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Foaling advice sheet

While the vast majority of foaling’s, even in maiden mares, will happen without difficulty or the need for intervention and result in the birth of a healthy foal it does need to be highlighted that birth is a very critical time for mares and foals. They are both put under a lot of stress and therefore if something does go wrong it can be disastrous. It is for this reason that we strongly suggest that you plan for your foaling well in advance and know what you are looking for during the birthing process. Early recognition is the key to providing the best outcome for mares and foals and by knowing and understanding what to expect you can identify what is normal or abnormal and seek to solve them as quickly as possible. These notes should help you to know what to expect during the foaling process but we also thoroughly recommend having one of us out to examine your mare and foal the day after birth to make sure everything is ok.

It is important to keep your mare in a good plane of nutrition. You can gradually increase her feed in the last few months, as foetal growth is more rapid towards the end. However you must make sure not to overfeed your mare. Mares should be not too fat and not too thin. Roughly you can safely increase it by 2% each week aiming for a total 25% increase on her normal feed. The mares should also be kept on a worming program throughout pregnancy but avoid worming in the last month. Exercise is also important for these mares, so they should receive regular turnout into a paddock and the mare’s feet should be kept trimmed and in good condition to support the extra weight she is carrying. You should always avoid stressing pregnant mares. Grouping them into small compatible herds who foal at the same time, or with companions who they get along with can help to reduce stress. All movements should be done at least one month prior to foaling.

Mares should also receive their vaccinations throughout pregnancy. They can stay on their normal annual cycle of Influenza and tetanus vaccination but we also advise giving them a booster for these in the last month of pregnancy. At this stage the extra boost will be in the colostrum and therefore given to the foal. It is advisable to cover your mare with Equine herpes virus 1,4 booster vaccines at 5, 7 and 9 months of gestation. While herpes virus is more of a problem on large breeding farms, it can cause abortions in mares and also pneumonia in foals and therefore we recommend vaccination.


The gestation period for mares is on average 340 days but can be anywhere in the range of 320-365 days. Mares usually (but not always) follow a pattern, so if they foaled a normal early delivery last year you can most likely expect an early delivery this year. The changes in the hormones in the last few weeks of pregnancy bring about a few physical changes in the mare, which can be helpful for us to estimate when foaling will occur. Due to relaxation of the muscles a hollow will develop each side of the tail head. However this may be quite subtle and will be harder to see in well muscled mares.

A more obvious sign is development of the udder. The mammary glands will start to increase in size in the last 4-6 weeks of gestation with most development in the last two weeks. Secretory activity of the udder is variable and some mares will ‘wax up’(honey coloured beads of dried colostrum at the opening end of the teat) several days before foaling whereas others may not. Normally the udder will fill with colostrum in the 24- 48hours prior to foaling. Colostrum is what contains all the essential antibodies for the foal. These antibodies form the foals immune system to help it fight infections. If the mare has been running milk prior to birth, the colostrum may be lost and therefore the foal will need supplementation with plasma to boost it immune system.
Another good sign to look for is relaxation and elongation of the vulva. This will occur when foaling is imminent so close monitoring should be started if it hasn’t already.
Often one of the hardest things is to actually catch the process of foaling. Often they will catch you out and you will miss the whole thing and just find two horses in the stall the next morning instead of one. It is for this reason that is important to be well prepared in advance and many owners use foaling alarms or vigilant checking to monitor their mares for the start of labour.

In the wild horses are prey animals and need to be able to escape danger quickly. This is greatly reflected in the way they foal. They deliver their foals very quickly, usually in the cover of the night and the foals themselves are very quick to rise and be able to run with their mother in just a few hours. Mares will seek out a secure place to deliver their foal and up until the last important minutes of the birthing process they can interrupt delivery to
escape if danger is perceived.

Ideally mares would be foaled in individual grass paddocks, reserved only for that purpose in the springtime when the weather is milder as this is the closest to the normal process. However due to the need to observe foaling mares in all sorts of climates we usually end up foaling mares in large loose box. Boxes should be a minimum of 3m x 3m but the larger the better. It is best for the door to open outwards and for there to be a window so that monitoring can occur with minimal disturbance. CCTV is often used these days and is great to not disrupt the mare. While the majority of foaling’s go smoothly observation is still essential as for those rare times that a mare does get into trouble, quick recognition of a problem can make the difference between life and death.

Clean straw is the best bedding to use for foaling mares. It is soft, warm and is superior to shavings. Shavings are dusty and go everywhere and get stuck to everything, including foals umbilicus and eyes. It is best to lay the straw a day or two prior to foaling and keep it as clean as possible. Boxes should also be as warm as possible and have good lighting.

- Head collar- When foaling is imminent that put a head collar on the mare if you are not sure how she is going to be with a foal. Some mares can be very protective of their foals once they have given birth and can decide that no one is coming near them.
- A tail bandage- Apply this once obvious labour has begun. It helps to keep things clean and out of the way.
- Clean towels- help dry the foal
- Disinfectant- we recommend using a dilute (0.5%) solution of chlorhexidine, or weak iodine. We sell a 4% solution that you can dilute further. Do not use a solution stronger than 0.5% as it can be irritating to the skin surrounding the umbilicus. The umbilicus should be dipped in the solution three times on the first day and then just monitor it afterwards. If it is wet the next day the dip it again but once it is dry you can stop dipping it.
- Warm water
- Thermometer
- VETS PHONE NUMBER- Our emergency number is 07789 684 245
It is always a good idea to have this on hand and even just to notify us that you are expecting a foal in the near future. This way we too can be prepared and be ready to act if needs be.
- Oh and don’t forget your CAMERA!!!

