There isn’t much more exciting – or nerve wracking! – than waiting for a baby foal to arrive!
My family welcomed our first Miniature Horse foals in 1982, and until recently we spent every single springtime on foal watch, eagerly anticipating our new additions.
And even after all those years and foalings, it’s still super exciting! With so much to think about I thought I’d put together a list of some of the things I wish everyone waiting for a baby knew.
Horses Don’t Have “Due Dates”
Horses have a normal gestational range of 315 to 360 days – that’s well over a MONTH range of potential due dates for a healthy, normal foaling. When we’re talking about Miniature Horses, that range is even bigger. It makes me sad when someone says their mare foaled “two weeks early” so they weren’t watching her yet and something went wrong.
If your mare is at – or even nearing – 300 days gestation then you need to be watching her and monitoring her for other signs of impending parturition.
While full sized horses have an “average” gestation of 340 days, and many breeders calculate estimated due dates for Miniature Horses at 320 or 330 days, just because your mare foals before that doesn’t mean the foal was early. Miniature foals are routinely born at 300-310 days gestation that are full-term, healthy foals, so we need to be prepared for that possibility.
Foaling Happens FAST
Like, you can’t even believe how fast.
Our foundation broodmare, Bunny, was notorious for foaling quickly and sneakily. Once, when she was close to foaling, my Grandad turned her out in the morning, fed her breakfast, which she was excited about and dug into with her usual gusto, and then he continued on feeding the rest of the horses. A few minutes later, his hired man came looking for him, caught up with him around the corner and asked, “Is Bunny’s foal a filly or a colt?”
You need to watch them very closely
There are some tools that you can use to make watching them easier – I wouldn’t try to foal a mare without a camera system so I can watch them on my phone from my bed, or when I have to leave the farm. Beepers and other devices are also available to help ensure you’re there when you need to be. Most of the time, everything is fine, but if it does go wrong your being there can be the difference between life and death.
If it isn’t happening fast, something is wrong
From the time the water breaks, if the foal isn’t delivered in 20 minutes, you need to be helping if you have the experience to do so, AND get a vet there as soon as possible.
There will be a white bubble appearing first – if it’s red, it’s bad. Red means that the placenta has separated early. It’s supposed to gradually release from the uterus as the foal is born, allowing them to continue receiving oxygen through the umbilical cord during delivery. So if you see velvety red, instead of translucent white, the foal needs to be delivered as fast as possible as it is no longer getting oxygen.
Inside the white bubble of the amniotic sac, you should see a foot first, then another, slightly staggered, and then the nose. If you see anything but two feet and a nose, something is wrong and unless you have previous experience, you need a vet to sort it out. If the foal isn’t presented correctly then it needs to be repositioned – don’t just pull, as you can easily cause more trouble.
If the foal is presented normally, you’ll notice that the trickiest spots for delivery are when the head passes, and then the shoulders – after that the foal usually slips right out.
If you do want to or need to help your mare during delivery, pull only when she is pushing, and apply gentle, steady traction towards her hocks. But remember, in most cases, you don’t need to intervene.
Once the foal is out, it should immediately start sputtering and moving, lifting it’s head. You can help clear the nasal passages by making sure the amniotic sac has broken and is cleared from the face, and squeezing your hand down the front of the face and muzzle to clear the nostrils.
It’s best if the mare will stay down for a few minutes to allow as much placental blood to get into the foal via the umbilical cord as possible. I like to drag the foal across the mares hind legs and up beside her, so she is able to turn her head and touch noses, making her more likely to stay down longer. Also, then when she does stand, the foal will slide down her legs and is less likely to end up underfoot.
Check the foal is breathing and within easy reach of the mare, then get the heck out of the stall! This is a very important bonding time, you can find out if you have a boy or a girl later, just make sure all is well and then ooh and aww from outside the stall.
Once the mare stands, the umbilical cord will break. The umbilical stump is very susceptible to infection, so it should be treated with a dilute chlorhexidine solution soon after the cord breaks, and this treatment should be repeated several times a day for their first few days of life. This is a good moment to also find out if you have a girl or a boy!
1 – 2 – 3 Rule
Your foal should be standing within one hour. Try not to help – it’s an important part of the process for them to figure it out on their own. And, they will figure it out! You’ll know if they do need help (and if they do, call your vet) but usually they’ll tumble around adorably for a bit, but be up on their new stilts before you can believe it! Again, best observed from outside the stall, but it’s a good idea to remove water pails or anything else that might be a hazard.
Your foal should be nursing within two hours. As long as your foal has a strong suckle reflex and is actively looking for the udder, do your very best not to help. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get a foal to nurse, and generally human assistance just causes more trouble for them. Unless it’s getting close to the time limit then let them figure it out on their own. The vast majority of the time, they will! If there are any issues, however, it’s time to call a vet.
Your foal should pass the meconium, the first manure, by three hours, and your mare should also have passed the placenta (afterbirth) by 3 hours. If either of these has not occurred, you guessed it, call the vet! Both are emergencies.
Speaking of your vet …
It’s a good idea to have a relationship with a qualified equine veterinarian prior to your expected foaling. Failing that, make sure you have the emergency number handy! While most foalings happen without any issues, life-threatening emergencies can arise very quickly for both foal AND mare.
Even if all goes completely according to plan, it’s a very good idea to have the vet out at 24 hours to check over everyone over. You can save the placenta for the vet to examine, and ensure there are no concerns.
And it is strongly recommended to have your vet do a SNAP test to check that your foal doesn’t have failure of passive transfer. Foals get all their antibodies from the colostrum, the mare’s first milk. They have to get the colostrum and those essential antibodies within the first 12 hours of life or they are at a high risk for life-threatening illnesses and infections. The SNAP test will check the level of antibodies in their blood and ensure they got all they need to thrive – and if they didn’t then your vet can give them a plasma transfusion to replace those missing antibodies before they get sick.
Enjoy your baby!
Be sure to spend lots of time watching your new baby, and scratching their itchy spots, and admiring their adorableness. They grow fast, you don’t want to miss anything!
But there is another reason to watch them closely – in the early days and weeks of life, if anything does go wrong it can become serious very quickly. Any changes in behaviour, diarrhea, lameness, or swelling in the joints or umbilicus all need to be treated as an immediate emergency for the best chance of recovery.
I started this article thinking I’d just put a few little tips and tricks in, and as you can see, I got a bit carried away. It’s just that knowing one of these things might save your mare and foal, and I couldn’t see how I could leave anything out!
You don’t need to be freaked out by all the things that can go wrong.
In the vast majority of foalings, everything goes exactly as it’s supposed to. But by being aware of what to watch for, you’ll be ready if it doesn’t and be able to do the very best for your new addition.
Happy foaling, and please, send me a photo of your new baby! <3