mare is rolling constantly and the water has not broken within ten minutes.
STAGE 2 – ACTIVE LABOR
This is the stage of labor that is usually thought of where the foal passes from the uterus through the vagina and is actually “born”. The breaking of water is the landmark that usually separates stage 1 from stage 2. Although the mare has already got down to business at the end of the previous stage, this is when the greatest degree of movement of the foal takes place. It is also the time when the greatest number of foaling problems occur.
Usually the mare may rest briefly after the water breaks. She can get up and walk about the stall briefly or lay back quietly without having contractions.
It is our belief that it should take no more than ten minutes after the water breaks for a foal to be born if all conditions are normal.
When the mare resumes contractions, the whitish translucent “bubble” should appear at the mares vulva within a few contractions. This is the translucent cream colored amniotic sac containing the foal. When this appears we usually tear open the sac to determine the foal’s position.
The “normal” position is one front foot protruding with the bottom of the hoof pointing down toward the mare’s feet. Also, the joints of the protruding leg should also be bendable downward toward the mare’s feet. This also verifies that a front foot is present. The second front leg shortly follows then the foals head should be expelled from the mare.
Once the front legs and head have passed out of the mare the remainder of the foal should deliver easily with little effort.
It is imperative that the amniotic sac be removed from the head of the foal to facilitate its breathing. We assist with all of our foalings by routinely tearing the sac away as the foals feet pass through the vulva of the mare. Many unattended miniature foals are lost because they are born uneventfully but do not get out of the amniotic sac after their birth and suffocate. For this reason if none other we believe it is critical to be in attendance for all births.
STAGE 3 – BREAKING THE UMBILICUS / PASSING THE PLACENTA
The final phase of labor deals with making the final break between mare and foal as well as clearing the uterus of the afterbirth and contracting the womb down to its inactive size.
As soon as the foal is born it is our practice to place it in a “sternal position”. This means that we situate the foal so that it is resting on its breastbone with its legs out in front of itself. This is done to expand the rib cage and facilitate expansion of the lungs for breathing.
We also begin to vigorously rub the foal down with a series of towels. This is done for two reasons. First, the rubbing stimulates circulation in the foal. Secondly, the foal is assisted in drying off so that no excess heat energy will be lost by the foal.
Mares vary in their behavior after foaling. Some lie very quietly and rest for a period of time. Others look back to check on their foals and start assisting with the cleanup. Others may immediately jump up to take care of their foal. In any case either the mare or the foal will move and the umbilical cord will usually break. The normal breaking point is about an inch below the foals belly. This umbilical stump is an invitation to a serious infection called “navel ill” if it becomes dirty or contaminated with manure etc. As soon as the cord breaks we immerse the stump in either Nolvasan or strong tincture of iodine. Some believe that iodine can burn the flesh and be harmful. We have tried tamed iodine solutions and ended up with a number of serious cases of septicemia. We have had no adverse effects with strong iodine in many years of foaling. Nolvasan solution has worked well also.
Normally the mare lies down and has a number of additional contractions within an hour of foaling and expels the placenta. The placenta is a saclike structure. It is purplish with lots of veins on one side. This is the inner side that faced the foal. The outer side is an angry reddish color that looks like clotted blood. This is the side that actually attached to the uterus. Attached to the placenta a person will also notice the umbilical cord and the translucent, whitish amniotic sac that the foal was actually enclosed in. It is important to determine whether the entire placenta was expelled from the uterus. This is easily done. Remember that the placenta of a horse is a sac that conforms to the shape of the inside of the uterus. If you examine the placenta you will find a tear in it where the foal came through when it was born. Place a garden hose through this opening and turn on the water. If the placenta is intact, there should be no other holes and it should fill up like a water balloon.
It is not uncommon for mares to be uncomfortable and show signs of mild colic for a number of hours after foaling. After examining the size of the placental sac, imagine the uterus contracting down to the size of a softball in a matter of hours and ask yourself if perhaps there wouldn’t be a few cramps involved. Of course you mothers in the crowd can probably speak about this from firsthand experience. Normally we administer a mild dose (2 cc.) of Banamine to our mares on a routine basis after foaling. This is an anti-inflammatory as well as has mild muscle relaxing properties. In most cases it alleviates any colic symptoms that mares may have.
The successful foaling experience is very rewarding and amazing to behold. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of being prepared and vigilant when the foaling event is at hand. It is also a reality that mal-positions (dystocias) of the foal do occur during the birthing process. There are a variety of different dystocia situations. It is important to realize time is of the essence in a successful foaling. Anything that inhibits the delivery of the foal in an expedient manner (usually within 10 minutes from the breaking of water) compromises the chances for the survival of the foal and ultimately the mare. Frequently people who own horses are accused of being over protective about their animals. In the case of foaling, here is one instance where it is definitely wise to be overly cautious and seek medical assistance early rather than waiting. It could mean the difference between a lively foal racing across the pasture in a few days or a sad memory of a wonderful mare and great plans that had been anticipated most of a year.
If you are interested in reading about a dystocia click here to read about one of the interesting experiences we had delivering a breech presentation foal.