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Although February and March may not be the most natural months for foals to be born in this area, it does seem to be the most common. With horses being shown and broke to ride at younger and younger ages, more and more foals are born early in the year so they can be bigger and more mature for their age divisions.
One problem with early foaling is that it’s still cold! Animals’ bodies are designed to try to hold on to a baby until the weather is warmer. For this reason, some mares can hold onto a foal up to two weeks past the due date. The mare’s body keeps the foal longer in order to allow it to become bigger and more mature.
In the same sense, a mare’s body responds to the warmer months by giving birth to the foal almost two weeks early. Light affects the hormone levels of the mare and of the unborn foal. Often times, mares that are kept on artificial lighting are born early and more mature, resulting in bigger babies, according to Dr. Michael Geiger of Horizon Equine Veterinary Services.
If a mare foals early or late, it is typically because of the foal’s maturity level, not because of the mare’s foaling tendencies. When a mare is on lights, her body recognizes the light as springtime. A horse’s hair and hooves grow faster in good weather. Any changes in the mare, such as growing faster, are also felt in the foal’s body. Therefore, when a mare is on lights, her foal will mature earlier in the womb.
Geiger recommends putting mares on a lighting program starting in the middle of November. However, mares that are kept in darker barns (such as a bank barn) will benefit from an artificial lighting program at any time during the pregnancy.
“It’s very similar to seasonal depression in people. The lack of light causes the mares hormone levels to change and her body to prepare for the winter months. If you put the mare on an artificial lighting schedule, her body will think it’s the spring or summer months and she will get ready for foaling and/or breeding,” Geiger said.
Although Geiger recommends a lighting schedule, there are some drawbacks that can come with it. Putting a horse on lights causes them to begin shedding or, if done early enough, not grow a winter hair coat at all. Therefore, a horse that is on lights usually needs to be blanketed during the winter months. Unfortunately, a winter blanket may interfere with a foal’s nursing. The foal will also be born with a shorter hair coat because the lighting prepared the mare’s body for warmer months.
Because of this, Geiger said a foal blanket should be used on the foal once it is up and nursing. The veterinarian also recommends that mare owners keep their barn closed up and draft free during foaling time so the mare does not have to be blanketed, allowing the foal to nurse easily.
Mares that are kept on lights will also cycle better after foaling. This way, the mare can be rebred more easily and quickly after the foal is born.
Geiger does not advise horse owners to use heat lamps in foaling stalls, due to the fire hazard. He has found that keeping the barn, and especially the foaling stall, draft free and extremely dry will keep the mare and foal warm during the foaling process.
Geiger advised horse owners to make sure the mare is on an excellent nutrition plan. “We highly recommend talking to your nutritionist to get a feed program established for you and your horse,” Geiger said. “They need to be on a good growth formula the entire time the mare is pregnant. The foal is growing the entire 11 months, not just the last trimester. A good growth formula is especially important for nerve growth, which starts very early in the womb.” Along with a good growth formula, Geiger also suggests owners put pregnant mares on a high-quality hay that is a grass and alfalfa mix.
“You never want to see a horse’s ribs,” Geiger pointed out. “Especially with broodmares. Once the foal begins milking, the mare can drop weight very quickly. If they lose weight, the body becomes stressed. This stress causes them to not cycle well, which can make it much harder to get the mare back in foal.”
Geiger also explained the importance of having all horse’s teeth floated once a year, especially with broodmares. A horse owner can buy the highest quality feed available, but have a malnourished horse because they can’t actually chew the food. A mare needs the proper nutrition for the fetus to grow correctly, which means she needs to be able to actually chew and digest all her food.
Once the foal is born, the mare can stay on the same nutritional program, which Geiger said is typically a 16 percent protein feed with a mineral balance.
The Immune System
Something that many mare owners neglect with a pregnant mare is routine exercise. Geiger pointed out that exercise on a daily basis will keep the mare’s hormones in natural balance. Routine exercise also balances the mare’s immune system, which is very susceptible to stress during pregnancy.
It is a necessity to keep mares current on all vaccinations during pregnancy. Horizon Equine Veterinary Services recommends giving the rhinopneumonitis vaccination at four, six, eight and ten months during the pregnancy. During the tenth month, Geiger will also give a pregnant mare her yearly vaccinations, including tetanus. This will pass the vaccinations on to the baby through the mare.
