Are you prepared for the arrival of a foal?

Sara Longworth of Waverley Stud in Warwickshire gives her advice on preparing for your first foal

The birth of your first foal is undoubtedly an exciting experience for any horse owner, but this excitement can also be mixed with anxiety about what to expect and the outside chance that something could go wrong.

Being well prepared, with essential foaling supplies restocked, is key to peace of mind. Sara Longworth at Waverley Stud tells us what needs to be on the checklist.

Flu and tetanus vaccination

One month before foaling — we use an average gestation period of 342 days from the last date of covering for our calculations — our mares have a flu and tetanus vaccination.

This allows some immunity to be passed to the foals, giving them protection for the first few months of life. At least three weeks before the due date we also make an appointment with our vet to unstitch any mares that have had a Caslick procedure — this is essential to prevent the mare from tearing and allow easy exit of the foal.

If you aren’t sure if your mare has a Caslick, then ask your vet to examine her at least three weeks before her due date so that appropriate action can be taken.

If you want to use an internal foal alarm — which we do not — it could be inserted by your vet at the same time.

Worming the mares

Two or three days before the due date — or before, if it looks as though delivery will be early — we worm our mares to help prevent any eggs in the mare’s system from passing to the foal through her milk.

Always check the literature that comes with the wormer to establish that it is safe for use with pregnant mares.

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Where to foal your mare

By this time you will also have decided where you are going to foal your mare and where it will be turned out post foaling. We always foal our mares in the stable, but if you decide to foal your mare outside it should be in a small paddock (so that the mare cannot take herself too far away – she will normally go to the most remote and quiet part of the field) and where there is a reliable means of artificial light in case of an emergency, as things can and do go wrong — and most foals are born after dark when it is quiet and peaceful.

Any paddock should be free of obstacles and have secure fencing: post and rail is best, with the bottom rail close enough to the ground to prevent a foal rolling under it and, inadvertently, getting separated from its mother. And of course these safeguards hold true for the field you intend to use for your mare and foal after the birth.

A foaling box must be larger in size than a standard stable and preferably square in shape to allow plenty of room around the mare when she goes down to foal.

It should be free of sharp or projecting objects. We use a thick layer of straw as it helps to absorb birthing fluids, provides a soft landing for wobbly foals, and is non hazardous if the foal tries to eat it — it is amazing how many foals will try to eat the surface they are lying on within an hour or so of being born. However some experts advocate only the minimum of bedding, arguing that it helps the foal get to its feet sooner and aids balance once it is up.

The foaling kit

We set up our foaling kit in a big white Perspex container at the beginning of the season with items that will be required immediately after birth, and some that could be needed in case of emergency.

It contains:

  • phone numbers for our vet on the lid of the box (all of us have the number in our mobile phones too)
  • a plentiful supply of sterile gloves for washing the mare and handling the placenta
  • scissors for cutting umbilical tape or tail wrap; or more seriously, in case of an emergency, for dealing with a red bag birth (where the placenta would need to be cut open), or, again in rare cases, for the need to cut the umbilical cord
  • canister of oxygen with nose cone, in case of red bag birth (we are also thinking of buying a full resuscitation device just in case a foal has difficulty breathing after birth)
  • umbilical tape or clamp, in case the umbilical cord needs tying off immediately after foaling
  • antiseptic spray to disinfect the umbilical stump and reduce possibility of bacterial infection
  • towels, to dry off and stimulate breathing in the new born foal
  • thermometer – for mare and new born foal
  • whole foal colostrum in case the mare doesn’t have any or does not produce enough
  • foal milk replacer in case the worst happens and the mare is lost
  • plastic bottle and rubber teat for feeding a foal
  • large container for milking the mare (in case the foal takes a long time to stand and suckle)
  • anti-septic spray for the umbilical cord
  • enema (sodium phosphate type) to administer to a new born foal in case of meconium impaction
  • If you don’t have good artificial light in the stable and in the yard, you will also need a strong torch or head light

In a covered bucket, alongside the foaling kit, we also keep mild liquid soap for washing the udder and genital area of the mare prior to foaling, and an extra long tail bandage to keep the mare’s tail hair out of the way throughout proceedings. A head collar and lead rope always hang outside the stable door.

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.

Don’t miss the latest sport horse breeding special issue of Horse & Hound magazine, out now (11 April 2019)