The Foaling Experience

Over the years of watching the births of a number of foals at Glenfox I 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 I will be the first to add to all of this , is that
"Horses don't always read the TEXTBOOK". With that being said we can make a few generalizations that
usually apply. I will 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.

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. This is not sufficient. Often the mare decides to foal between trips to the barn and the foal fails to get out of the amniotic sac and suffocates. 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 signs of foaling.

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 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 the hormone 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. 

  1. 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.
  2. PAWING/NEST BUILDING ‐ She may spend time pawing at her bedding. Mares will frequently stop their restless pacing and paw the stall bedding then begin pacing again.
  3. 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 droppings. The mares also urinate frequently.
  4. 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 ( from seconds to a minute) then get up. She will move about a little and usually lay 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.
  5. YAWNING OR FLEHMEN DISPLAY ‐ Many mares will repeatedly yawn or curl their upper lip in the flehmen display in the hours just preceding foaling.
  6. ACTIVE CONTRACTIONS BEGIN ‐ The mare may actually lie down and begin the rhythmic contractions of labor. The mare lies on her side with her feet extended and rigid with 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. 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.
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. 

  1. 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. Most mares position themselves on their sides, with their legs fully extended during the delivery of the foal; however, some insist on standing. Standing mares should be held to prevent excessive walking. If the mare delivers standing, someone should catch the foal and gently lower it to the ground to prevent injuring the newborn foal and to prevent the tearing of the umbilical opening in the abdominal wall and predispose the foal to a hernia. If the mare lies down next to a wall or fence, make sure there is plenty of room for the foal's delivery, or cause the mare to rise and allow her to select another location not so close to an obstacle.
  2. When the mare resumes contractions, the whitish translucent "bubble" should appear at the mares vulva within a few contractions.It should take no more than ten minutes after the water breaks for a foal to be born if all conditions are normal. If birth does not occur within a reasonable length of time (20 to 30 minutes) after strong contractions begin or shortly after the rupture of the water bag, malpositioning may be present, and a veterinarian should be notified. Presentation of the foal's front feet occurs first in a normal delivery, soles down, relatively close together, one slightly more advanced than the other to help reduce the circumference of the foal's shoulders and easing passage through the pelvis, the nose of the foal should be tucked between the extended forelegs near the knees. Suspect malposition of the foal and call a veterinarian when:
  • only one foot is present
  • more than two feet are visible
  • the nose does not appear
  • the feet are upside down
  • the nose appears without the front feet

3. Once the front legs and head have passed out of the mare the remainder of the foal should deliver       easily with little effort. The mare will usually rest after the passage of the shoulders and again after the passage of the hips. Do not pull on a foal progressing slowly through the vagina. If birth progress stops for more than ten minutes in one spot, apply gentle traction times with the contractions. If the foal feels "locked in," rotate the body one way, then the other; this might allow the hips to slip through the pelvic opening of the mare. Call a veterinarian if this technique is not immediately successful. Walk the mare until the veterinarian arrives.

Bubble appearing at the mares vulva      Appearance of foals feet

The Mare may need help with a big foal

The umbilical cord still attached to mare and foal.        Placing the foal in ‘sternal position’.


4. 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. Often, unattended 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.


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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 an iodine solution.
  4. 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.
  5. Once the membranes are expelled, these contractions continue to decrease the size of the uterus.Colicky symptoms may also appear at this time which are caused by contractions of the uterine muscles. The placenta is expelled inside out. Membranes which are not expelled within four hours are considered retained. Do not pull on these retained membranes. Tie them near the mare's vulva to keep the mare from walking on them. A vet should treat a mare with retained afterbirth to prevent possible uterine infection and laminitis. Membranes which are passed should be saved in the plastic bag for the veterinarian to examine. Retained placenta, even small pieces, could impair future breeding ability. 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.
  6. During this time, the mare will clean the foal which should be trying to stand. Foals not standing  withinthe first 2 to 4 hours after birth may be weak or abnormal and may require special treatment. If this happens, the mare should be "milked out" and the foal fed 4 to 8 ounces. This will stimulate most of the slow starters. The foal also needs first milk (colostrum) before 6 hours pass to help combat disease and to aid in eliminating fecal material which has built up in the intestinal tract. "Milking out" a small amount of milk by hand will open and clean the teat ducts. Check the teats for soreness. Some mares will not accept their foal readily if their udder is inflamed. Once on his feet, the foal will generally find his way to the udder. Let the foal find the teat himself; to help him by forcing his head is futile. Maiden mares should be held during this first nursing in the event they become anxious and kick at the foal.
Mare licking her foal Bottle feeding ‘Colostrum’ from a mare that leaked .




7. An enema to help the foal pass meconium (sticky feces in the rectum and colon) is a preventive step
because retained meconium in the intestine can harden and become impacted, causing the foal to strain
to defecate . A word of warning regarding the enema: lubricate the tip and gently place no more than 1
inches inside the anus and all care should be taken to prevent the perforation of the intestine. The foal
usually passes pieces of yellow‐ brown manure (meconium). If the foal fails to defecate, becomes
constipated or colicky, call the vet.
8. Within about 12 hours after the birth ,a veterinarian should examine the mare and foal for abnormalities
such as cleft palate, heart defects, cataracts and musculoskeletal disorders. At this time, the
veterinarian can also vaccinate against tetanus and administer any appropriate antibiotics. He should
also examine the mare for damage to the reproductive tract and palpate the udder to check for mastitis.
The mare should receive a tetanus toxoid injection at this time. The placenta should be examined by the
vet to make sure it is completely intact.


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 paddock in a few days or a sad memory of a wonderful mare and great plans that had been anticipated most of a year.