Over the years we have been present for literally hundreds of births at
our farm. We will be the first to say that no two foaling events are the same. We learn
something new from each birth that occurs. We can, however, see similar behaviors that
occur in most of the cases. These repetitive behaviors are what usually end up being
referred to as the "textbook delivery". Miniature horses exhibit most of the
typical pre-foaling behaviors as their larger counterparts and many excellent resources are
available. If you return to our home page, be sure to visit Dr. Gerros's Pacific Vet Rap / NW Equine Bookrack. He has numerous excellent reference sources available for purchase. In this
article we will attempt to briefly highlight the behaviors that are unique to miniature
horses. We will also attempt to point out some important milestones during the birthing
process that we use as decision making points to evaluate our course of action in case we
feel the birth is not proceeding properly. It should be emphasized that many of the
decisions made and actions we take are forced upon us due to our inability to obtain
emergency veterinary assistance for approximately one hour after calling. This is due to
the remote location of our farm from such services.
We absolutely advocate observing the expectant mare closely as she
approaches her foaling date. Observing, to us, means using some form of alerting system as
well as closed circuit TV. We have heard of countless owners who have put themselves on a
2 hour schedule to walk to the barn only to find that the mare has foaled and it has
suffocated in the amniotic sac. It is
absolutely critical in our opinion to be witness to the foaling if there is any interest in maximizing the reproductive rate of the mare.
Without closely observing subtle behavior changes that the mare makes it is very difficult
to evaluate the onset of the birthing event. If a mare is observed closely for a week or
so prior to foaling, it is fairly easy to observe differences from her routine behavior
that are the telltale signs of foaling.
The "Textbook Delivery" is usually described as having three
stages. In order to coincide with the popular discussions on this topic we will describe
our observations as they relate to these three stages.
Stage 1 - PRELIMINARY LABOR
Stage one labor begins a variable of time prior to the
actual active birthing process. During this preparatory phase a number of changes are
taking place. Normally the foal is moving into the normal "diving position" with
head and front legs positioned at the mare's uterine cervix. Pressure on the cervix causes
the secretion of a hormone called oxytocin which initiates uterine contractions and begins
to cause the cervix to open or dilate. These internal changes are accompanied by numerous
behavioral changes. Most mares exhibit some or all of these behaviors during this
preliminary phase of labor.
- RESTLESSNESS - The mare usually paces about the stall more than normal. She may eat a few
bites then appear distracted by something and move away from her food only to come back to
get another bite and then move away again. She may repeatedly look back at her flanks. She
may walk circles in her stall.
- PAWING/NEST BUILDING - She may spend time pawing at her bedding with one of her front legs. Mares
will frequently stop their restless pacing and paw the stall bedding then begin pacing
- FREQUENT, LOOSE BOWEL MOVEMENTS - Most mares have a number of bowel movements hours just prior to foaling.
Generally these are rather loose and more the consistency of "cow pies" than the
typical horse "meadow muffins". The mares also urinate frequently.
- LYING DOWN AND STANDING UP - Usually as the actual active phase of labor gets closer, the mares will lay
down for short periods of time (seconds to a minute) then get up. She will move about a
little and usually lay down again. She may lay flat out, on her side or may keep her head
up. She may also roll. Rolling a few times is not cause for alarm, however, if it
continues it could indicate that the mare is attempting to reposition the foal. We view
rolling carefully and watch the mare to see what occurs next and mark the time when the
rolling started to have a point of reference.
- YAWNING OR FLEHMEN DISPLAY - Many mares will repeatedly yawn or curl their upper lip in the flehmen display
in the hours just preceding foaling.
- ACTIVE CONTRACTIONS BEGIN - The mare may actually lie down and begin the rhythmic contractions of labor.
These are very characteristic in which the mare lies on her side. Her feet are extended
and become rigid in a regular pattern of strong contractions at a frequency of once per
two seconds. The pulsations are very strong and unmistakable. Frequently the mare's head
and neck is actually arched backward strongly with each contraction and the mare may let
out a corresponding groan or grunt that is audible from some distance away. Under
"textbook" circumstances the mare may lie down and make a number of
contractions, get up and pace the stall few times, lie down and have another series of
contractions, then get to her feet again. This can occur four or five times in routine
foalings. The culmination of this series of behaviors is that the "water breaks".
A gush of fluid is audible and a characteristic odor is present on the mare's tail and
legs if the water has been broken. Recording the time the water breaks is an important
reference point. As stated earlier, if the mare has been rolling and active contractions
have been proceeding for 10 minutes without the water breaking, we would be concerned that
there could be birthing difficulties. Since we are so isolated from veterinary services,
our course of action is to scrub up and palpate the mare's vagina to determine the
position of the foal and take appropriate measures. Those with accessible veterinary
services would be well advised to get help on the scene as a precautionary measure if the
mare is rolling constantly and the water has not broken within ten minutes.
