After a flurry of effort last year, you’ve been waiting for months, hoping everything progresses normally, and preparing for when this quiet waiting will abruptly transition to all the excitement and activity that comes with a new foal. That transition comes with some anxiety. Usually foaling happens naturally, unassisted, with no hitches. In the rare instances that something goes wrong, it can go wrong quickly and efficient resolution makes a difference. Being there to notice the problem when it first happens is a necessary step in salvaging future potential from an otherwise disastrous end. Even though most of the time everything goes well and your presence at the event is superfluous, witnessing the miracle of that entrance into life is worth the effort and the lost sleep. It sounds trite to say that, but it’s just the truth, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. This article will review the ways you can monitor your mare to determine when she will foal so that you can be there to observe, and go over the degree that you might assist, if necessary.
Predicting the time of foaling
Gestational length in mares is highly variable, with a normal range of 330 days to sometimes over 365 days. Mares bred earlier in the late winter or early spring tend to have longer gestational times than mares bred in mid- to late summer. This unpredictable variability makes it necessary to employ other monitoring tools to narrow down the date of foaling. It is said that the foal determines the day, but the mare determines the hour. The mare does seem to have some limited conscious control over when she actually foals and tends to give birth when things are quiet and private. Most mares will foal in the middle of the night.
A few tools exist that help you determine the day (or more likely night) your mare will foal. While no physical changes are specific or exact, there are changes that are easy to observe and do give you a heads-up that the time of foaling is approaching. The ligaments over the mare’s hips will soften as her foaling date approaches. You may notice this change as you daily groom your mare in her last month of pregnancy. While you are grooming her, lift her tail and observe her vulva. As foaling approaches the vulva tends to relax and lengthen.
It is a good practice to have a daily glance at your mare’s vulva starting in the last trimester to monitor for abnormal discharge. Horse urine can be thick and contains normal amounts of calcium that will leave a powdery, white residue on the vulva and perineum. If you have a doubt whether what you are observing is normal or not, the normal residue smells like what it is: urine. More concerning will be discharge from the vulva that is more consistent with mucus or pus. Any doubts you have should be immediately communicated to your veterinarian as inappropriate vulvar discharge is a warning sign of potential uterine infection and/or impending abortion. Sometimes these pregnancies can be saved through early intervention and treatment.
An additional early warning sign of an approaching end to the pregnancy, whether premature or at the normal end of gestation, is the filling of the mammary glands. As part of your grooming routine, look down and have a peek at your mare’s udders. There should be no change in their size and shape until, at most, two weeks prior to the earliest predicted foaling date. If they begin to fill up earlier in gestation, this observation also warrants a timely call to your veterinarian to evaluate your mare for impending abortion. Twenty-four to 48 hours prior to foaling, the mare often develops a white, waxy residue on the teats (a phenomenon called "waxing").
Assuming that the mammary glands begin to fill up at the appropriate time, within two weeks of a reasonable foaling date, you can utilize secretions produced by the mammary glands to help predict the foaling date. Calcium increases in the secretions as foaling gets closer. Test strips are marketed for predicting foaling that work like hard water tests and detect the rising calcium concentrations. You simply milk a small amount of fluid from the udder and dip the strips in the fluid. The various kits have instructions for how long to wait to look for a color change. Based on the degree of color change, it gives you an interpretation of how likely foaling is that evening. These kits are very inexpensive and easy to use. They are, however, not very accurate. They do, thankfully, tend to err on the side of caution and falsely warn you that foaling is imminent when it isn’t, rather than telling you it’s a long way off when, in reality, it will happen that night. Consequently, you will more likely spend multiple nights awake needlessly, rather than sleep through the night she foals based on the test results.
A more accurate, precise test is the Foal Watch kit from CHEMetrics (www.foalingwatch.com). This kit has a more involved protocol and complicated pieces of equipment (it’s hard to get simpler than a test strip!), but it comes with a clear set of instructions and after you do it once or twice, you will be proficient at it and be able to complete the test in just a couple minutes. The kit comes with glass vials that have a solution inside which turns a bright shade of blue when mixed with mammary secretions that have appreciable concentrations of calcium. As with the test strips, this is a pretty reliable test for letting you know when the mare will NOT foal. Being exact about the actual night of foaling is more precise with the Foal Watch kit than the test strips, but still not perfect. The instructions in the Foal Watch kit will tell you that as long as calcium concentrations have not reached 200 parts per million (ppm), there is a 98% chance the mare will NOT foal that night, and you can likely just sleep soundly. Once the calcium concentrations reach 200 ppm, there is a 54% chance the mare will foal that first night. If she doesn’t foal that first night, there is an 84% chance she will foal the second night after secretions reach 200 ppm. If she doesn’t foal that second night, there is a 98% chance she will foal the third night. A very small number of mares go longer than three nights. For the few dollars per test extra that you spend on the Foal Watch kit ($42 for 20 tests), compared to the test strips, it’s worth the extra nights' sleeping you’re likely to get.
There are a few options for monitoring the mare for the actual start of foaling. The old fashioned, tried-and-true method is in-person, visual observation. In order to make sure you don’t miss it, you need to check the mare every 30 minutes. Even then, you could miss it, and often do, because natural foaling often only takes 15-20 minutes. Checking the mare every 30 minutes might not allow you to see every normal foaling, but it should ensure that any problematic foalings are detected quickly and allow you to call the vet in time to have the best chance of making a difference.
In today’s technological world, there are multiple options for remote monitoring. High quality digital cameras can be installed that can connect to your laptop or phone and allow you to monitor what is happening in the stall from your bedroom (or place of work).
