When Foaling Is Imminent

In our last post, we covered the signs to monitor in your mare that she is close to foaling.  Here we will cover how to prepare for your foal’s arrival.  These include the stages of labor, foaling kit essentials, and a few of the more common foaling problems.

Mares should have a clean and dry area on which to foal, that is free from too many disturbances.  They can foal inside or outside, depending on the time of year and the weather.  If your mare is to foal inside, straw is the recommended bedding.  Having a stocked foaling kit nearby with some basic supplies will also be helpful.  The foaling kit essentials include:

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-       Tail wraps: if you sense that foaling is imminent, wrapping your mare’s tail helps keep it clean and out of the way.  Of course, not all owners are so lucky as to sense foaling early enough to wrap her tail.  An old tensor bandage usually makes the best wrap, although old standing or polo wraps are also sufficient.

-       Scissors: a good pair of scissors are essential if the foal’s umbilicus does not break on its own, or if the mare has a red bag foaling (discussed below).

-       Towels: a couple of large, clean towels are essential for drying off the foal, if necessary.  Foals that are born in inclement weather, or on a cold night, should be dried off fairly soon after birth to prevent hypothermia from becoming a problem.

-       Navel dip: there are a number of different concoctions recommended by different people, but a mild chlorhexidine solution is gentle and effective for dipping the foal’s naval.  This is prepared by diluting chlorhexidine solution 1:5 with tap water.  The navel should be dipped 4-6 times a day for the first few days after birth.  Wear exam gloves when handling the foal’s naval to avoid transferring bacteria from your hands to the foal. 

-       Twine: useful for tying up the placenta (or “afterbirth”), if it is still in the mare after she rises from foaling.  This helps prevent the mare from stomping all over it with her hind legs so that it can be examined in its entirety after it is passed. 

-       Exam gloves: serves a dual purpose – helps keep the foal clean if you need to handle its naval and helps keep you clean when you handle the placenta.

-       60cc syringe: this is a simple and cost-effective way to milk a mare for any reason (pulling extra colostrum, bottle feeding the foal...).  Simply cut off the tip of a 60cc syringe so that both ends are the same diameter.  Then replace the plunger of the syringe through the cut end first.  The mare’s nipple is placed in the uncut end and the syringe is held with pressure against the mare’s udder.  Pull back on the plunger to milk out the mare.  See the image below for how to make it. 

-       Baby bottle: for bottle feeding the foal in case of emergency.  A water or pop bottle with a Pritchard demand valve or lamb nipple usually works the best.  The risk of aspiration (milk going down into the foal’s lungs) is decreased by using a Pritchard demand valve. 

60cc syringe adapted for milking a mare

60cc syringe adapted for milking a mare

There are many other additions to foaling kits and commercially made kits can also be bought.  Talk to your veterinarian for other recommendations concerning your mare’s specific situation.

Now that you are ready for your foal to arrive, what does a foaling actually look like?  There are 3 stages to parturition:

Stage 1: this stage is the beginning of parturition where uterine contractions begin and the mare may demonstrate colic-like signs.  The colic-like signs should not be violent, but include sweating, cramping, and getting up and down.  These last for about 4 hours before foaling.  The mare may drip and/or stream milk.

Stage 2: this stage begins with the rupture of the chorioallantios (“water breaking”) and ends once the foal is born.  The foal should be born within 5-30min of the water breaking.  Intervention needs to occur if there is a red bag, dystocia, or there is no progression after 30min.

Stage 3: this stage includes the passing of the placenta, or “afterbirth”.  It should pass within 3 hours of foaling. 


While the majority of mares carry to term and foal without any needed intervention, there are still things that can go wrong.  Some of the more common problems at foaling include:

1.     Failure of amnion to break: the amnion is the first membrane that is seen at birth and is a shiny, light blue, transparent membrane.  It normally ruptures (“water breaking”) to allow the foal to come out.  If it fails to break in a timely matter, it can lead to suffocation of the foal.  If it is seen bulging from the vulva but is not rupturing, then it should be torn and removed from the foal’s nose so the foal does not suffocate.  As well, any time the birth membranes are covering the foal’s nose, they should be removed to allow the foal to breathe. 

2.     Dystocia: this is a mal-positioning of a foal such that it gets stuck in the birth canal at foaling.  Sometimes it is quickly repositioned and the foal is born alive and well, but often dystocias are life-threatening for both the mare and the foal.  These are emergencies that should be seen by a veterinarian.

3.     Red-bag delivery: if a red, velvety membrane appears instead of the amnion, this is called a red-bag delivery and the membrane needs to be cut immediately to try and save the foal’s life.  This should be done by anyone attending the foaling, not necessarily a veterinarian.  This type of delivery is more common in mares that have had placentitis during their pregnancy and results in an oxygen-deprived foal.

4.     Retained placenta: placentas that stay in the mare more than 4 hours after foaling are considered retained.  Mares can retain the entire placenta or just a piece of it and it is important to examine the placenta after it is expelled for any tears or missing pieces.  Retained placentas can lead to infection and laminitis in the mare and should be treated promptly by a veterinarian.


Now that you know how to help your mare through her foaling, join us for our next post that will discuss what to do with your foal once it is on the ground.