Geiger reminds mare owners to always be on the lookout for reactions, especially in pregnant mares. Reactions can range anywhere from muscle soreness and abscesses to a quick allergic reaction, which can include seizures or respiratory distress.
The Stages of Labor
There are three stages of labor, according to Dr. Geiger. The first stage is the nesting stage. This stage may last from minutes to weeks long. During this stage, the mare may circle and pace in her stall, pushing the bedding toward the stall walls, literally trying to build a nest. The mare may also sweat and go through false labor. She may lay down and groan, and then stand up and go back to normal. The mare may also go through rapid mood changes during the first stage.
The second stage of labor is the actual delivery. This stage is fast, lasting usually no longer than 45 minutes. The foal should come out with the front two hooves first, slightly offset with the hooves pointing downward. The nose should come out near the knees, and then the body will naturally rotate slightly so the shoulders can fit through the birth canal. The foal will commonly come out in a ratchet-like manner, coming out two steps and then one step backward. A mare owner should never pull on the foal unless directed to do so by an experienced veterinarian or breeding manager.
Once the foal is out, the owner can tie off and cut the umbilical cord if it does not break on its own. Make sure a helper is holding the mare during this time, as she can become aggressive toward anyone touching her baby. Once the umbilical cord is unattached, a weak iodine solution can be placed around the cord to prevent infection. Only use iodine if it is immediately after the foal is born. If a mare owner finds the foal standing and then uses iodine, it can actually seal bacteria up inside the abdomen. If the foal appears to not have strong breaths after the water bag is removed, the mare owner can use a piece of straw to tickle the inside of the foals nostril to make it sneeze.
It is also beneficial to rub the foal’s body and legs with a dry towel. This will help warm it up and stimulate circulation throughout its body. Although it is important to help a mare or foal in trouble, this is an excellent bonding time for the pair. “It’s tempting to spend a lot of time with your new foal, but the mare and foal need to bond. You can be there to help, but make sure to let them have time to get to know each other. This is their time together. Just watch the foal. Mother Nature has a way of taking care of everything,” Geiger said. He also pointed out that over stimulation during this time can actually cause a delay in the foal nursing and getting the necessary colostrum.
The third stage of birth is the passing of the placenta, which should be passed within three hours of birth. If the placenta is not passed within three hours, call the vet immediately. The mare can founder easily if she does not pass the placenta within this time. The placenta should also be checked to make sure the entirety of it was passed with no large tears (except for the large tear where the foal came through).
The Newborn Foal
Typically, the foal will stand within one to one and a half hours, and will nurse within three hours. If the foal does not want to get up, it may be cold. A hair dryer and several warm blankets will take care of this, Geiger said.
If the foal has trouble getting up and then circles and presses its head against the wall, refusing to nurse off the mare, he or she may have ‘dummy foal syndrome.’ Geiger recommends that a foal with this behavior be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Once the foal nurses, he or she should pass the meconium. If the foal strains, it may need an enema. Geiger recommended a simple Fleet enema, which can be purchased at most drug stores, with gentle pushing of the fluid.
Geiger suggests having a veterinarian perform a mare exam and a foal exam when the foal is 24 hours. A blood IgG should be pulled on the foal, which will check to make sure the foal got enough colostrum and antibodies from the mare. If those levels are low, the foal will likely need plasma through a transfusion.
As long as it is not icy or muddy, the foal can be turned out at 24 hours. At this time, the foal can also start wearing the halter, although not for long periods of time.
Geiger pointed out that Mother Nature has been taking care of mares for many years. However, many mares and foals are invaluable to mare owners, and a loss would be devastating. For this reason, he recommends mare owners keep a close eye on pregnant mares and newborn foals, and have a veterinarian that can, and will, come out on an emergency call. If a mare owner still feels uncomfortable having the mare foal at home, there are various broodmare farms and veterinary clinics that will care for and foal out mares.
If there are any additional questions regarding pregnant mares and foaling, Horizon Equine Veterinary Services has added a new consultation service. Horse owners may visit the clinic every Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at no charge for consultation with Dr. Geiger. Horizon Equine Veterinary Services can be reached at 330/263-7755.
Horizon Equine Veterinary Services operates out of Wooster, Ohio. Dr. Geiger is a graduate of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Horizon Equine currently focuses on lameness issues and reproductive services, as well as general equine veterinary care.