The blessed event
It was a test of our marriage vows early on when I asked my husband to stay with me through chilly January nights in an unheated little room at the stables to help “midwife” a mare through the birth of a foal. Happily, we look back at those long nights – sometimes wearing knit-wool caps under the covers – with fond memories.
What does it take for such an endeavor?
Commercial horse breeders who stand stallions at stud often have many pregnant mares come to their farm, foal there, and then board until the mare has been re-bred. For people like Dave and Sandy Ferguson, owners of Diamond F Ranch on McCourtney Road, having to be responsible for the safe foaling of up to 50 mares during the springtime is an arduous task.
Luckily, veterinarians with Dr. Michael McRae & Associates (Sierra Equine, Inc.) are on the premises for emergencies as well as routine mare and foal care. They also have records of exactly when each mare was impregnated, along with her history as a broodmare. This information includes whether she’s a maiden mare (never had a foal before), her age and all pertinent details. A mare’s gestation is usually 345 days, but she may carry as long as a year.
Good management means checking your mare at least twice a day. When she nears her expected delivery date, watch for a filling of her udder, with a whitish discharge called “wax” appearing on each teat. At this point, expect a foal within 24 hours.
Often she will begin to drip milk. Her rump area will have a soft sunken appearance, and her vagina will loosen and swell. Other cues given by the mare are laying down and getting up often, nervousness, or appearing uncomfortable, which likely she is!
Foaling stalls are at least 12 by 12 feet. Straw, rather than shavings, is the preferred bedding. Don’t allow the mare access to a stable run, or chances are likely she will foal in the dirt or rain. Larger stables employ experienced people as the “night watchmen,” and sometimes closed circuit TVs and other high-tech devices are used. Two of you watching, such as you and your spouse, helps keep one person awake and alert. Leaving the mare unattended, especially at night, can spell disaster.
Once her water has broken, a mare should take no longer than 30 minutes to deliver her foal. It’s important to be quiet and leave her to do her job. Mares resent intrusion.
As the birth process begins, the foal’s nose and two front feet will be visible first. If not, immediately call your veterinarian, who should be notified that you have a mare due and where you live. If it’s obvious the foal is “mispresented,” keep the mare up and walking until qualified aid arrives.
If the foal is especially big or little progress is occurring, one may help by pulling downward on the foal’s front legs as the mare strains. And if the fetal membrane, or amniotic sac is covering the nose, remove it immediately. Then, with the foal on the ground, let mother and baby have time to become acquainted and for the foal to clear fluids that may interfere with breathing. Once the umbilical cord has separated, the navel must be dipped in a disinfecting solution such as diluted Betadine or Nolvason.
The process of the foal trying to stand on its own helps it become stronger, but if help is needed after 30 minutes or so, one may steady the baby on its long legs and help it nurse. Some young mares get excited or may be in pain from a full udder, making it very difficult for the foal to suckle.
The foal must get antibody-laden colostrum (first milk) from its mother to survive. If the foal has trouble passing its first bowel movement, have a Fleet’s enema ready. Also, the mare must pass a complete placenta within a few hours.
Longtime Nevada County resident Dee Dee Piner, a certified artificial insemination technician, Paint horse breeder and owner at Honor Oak Ranch, fills a special “niche” with the family horse. She provides her clients with a packet of information – and lots of advice on owner preparedness and foal care – to help them through all phases of the blessed event.
Felicia Schaps Tracy is a Certified Horsemanship Association advanced level certified instructor, an American Riding Association certified instructor, leads the horsemanship program at Ojai Valley School, and was a founding instructor for the Northern Mines Pony Club. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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