Getting Ready For Foaling Season
By Allison Rosauer
It is getting close to that time of year when we start seeing the next generation of beautiful babies running around our fields. We all get excited about the new foals that are expected and what they will look like. Who will have the next great Champion? Every birth is filled with anticipation and dreams of what might be.
There is nothing worse than getting within minutes of your dreams coming true, only to have something go wrong. Let me say first that I am not a licensed Veterinarian. However, over the past 15 years, I have managed the breeding programs of some of the United States biggest farms like Rattle Snake Bayou, K-Nell Miniatures and JSW Farm. I foal out around 20 Miniature mares a year and have kept records of all types of breeding and foaling information. Our Miniature mares don't seem to follow the big horse rules when it comes to foaling. When I first started breeding Miniatures I went to Colorado State University for assistance. There just isn't much information available on foaling or breeding when it comes to the Miniature Horse. Here in the United States, Miniature breeders work together sharing information on problems, and along with our veterinarians, we try to come up with answers that we share with each other. I am going to give you some tips on what I do to prepare for foaling season so we have as few problems as possible. After all, it should be a time of great joy!
The first thing I do is prepare a list of emergency telephone numbers like the Veterinarian's office or after hour telephone numbers. I have numbers for neighbors or people I know can help if there is a problem. I have this list posted in the barn and in my house. Talk to everyone that is going to help you with foaling and go over an emergency plan. Always have a horse trailer available in case you need to take a mare to the Veterinarian in the middle of the night. Have someone that can either take the mare for you or stay and watch any other mares that might be about to foal. Having an emergency plan ready in advance can take a lot of stress out of a bad situation. You need to be able to remain calm and concentrate on the mare and foal that are in distress. Keep in contact with your Veterinarian during foaling season. Find out if they are going to be out of town and if so, who you should contact in case of emergency. Also contact your Veterinarian when any mares that you are concerned about are about to foal so your Veterinarian can be prepared as well. Sometimes I will call before a maiden mare foals, just in case I need help. If you have these phone numbers ready, it might just be the difference to save a foal.
I also prepare a foaling kit that I keep at the foaling stalls at all times. In my kit I have clean towels for drying off babies and to clean myself up if needed. I have a few large bottles of Veterinary lube. This will work well if you are having trouble getting a foal out. I keep a bottle of Banamine, or what ever type of pain killer your Veterinarian will prescribe to you. I use this if a mare has a little trouble delivering or looks uncomfortable after foaling. I want her to feel good when she gets up so that she lets the foal nurse as soon as possible. You will also need needles and syringes to go with this. I keep a pair of small surgical scissors. I use these to cut the umbilical cord if it doesn't break on its own. I keep some weak Iodine in a spray bottle to spray on the foal's umbilical cord as soon as it is broken or cut. This will keep it from getting infected. I have a test kit that I use on some foals after they are 10 hours old to make sure it received adequate colostrum from the mare's milk. Foals need this colostrum in order to have enough immunity to survive. Just because your mare has a large bag doesn't mean she has good colostrum. I also keep a supply of Oral IgG in my refrigerator in case the foal doesn't receive the colostrum it needs. These need to be given orally before the foal is 24 hours old, preferably before it is 12 hours old, so it is great to keep them on hand. Oral IgGs can save your foals life and are extremely important. Discuss all of this with your Veterinarian prior to foaling season so you are both ready for anything. Your Veterinarian might provide you with additional items that they think you will need. Talk to your Veterinarian about any mares that you are concerned about so that you will both have any emergency supplies that could be necessary. Planning ahead will help your foaling season go a lot easier and can actually prevent problems from occurring.