The birthing process is divided up into three stages
Stage One
In this stage uterine contractions start to develop. This stage may take a few hours and it is characterised by behaviour similar to mild colic-i.e. Looking at flanks, lying down and getting up and patchy sweating. Interestingly, mares can control the hour in which they give birth and will halt labour if they are in an environment in which they feel uncomfortable. It is for this reason that they need to be in a quiet sheltered area and while supervision is essential it should be unobtrusive.

The increase in uterine tone with the contractions causes the cervix to begin to dilate and also stimulates the foal to begin to position itself for delivery. Normal position is with both its head and forelegs pointing toward the pelvic canal of the mare. This alignment of the foal is a very important function for delivery, and failure to do so can result in a difficult birth.

Stage Two
This is the quick and explosive stage of the process (It should take 20mins or less). In this stage vigorous abdominal contractions begin to support the uterine contractions already present. These abdominal contractions are necessary to provide the strength required to expel the foal. The passing of a watery fluid (allantoic fluid), which is more commonly known as the water breaking, marks the start of the second stage of labour and at this point the mare can no longer halt the labour. In most cases mares will lie down during this stage but it is not uncommon for mares to get up a few times.

Within five minutes the inner set of membranes (amnion) becomes visible at the vulva. These membranes are milky white to bluish white in colour and look like a balloon. Inside these membranes should be the forelimbs with one foot a few inches in front of the other. If a red membrane appears instead of the milky white membranes then call the vet immediately. This is what is known as a ‘Red Bag’ delivery and can lead to severe compromise of the foal from a lack of oxygen supply.

Next to appear should be the nose of the foal. The shoulders are the hardest part of the process and the abdominal contractions will increase for these. Finally with one or two heavy contractions the hips are cleared from the pelvis and the foal moves out of the mare, usually about to the level of its hocks.

If the amnion (white sack) is still intact and over the foal's head when delivery is completed simply tear it away from the nose of the foal to clear the nostrils and mouth. Normally vigorous early head movements cause the amnion to tear during birth but if it remains intact then you must intervene and tear it or cut it away so that the foal can breathe.

Most mares, if undisturbed, will relax and rest at this point. The umbilical cord will break either when the mare gets up, or when the foal begins vigorous movement and tries to stand. Once the cord has broken, the stump should be treated with dilute chlohexidine or iodine. DO NOT cut the umbilical cord.

The mare and foal should then be left alone to bond. A normal healthy foal will stand usually within an hour and begin nursing within 2 hours. Nursing as soon as possible is beneficial to make sure the foal gets the colostrum which contains the essential antibodies for its immune system.

The second stage of labor is completed when the foal is clear of the mare and should only take 20 mins or less. If the waters break and after 15 minutes either nothing happens, a red bag is present, or if the foal is not presented properly, or part of the foal is out but the rest is taking too long a vet must be called!!! Any increase in the time taken can indicate that there is a problem and veterinary intervention is needed.

Stage Three
The third stage of the labour is the delivery of the placenta. This is accomplished by further uterine contractions to squeeze the placenta out through the birth canal. This should be complete by three hours after birth. If the mare has not expelled the placenta by six hours it is strongly advisable to call the vet. What ever you do DON’T PULL on the placenta to try and force it to come free, it or the uterus may tear and create more problems. Simply tie it in a knot so it is not dragging on the ground and wait for the vet.

Once expelled the placenta should be checked to make sure it is complete and intact. Only one tear should be present where the foal came out, if another piece is torn or a bit is missing then you should call your vet as there may be some left inside the mare. It is really important that no pieces are left inside the mare. This is known as retained membranes and can threaten the life of the mare. The decaying membranes inside the mare set up an environment that promotes the rapid growth of a large amount of bacteria. This large amount of bacteria then enter the blood stream of the mare and cause her to become very sick very quickly. If you are unsure if pieces are missing you can keep the placenta and we will look at it when we come to examine the foal at the post foaling check.

Overall it is useful to remember: 1hr= standing, 2hr= nursing, 3hrs=passed placenta. The foal should be nursing strongly, passing meconium (the dark foetal poo) and be bonded with its mother by 12 hours. Foals will normally sleep and rise every 30 mins or so to drink and urinate. If there is any variation on these, for example, the foal is trying to drink but can’t latch on properly, or the mare is not letting the foal nurse, then call us straight away and we will be happy to provide you with advice or come out and examine the mare and foal, no matter the time of day. Foals are very fragile and can deteriorate quickly if problems are not dealt with quickly.

Early recognition of any problems can make an enormous difference to the prognosis of both the mare and the foal so we strongly recommend a post foaling check for all of our clients, but especially for those who have had little experience with mares and foals. In our post foaling checks we will check both the mare and the foal and also the placenta. We examine the placenta to make sure it is the right colour with no signs of disease that could be affecting the foal, and also that there are no pieces missing. We do a physical exam on the mare to make sure she is recovering well and have a look at her vulva to make sure there are no tears that need suturing. We can also examine her uterus and flush it out to aid cleansing.

We spend a lot of time examining the foal, as foals can be very fragile and go downhill very quickly if there are any problems. We like to watch it and make sure it has a bright demeanour and is performing all of the normal foal behaviours like sleeping, nursing, urinating and defecating. If there if concern that the meconium is not passed then we can administer an enema to clear that and stop the foal from becoming blocked up and colicky. We will also examine the umbilicus to check for infection or hernias and make sure this is drying out normally. If there is any concern that the foal has not received enough of the essential colostrum from the mare then we may also take a blood sample from the foal to measure the level of the antibodies in the foal.

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Loch Leven Equine Practice
South Kilduff Farm
Kinross KY13 0PN
Tel: 01577 840022