Franklin Vets Blog

The 1, 2, 3’s of Foaling

September 10, 2019

Foaling season is here! Most mares can deliver their foal without assistance. However, many owners want to be there for the big event and because time is so critical in the foaling process, preparation is key to a positive outcome. We greatly encourage owners to be present for observation of foaling so that if problems arise, you can call for help.

Gestation and Expected Delivery Datenewborn foal and mare

The mare has roughly a 340 day or about 11-month gestation period. This can vary between maiden mares (first timers) and multiparous mares (produced foals). It is helpful to have an accurate breeding date to help predict when she will be expected to deliver. If your mare was bred without the assistance of a veterinarian and has not been checked for a viable pregnancy, then it recommended doing so before spending many nights in the barn waiting for your mare to deliver. Pregnancies can be detected as early as 14 days after breeding. A heartbeat can be detected on ultrasound as early as 25 days of gestation. If these checks were not performed, then a rectal exam with or without an ultrasound can be done anytime to determine if she is pregnant but the delivery date is not as predictable. About a month to a week before foaling her udder will start to fill and the musculature on her hind end and vulva will start to “relax” or soften. The mare will develop “wax” on her teats which are plugs of milk. There are test kits on the market that test the Calcium and Sodium levels in the milk to try to predict when the mare will foal – my experience has found these test kits unreliable.

The Three Stages of Parturition (delivery)

So now that she is close to her delivery date start watching for the first stage of parturition. This includes signs that may look like colic such as getting up and down and restlessness. Stage two includes the “water breaking” and a visible amniotic sack. This should look shiny and white in colour. The front feet of the foal should present first, one slightly in front of the other then followed by the nose. The mare may have the most difficulty passing the foal’s shoulders as this is the widest part of the foal’s body. Once the foal is out he should be moving around and the sack should have broken off of his head so he can start breathing. This stage should only take 20 to 30 minutes.

Post-Parturition Guidelines

Here is where the 1, 2, 3 Rule comes into play. The foal should stand within one hour of delivery, nurse within two hours, and the placenta should pass within three hours. This is a safe timeline to follow. In most cases, these events happen even quicker. If there is any delay, a call to your veterinarian is crucial. This is a very critical time for the mare and foal. If the foal does not consume antibody enriched colostrum (the first milk) within 8 hours of birth it can cause him to be susceptible to illness. This is the main source of the foal’s early immune system. If he is suckling on the mare’s stifle and cannot find her teats then some guided direction is helpful.foal and mare

Foal, Mare and Placenta Check

If all appears well and the foal has been standing and nursing and overall in good condition call your veterinarian the following morning to let her know that you have a new foal! She will want to come out between 12 and 24 hours of delivery to test the foal’s blood for passive transfer of the antibodies from the colostrum. This is called the foal’s IgG level and can be done right there on the farm. A full exam should be done to look for angular limb deformities, swollen joints, cleft palate, abnormal heart or lung sounds, meconium impaction (first faecal matter) and just to ensure the new baby is healthy. The naval is dipped in either a diluted chlorhexidine solution or iodine solution. It is also important to have the placenta fully evaluated for any missing pieces. Keep this in a covered bucket or trash bag out of the sun until your veterinarian arrives. The vet should also check the mare over for any signs of trauma, colic, etc. After they are examined and they receive their clean bill of health you can take a moment to relax.

Foaling Emergencies… What to look for

Fortunately, mares can deliver foals without assistance and without complication the majority of the time. However, complicated deliveries can happen and it is critical the foal is delivered quickly. Be prepared and prevent long term negative effects or even death by knowing the signs of complications. If you are lucky enough to be present for this exciting event you may be able to save a life. The following are some of the more common foaling emergencies, but you should always call your veterinarian to get advice or emergency treatment specific to your current situation if needed.


The foal should present with its front feet (one slightly in front of the other) followed by the head. Any other positioning is abnormal and a successful delivery may require assistance and manipulation of the foal. If you see the mare’s rectum bulging, then the foal’s feet are directed too far dorsal (toward the back) and need to be pushed back and redirected through the vulva (otherwise they can cause a rectal tear). Some mares can still deliver a foal with abnormal positioning, but keep in mind the rule of delivering in 30 minutes or less and be ready to assist.

Red Bag

If you see a red velvety structure bulging from the vulva, this is an extreme emergency and you should call your veterinarian immediately.

The placenta has started to separate from the uterine wall before the foal is delivered and the foal can quickly suffocate and die. The placenta structure should be cut open right away using scissors or a sharp knife which your veterinarian may instruct you to do. Once you cut this open and see the anionic sac (white, shiny and translucent), you should grab the foal’s feet and get the foal out as quickly as possible. A foal in this situation has likely suffered from oxygen deprivation and your veterinarian should evaluate the mare and foal immediately.

Mare Fatigue

If the foal is large and the mare is having a hard time pushing on her own, she may need assistance. She may become fatigued and stop pushing. In many cases, giving some traction on the foal’s front legs intermittently will stimulate her to start having contractions again. If the foal has died, she may stop having contractions and need to be “jump-started” as well. I use the one-two-three-PULL-rest rule. Do not just apply constant traction on the foal. Call your veterinarian in this circumstance.

Remember, the foal should get up within an hour…

If he or she does not stand within an hour, then you should call your veterinarian for advice or assistance. Healthy foals nurse within two hours of delivery and usually can find the udder quickly. If the foal starts trying to nurse on the mare’s elbow, the stifle, or the stall panelling, then they need some direction and may need veterinary attention right away.

Failure of Passive Transfer

There are three reasons for the failure of passive transfer: 1) the mare has poor colostrum 2) the foal did not receive the colostrum in the appropriate amount of time 3) the foal did not properly absorb the nutrients. This is easily tested using an IgG snap test on-site. Once diagnosed, it is recommended to give the foal a plasma transfer. Foals get the majority of their immunity from the mare’s colostrum in the first 12-24 hours and this is also the most likely time for them to contract infection or disease.

Tips before the big night

  • Have your veterinarian’s number on hand.
  • Have a clock or watch handy so you can accurately time the sequence of events.
  • Have a large, clean stall prepared with straw bedding.
  • Have the trailer hooked up in case of emergency.
  • Have your first aid kit stocked and handy (towels, flashlight, scissors, knife, bailing twine, exam gloves, chlorhexidine or povidone-iodine solution (1% iodine)).

Remember to call your veterinarian right away if there is any question or concern that a problem is arising or if you are unsure of what to do next. We would much rather help you through a minor question and save a life than find out later things didn’t go smoothly when we could have helped. If you have any questions about foaling emergencies, you can contact Franklin Vets at 09 2382471.

Dr Kendra H. McLeod, DVM, CVA, IVCA