Using slightly more old-fashioned technology of magnets and radio signals, the Foalert system (www.foalert.com) is a simple, ingenious system that alerts you as soon as foaling begins. A radio transmitter the size of your little finger is sutured by your veterinarian on one side of the mare’s vulva (see Figure 1a, b & c). A second suture is placed on the opposite side of the vulva that is attached to a strong magnet on the transmitter. If that magnet is detached, a radio signal will be sent to a transmitter located within 200 feet (short range device) or 1,000 feet (long range device). The transmitter is attached to a landline that will then let off a local alarm sound and automatically call up to three phone numbers with a prerecorded message (something like “Come to the barn … now!”). The idea is that when the foal begins to pass through the vaginal canal, the vulvar lips will part and the magnet will be pulled off the transmitter, sending the signal. The people that receive the phone call then rush to the barn. This system works very nicely, but there are a couple management details to be aware of:
• Wireless or cellular service has not yet been developed for this system, so it is reliant on a landline being within the range of the transmitter. Purchasing a wireless home phone device, which only needs a power outlet and a cellular signal, can circumvent this difficulty. The Foalert landline is then plugged directly into the device and runs off the cellular signal. Alternatively, you can utilize a WiFi signal in your barn through voiceover internet technology (www.magicjack.com).
• The mare will sometimes rub her hind end up against stall walls and cause the suture material to tear through her skin. You should check the mare’s vulva daily and have your vet replace the suture material as needed.
• Occasionally the mare can rub the magnet off the transmitter, causing a false alarm phone call. It’s nice to be able to quickly visually verify the foaling and then call your vet (assuming they are one of the three phone numbers) to confirm the reality of the situation.
• Purchase of this system comes with a couple transmitters ($1,525 for the short-range system; $2,125 for the long-range system), which are marketed as “one-use” but can be used multiple times if the magnet is replaced shortly after it detaches. This can be accomplished by cutting the suture and removing the transmitter after foaling is complete or (even better) keeping a spare magnet from an old transmitter and replacing it on the active transmitter in the mare as soon as you get to the barn for the foaling.
Using a different tactic, the Breeder Alert system detects when the mare is lying down for longer than usual (www.breederalert.com). A transmitter is attached to the mare’s halter. If the mare lays down in the “foaling position” for longer than 13 seconds, a signal is sent to a telephone dialer (similar to what was described for the Foalert system) and to a pocket pager, which has a range of one mile of clear terrain from the barn. Up to 20 transmitters can be used on one system and the pager can tell you which mare is sending off the signal. This system is less expensive ($465 for the complete system), but has the disadvantage of multiple false alarms. Every time the mare lays down for longer than 13 seconds, an alarm may be sent. This makes for potentially a lot of wasted time running to the barn to check mares that are merely tired and resting. If the mare does not lay down for long enough, then foaling will be missed. As mentioned, most of the time foaling goes smoothly and all you need to do is sit back and observe the miracle. If something goes wrong, however, quick action is necessary if there is any reasonable chance of rescuing the foal. How to correct the many possible entanglements a foal can get itself into with those long limbs and neck is beyond the scope of this article and is best attempted by someone with experience, like your veterinarian. Every broodmare owner, however, should have an idea of what is normal and what is not, so that they are ready to call the vet quickly when needed. The first thing you should see is one hoof shortly followed by a second hoof a few inches back, and then closely followed by the nose. All of these will likely be covered in a pinkish/whitish translucent membrane (the amnion). If instead, you see a velvety red bag protruding from the vulva, chances are very high this is a different membrane, called the chorion (see Figure 2). That is a bad sign and requires immediate action! You should keep a clean pair of scissors near the stall for this purpose. Go quickly to the mare and feel the red, velvety bag. You will feel the foal’s hooves underneath the red tissue. Take the scissors and cut through the bag and pull it back over the foal’s nose. Then get on your phone and call your vet and say that you have a “red bag delivery.” This means that the placenta separated from the uterus prematurely, leaving the foal without a maternal source of oxygen before it had a chance to access oxygen from the atmosphere. Essentially, the foal was suffocating. If it is successfully delivered, the lack of oxygen for that period of time will have caused temporary brain damage and it will be a “dummy foal,” unable to nurse properly and obtain the necessary colostrum to give it immunity to the pathogens of the outside world. It will be highly susceptible to bacterial infection, sepsis and death. Your vet will need to give it colostrum via a nasogastric tube or hyperimmunized plasma. If these foals can get over those first few days, they generally do fine.
If foaling is proceeding normally, with one front leg slightly in front of the other and the head following closely (see Figure 3), you may be tempted to assist. This isn’t necessary, but also doesn’t harm the mare, so long as you only apply gentle, manual traction and pull in a downward arc when the mare is, herself, having a contraction (see Figure 4). Never, ever hook up a tractor or use any other mechanical methods of traction to pull a foal. If the foal’s shoulders have not cleared the mare’s pelvis yet, pull first on one leg and then alternate to the other. Once the foal’s shoulders have cleared the mare’s pelvis, the rest of the foal usually comes out very quickly and without resistance.
Your vet will want to come evaluate the new foal. At 24 to 48 hours after birth, your vet should check the foal’s immunoglobulin levels (specifically IgG) to detect if the foal got enough immunity from colostrum or plasma infusions to safely ward off environmental infections. A physical exam will look for other anatomical abnormalities and give you a general idea of the foal’s overall health. The vet should also evaluate the mare, not forgetting to check her uterus and make sure it is repairing itself and clearing all the post-foaling fluid in a timely manner to be fertile and ready for a new pregnancy in the current season.
The most important things you can do to prepare for foaling is to be present, to know what is normal and to get help quickly when things are not. Most of the time, it all goes according to the grand plan and leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty good place where miracles still occur, even in the humblest of circumstances.