If you are an advanced breeder, and feel comfortable giving shots, have your vet give you a bottle of sedative. I keep a dose of tranquilizer drawn up and taped to the wall near my foaling stalls. If I have a mare and foal in delivery distress, like with a hip lock, and I need the mare to relax and quit pushing so I can attempt to manuver the foal, giving her a sedative is the only option. Having this shot already drawn up saves valuable time and stress. Grab it and go. In a bad foaling situation every second counts! Again, consult your vet about this so they can advise you on any precautions you should follow. Every situation is different and veterinarians are not always available immediately. Sometimes you are forced to fend for yourself. Even if you plan on taking a mare to the vet clinic for assistance once a problem delivery has already begun, sometimes a sedative will her relax her for the trip ahead and keep her from injuring herself or her foal.
If you don't normally bed your mare's stalls with straw, buy a few bales of straw for foaling season. We usually keep stalls bedded with wood shavings or wood chips. It is easier to clean than straw especially with broodmares who tend to be quite messy. When a mare is getting ready to foal however, we spread a thick layer of straw on top of the shavings for her to foal on. When a foal is a newborn, or less than 24 hours old, it can have a lot of fluid in its lungs and nasal passages. Shavings and wood chips have a lot of dust in them and this can be harmful if breathed in by the foal. This can cause respiratory problems for a baby. Straw is much cleaner for the foal to breathe around and to sleep on. Straw also provides a soft spot to land for a foal just learning how to stand and walk. After the foal is a few days old, it is safe to go back to wood shavings again.
The most common foaling problem I have seen is people thinking their mare was going to carry their foal for 335 days like a big horse will, and missing the birth all together. It is heartbreaking to hear that someone lost a foal because the baby arrived alive and well, but couldn't break out of the placenta and there was no one there to help it. It happens too often and it is a problem that can be prevented! Unlike a big horse, I have found that my Miniature mares carry foals for about 320 days. In fact, my average over the past 15 years, with records of over 600 births that were ultra sounded at ovulation, is just 317 days. Large horses usually only have a few days before or after their due date that they might foal on. Unfortunately, with a miniature mare, your due date for foaling falls within a 60 day window. I have had mares give birth to a healthy foal as early as 285 days and as late as 355 days. These are rare, but it happens. Again, I know exactly what day these mares ovulated, so I know these dates are accurate.
Keep accurate breeding records and it will help you predict your foals due date. Track when your mare is in heat and when she is out of heat, even if she is in the pasture with a stallion. You can walk through your pasture every couple of days and make a note of which mares are in heat and who is not. This will help you predict the day of ovulation and help you get a more accurate foaling date. If possible, have your broodmares ultra sounded by your veterinarian monthly so you know who is in foal and you can have a better idea of how far along their pregnancy is. It is much easier to keep these records when you hand breed, but with a little care, you can keep very accurate pasture breeding records too.
Now that you think you know how far along your mare is, what will her due date be? I always use 320 days as my due date unless I have a mare that seems to always foal early. As a precaution, I start watching all the mares at 285 days. Once they are 285 days along I bring them into the barn at night so they get fed individually and I can start watching their habits. I look for any signs of a bag and for milk to start coming in. Don't get alarmed if nothing is going on. Remember, some of these mares might not foal for another 45 days or more. I bring them up this early as a precaution and to make sure they are getting plenty of the grain and alfalfa that is needed to develop the colostrum for the foal. We all have mares that don't eat good in a group so this lets them come in a stall, relax while they eat, lay down in soft bedding and just be more comfortable in this last important part of pregnancy. If they are too fat or need more weight, I can make those adjustments since they are eating by themselves. I also like to give them lots of hay at night to keep them happy while they are inside. In the mornings I feed the mares inside and when they are finished with breakfast, I turn them out during the day. I keep them in an area that is close to the barn where I can easily catch them and bring them in if they do start to foal unexpectedly. Watch their individual habits inside the stall and in the pasture. If you have a mare that is usually with the group and all of a sudden she is off in the corner by herself, watch her close. When you bring mares in at night you will find that they usually do the same thing every night. We monitor ours with cameras, and it amazes me that they will usually eat, lay down, then get back up and stand in a certain spot. If you have a mare that usually stands at the back of her stall and now she is walking or she is restless, keep a close watch on her. If a mare stops eating or is lying around more than usual, watch her too. Keep in mind that sometimes the cause of this is just the baby being in an uncomfortable position for the mare. If you watch her daily habits and keep a watch on her bag, together this will help you predict foaling.
