Sara Longworth of Waverley Stud in Warwickshire gives her expert advice on what to do once your mare has foaled — from examining the afterbirth to giving the mare a bran mash

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Most of our mares tell us when foaling is imminent, with some habitually foaling before or after their due dates. Maiden mares are often late.

A few days before, or even on the day itself, the udder swells (‘bags up’) and beads of colostrum (first milk, which is packed with important antibodies for the foal)  begin to appear on the teat. The bulk of the foal moves backwards visibly towards the mare’s pelvis – this is particularly clear when viewed from above.

This sign tells you it’s time to set up watch in front of the CCTV. If you don’t have CCTV you will have to keep checking. Before we had CCTV we used to rig up a camp bed in the box next door.

What happens prior to foaling?

Most, but not all, mares will exhibit disturbed behaviour immediately prior to foaling. They can walk the box, paw at the bedding, lie down and get up again. It is better not to interfere with your mare during delivery unless there is a problem.

In my experience foaling usually occurs within 30min of the waters breaking. Then the mare will lie on her side and stay down. Minutes later the foal’s feet appear, followed quickly by the nose and head.

The shoulders can take a little longer to emerge, but from the moment the mare goes down and lies on her side, it is normal for the birthing process to take no more than 15min from beginning to end: and it is often much quicker than that.

The mare and foal may then rest for a while following the birth before the bonding process begins.

Continued below…

What to do immediately after the mare has foaled

While this is happening I collect up and examine the afterbirth or placenta, laying it out on the concrete which is then scrubbed with Vircon.

It should be complete and look like a baggy pair of trousers, with one ‘leg’ (the horn where the foetus grew) much bigger than the other. You should be able to identify the hole that the foal made during its birth.

Even now, if I’m worried that I haven’t quite got a whole placenta, I ask my vet to check it. I then put it in a black plastic bag in a bucket where marauding wild life cannot reach it, ready for burning.

The foal should start trying to get to its feet within about 30min of birth – though again some are much quicker – and should be suckling within an hour to an hour and a half. There is nothing better than that noisy gurgling sucking sound as a reward for all your efforts.

If it looks like it will take longer than this, I tend to milk the mare and feed the colostrum to the foal in a bottle. This ensure the foal has the energy and health giving benefits of the mare’s colostrum beginning to go to work inside it.

I do not use rugs after the birth for either mare or foal, even if it is cold, for fear of endangering a foal’s attempts to stand and its vital need to suckle. A good covering of straw over a recumbent foal, once it is dry, will keep it warm enough.

My mares get a hot bran mash, with lots of molasses, after they have foaled. I think this is comforting for them, but also helps combat the tendency to colic that often accompanies foaling.

Once all this is done, and I’m confident the foal can get to its feet and find milk without my help, I go to bed for a few hours. I then wake up three hours later and watch the CCTV to ensure the foal is suckling well.

What to do in the first 24 hours after birth

Finally, within 12 and 24 hours of birth, foals should have their blood tested to determine if they have received adequate passive transfer of antibodies from the mare’s colostrum.

If the results are inadequate or even borderline, the foal may need a plasma transfusion — this requirement is not unusual, and is especially common with older mares who may begin to run milk well before the birth, so losing all their important colostrum.

A healthy foal that has had a stress-free birth will benefit from getting out in the paddock as soon as possible; this could be within the first 24 hours. One of our mares however refuses to leave the stable for about 48 hours after a birth and she tells us when she’s ready to go out.

If this is your first experience of foaling, make good use of the months leading up to the birth to educate yourself on the birth process as much as possible. This knowledge could prove vital in recognising the early signs of something going wrong.

It is also strongly recommended that you meet with your vet to determine what equipment and help is right for your foaling situation, to make sure you know when and how to use the equipment you have and to establish what signs or eventualities should trigger a call for emergency help.

Most mares cope well with foaling without any help, but it is always wise to be prepared, and in the excitement of live foaling, the organising and homework you do now will pay off handsomely. After all this is the moment you have been waiting and planning for, for some months, maybe years.

Don’t miss our special sport horse issue of Horse & Hound magazine, out on 12 March 2015