STAGE 2 - ACTIVE LABOR
This is the stage of labor that is usually thought of where
the foal passes from the uterus through the vagina and is actually "born". The
breaking of water is the landmark that usually separates stage 1 from stage 2. Although
the mare has already got down to business at the end of the previous stage, this is when
the greatest degree of movement of the foal takes place. It is also the time when the
greatest number of foaling problems occur.
- Usually the mare may rest briefly after the water breaks.
She can get up and walk about the stall briefly or lay back quietly without having
- It is our belief that it should take no more than ten
minutes after the water breaks for a foal to be born if all conditions are normal.
- When the mare resumes contractions, the whitish
translucent "bubble" should appear at the mares vulva within a few contractions.
- One foot with hoof point toward the mare's feet shortly
followed by another then the foals head should be expelled from the mare.
- Once the front legs and head have passed out of the mare
the remainder of the foal should deliver easily with little effort.
- It is imperative that the
amniotic sac be removed from the head of the foal to facilitate its breathing. We assist with all of our foalings and routinely by tearing the sac away as the
foals feet pass through the vulva of the mare. Many unattended miniature foals are lost
because they are born uneventfully but do not get out of the amniotic sac after birth and
suffocate. For this reason if none other we believe it is critical to be in attendance for
STAGE 3 - BREAKING THE UMBILICUS
and PASSING THE PLACENTA
The final phase of labor deals with making the final break
between mare and foal as well as clearing the uterus of the afterbirth and contracting the
womb down to its inactive size.
- As soon as the foal is born it is our practice to place
it in a "sternal position". This means that we situate the foal so that it is resting on its breastbone
with its legs out in front of itself. This is done to expand the rib cage and facilitate
expansion of the lungs for breathing.
- We also begin to vigorously rub the foal down with a
series of towels. This is done for two reasons. First, the rubbing stimulates circulation
in the foal. Secondly, the foal is assisted in drying off so that no excess heat energy
will be lost by the foal.
- Mares vary in their behavior after foaling. Some lie very
quietly and rest for a period of time. Others look back to check on their foals and start
assisting with the cleanup. Others may immediately jump up to take care of their foal. In
any case either the mare or the foal will move and umbilical cord will usually break. The
normal breaking point is about an inch below the foals belly. This umbilical stump is an
invitation to a serious infection called "navel
ill" if it becomes dirty or contaminated with manure
etc. As soon as the cord breaks we immerse the stump in either Nolvasan or strong tincture
of iodine. Some believe that iodine can burn the flesh and be harmful. We have tried tamed
iodine solutions and ended up with a number of serious cases of septicemia. We have had no
adverse effects with strong iodine in many years of foaling. Nolvasan solution has worked
- Normally the mare lies down and has a number of
additional contractions within an hour of foaling and expels the placenta. The placenta is
a saclike structure. It is purplish with lots of veins on one side. This is the inner side
that faced the foal. The outer side is an angry reddish color that looks like clotted
blood. This is the side that actually attached to the uterus. Attached to the placenta a
person will also notice the umbilical cord and the translucent, whitish amniotic sac that
the foal was actually enclosed in. It is important to determine whether the entire
placenta was expelled from the uterus. This is easily done. Remember that the placenta of
a horse is a sac that conforms to the shape of the inside of the uterus. If you examine
the placenta you will find a tear in it where the foal came through when it was born.
Place a garden hose through this opening and turn on the water. If the placenta is intact,
there should be no other holes and it should fill up like a water balloon.
- It is not uncommon for mares to be uncomfortable and show
signs of mild colic for a number of hours after foaling. After examining the size of the
placental sac, imagine the uterus contracting down to the size of a softball in a matter
of hours and ask yourself if perhaps there wouldn't be a few cramps involved. Of course
you mothers in the crowd can probably speak about this from firsthand experience. Normally
we administer a mild dose (2 cc.) of Banamine to our mares on a routine basis after
foaling. This is an anti-inflammatory as well as has mild muscle relaxing properties. In
most cases it alleviates any colic symptoms that mares may have.
The successful foaling experience is very rewarding and
amazing to behold. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of being prepared and
vigilant when the foaling event is at hand. It is also a reality that mal-positions
(dystocias) of the foal do occur during the birthing process. There are a variety of
different dystocia situations. It is important to realize time is of the essence in a
successful foaling. Anything that inhibits
the delivery of the foal in an expedient manner (usually within 10 minutes from the
breaking of water) compromises the chances for the survival of the foal and ultimately the
mare. Frequently people who own horses are accused of being
over protective about their animals. In the case of foaling, here is one instance where it
is definitely wise to be overly cautious and seek medical assistance early rather than
waiting. It could mean the difference between a lively foal racing across the pasture in a
few days or a sad memory of a wonderful mare and great plans that had been anticipated
most of a year.
If you are interested in reading about a dystocia click
here to read about one of the interesting experiences we had delivering
a breech presentation foal.
Questions about foaling? Don't hesitate to E-Mail us. We would be glad to give you our
opinions on any topics that may be of interest to you related to miniature horses in
general or health issues in particular.
Scott Creek Farm
Joanne & Larry Ross
6100 Aumsville Hwy. SE
Salem, OR 97301