Breeding mares can be one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of the horse industry. It can also be one of the most heartbreaking and financially devastating times when foals are lost at birth. Anyone who has ever had a mare abort or lose a foal during or immediately after birth knows the heartbreak and economic loss that occurs.

The following recommendations for mare care will help to insure a live foal.

Any mare will have a better chance of conceiving if she is in good health. We can contribute to this by providing clean spacious pastures, adequate nutrition, regular deworming (minimum of every eight weeks), appropriate vaccinations (encephalomyelitis {EEE, WEE WNV}, rhinopneumonitis, tetanus, strangles, Potomac horse fever, influenza, and rabies) and have her feet trimmed regularly to insure her comfort.

Prior to breeding a mare should be checked by your veterinarian for general health and breeding soundness. A breeding soundness exam should include minimally a rectal exam, ultrasound and a uterine culture, additional tests may include: uterine biopsy, ultrasound, blood tests for general health, selenium levels, thyroid function and other tests deemed appropriate by the veterinarian. It may be necessary to examine the mare several times rectally to determine her estrus cycle. Alternatively, two weeks of regumate followed by a prostaglandin injection will synchronize most mares. Once her cycle has been determined the breeding farm should be notified of the anticipated days that semen will be needed. Assuming all goes well and the mare is bred and conceives, the importance of taking care of the mare does not end for the next eleven months.

During pregnancy the mare should be cared for as well as she is cared for prior to pregnancy: good nutrition, adequate pasture, regular deworming, regular vaccination as deemed appropriate by your veterinarian, and regular hoof care.

As a mare approaches foaling, care and observation are critical. Occasionally mare owners will relate that they do not observe their mares at foaling time but let them foal in the field and they have no trouble, that this is a natural way of doing things. We are well beyond natural in the way we keep horses. If you are not observing your horses before and during foaling and you have not had a problem, you will eventually.

Most foalings will occur without our interference, however, those that do not, require rapid and knowledgeable assistance. To give the mare the best chance for a successful foaling the following facts should be known and the following steps should be taken.

The length of pregnancy for most mares is approximately eleven months with a range of 315-350 days. Most mares will foal within two weeks of their due date however some will foal at ten months and some will foal later than twelve months. It is important to start preparing the mare for foaling six weeks prior to the due date. The mare should get her final pre foaling vaccinations, her final deworming and her general health should be checked. If the mare has had a Caslick’s operation (sewn up) she should be opened at this time. An inside foaling environment should be provided and the mare should be introduced to the foaling area at least a month before the anticipated foaling date. This should be at least a 12 foot by 12 foot stall but can be a much larger area so long as other horses are not kept in the area with the foaling mare. The area should be free of sharp edges and should not have gaps under the bottom boards that the foal or mare can get their legs under. The bedding should be dry straw so that the foal does not inhale sawdust or shavings after it is born.

As the time for foaling approaches, some of the following things will occur. It is important to remember that many mares did not read “the book” and the things that occur can vary widely between mares so observation is critical.

  • Approximately two to four weeks prior to foaling the mares udder will start to fill with milk (bagging up)
  • Approximately 24 to 48 hours prior to foaling beads of honey colored colostrum forms at the ends of the teats (waxing)
  • Approximately 12 to 24 hours prior to foaling milk may drip or run from the udder. This may be accompanied by a soft swelling of the vulva and a relaxation of the pelvic muscles

At the onset of true labor the mare will usually act nervous and restlessly walk the stall. Usually sweating and increased urination and defecation will occur. The water sac breaking signals the onset of true labor and usually 2 to 5 gallons of fluid are passed. A mare may then rest for 10-20 minutes before she starts to strain to deliver the foal. In most instances it is best to not interfere with the process but some signs that all is not well are non productive straining for 10 minutes, the head only is present, one foot only is present or two feet but no head is present. If any of these signs are observed call your veterinarian immediately.

Typically during foaling the sac that the foal is born in will be torn and fall free of the foal’s head. If this does not happen you should remove the sac from the foal’s head within minutes of birth and wipe out the foal’s nose to create a clear airway. Allow the umbilical cord to break on its own, either by the mare standing or the foal struggling to get up. If the cord does not break on its own you can tie the cord with thick string approximately 2 inches from the foals body an cut the cord farther away from the body than the tie. The navel stump should be treated with an iodine solution to help disinfect and cauterize the end.

Most foals will stand within 1-2 hours and nurse within 3 hours. It is important that the foal nurse both to get nutrition and to get colostrum from the mare which carries the antibodies to help prevent disease for the early part of the foals life. Many mares will have sore udders and not allow the foal to nurse and it is necessary to restrain the mare while the foal nurses until she accepts the foal. It may be necessary to milk the mare and feed the foal to insure that the foal gets the proper nutrition and antibody protection.

The mare should pass her afterbirth within 3 hours of foaling. If she does not she should be treated to help her pass it. If she does not pass the afterbirth and is not treated she may develop an infection, may founder or become colicy.

If all of the foregoing things occur without complication and the mare foaled at night it is all right to wait until the next morning to have the mare and foal examined to make sure that the mare and foal are doing well. It is important to have a plan discussed with your veterinarian so that when the foaling occurs the mare and foal have the best possible care to insure a living and healthy foal.