Once a mare starts to develop a bag I will check her bag several times a day. This just takes pulling on it once or twice. You do not want to "milk" her as you can use up valuable colostrum that way. It usually takes a week to 10 days from the time a mare starts showing a bag to having a full bag with milk. Unfortunately, this is another thing that doesn't follow a definite pattern. I have gone to sleep at night with a mare having no bag at 10:00pm and waking up to a foal nursing at 6:00am. I have also had mares that walk around the barn dripping milk for weeks prior to foaling. These are exceptions, but it does happen. When I check a mare's bag I look at the color and consistency of the milk. It usually starts off clear like water. As the bag gets bigger the milk will usually turn more yellow and sticky. Once it is at this point, things could go quickly so keep a close watch. Eventually the milk will turn white and her bag will be very full and feel hard to the touch. You are very close at this point. One thing to be aware of is young mares that have not foaled might not get a big bag. It is very important to still squeeze the teats to check the milk. The color and quality of milk is much more important than the size of the bag. The opposite is true of older mares that have foaled a lot. Some of their bags have stretched over the years and it might look like they have a small bag all year long. Again, check it to see if there is anything in it to be accurate. Once a mare's milk gets to the point where it is white, I leave her in at all times until she foals.
There are a few things to keep in mind when I tell you I keep my mares in a stall until they foal. I watch my mares 24 hours a day with cameras in the foaling stalls and foaling monitors once they get close to foaling. There is always someone with them to assist them if necessary. There are several types of monitors available that are attached to foaling halters. These set off an alarm if the mare lies down with her head flat against the ground. These are great for emergencies or if you don't have a vet available. The problem is, even if your mare is just taking a nap they go off, sometimes several times a night. I would rather get up several times and not miss a foal though. These are also great if you have a mare that has foaled early in the past because you can leave it on for a long time with no problems. The other type of monitor is the Foalert sew in monitor. This is a small monitor that is sewn across the mare's vulva with a few stitches. As the foal starts to push out, the monitor separates and sets off an alarm and calls your telephone. It works great. The drawbacks to this system are it does have to be sewn in. It is easy to learn if you can handle it. If not, your vet can sew them in for you. They can stay in for several weeks if necessary. Sometimes the mares will rub them out while scratching their tails or rubbing on the fence. Another problem is if the foal is in a bad position, it might not get to the point where it sets off the alarm. Overall, they are the most accurate way not to miss a foal and we use them for every delivery. Using a halter moniter and a foalalrt moniter lets you cover all bases.
I do tell people to turn a mare out with other mares if you think she is going to foal and you cannot watch her! This is probably the opposite of what you would think, but here is my reasoning. If a mare is up in a stall where she is comfortable and feels safe, she might not get up immediately after foaling. What happens next is you have a foal that is in the placenta, or bag as it can be called, and it might not be able to get out. A Miniature mare's bag is a thick as that of a large horse. A Miniature foal doesn't always have the strength to get out of the bag like a large horse foal does. If you have ever tried to tear a placenta you know it is not always easy to do. Unfortunately, if the newborn foal can't get the bag torn, they will suffocate and die. If you need to turn the mare out, make sure she is in a safe area where dogs and predators can't get to the new foal. If a mare is out with other mares and lays down to foal, she will probably get up immediately after foaling because her natural instincts tell her she needs to protect her foal from the other mares. Most of the time when the mare stands up, the placenta breaks and the baby is able to breathe. You are letting Mother Nature take its course of protection.
If you follow these steps before foaling season and right up until your mares deliver, you should be prepared for anything. I could go on to talk about delivery and after foaling care, but that's a whole different article. Always consult your Veterinarian if you have any questions or problems. I hope everyone has a wonderful foaling season with lots of beautiful babies safely on the ground.