Get Ready For Baby ~ 

Reprinted with permission from Practical Horseman
The operator of a successful breeding farm explains what you need to think about ahead of time to make your mare's foaling safe and stress-free for all three of you.

By Deborah Borra, with Sandra Cooke

You wait almost a year for the birth of your mare's foal, and when the time comes there's plenty to do.  So you want to avoid last minute surprises.  You can do this by starting well in advance – before she's even bred, in some instances – to set the stage for the best outcome; a calm, comfortable mare; a healthy foal' a happy you.

We'll give you guidelines for which details to check off when, as you go through the process of choosing a stallion, getting your mare bred, and nurturing her through her pregnancy.  And in “Foaling Forecasting” on page 91, an equine vet who specializes in reproduction will give you a list of “foal on the way” signs – to help you know when you're about to see the benefits of all your planning.

Before She's Bred

Insure your mare – for two good reasons.  First, in the unlikely event that you lose her during the foaling process (which, unfortunately, does happen in rare instances), your acute emotional loss won't be compounded by financial loss.  Second, most equine mortality – insurance policies include the option to obtain Major Medical insurance for the horse at a relatively small additional premium.  That medical policy is a great safety net if you incur unusual expenses because of foaling complications.

Make sure your veterinarian is on board for the project.

While you're still in the planning stages of your mare's pregnancy, ask your veterinarian how many foalings she or he has participated in and, depending on the method you've chosen, how familiar she is with using transported cooled or frozen semen for artificial insemination.  Explain your plans and ask how closely she will be able to work with you during the breeding, pregnancy, and foaling.  If your vet has had little or no direct experience with foaling, or if she conveys the impression that this is no big deal and you can pretty much expect things to take care of themselves, look for another practitioner who's more motivated to meet your need and your mare's.

Educate yourself.

The more you know about what to expect, the better you'll be able to care for your mare and her foal.  See “Learning Resources” on page 89 for suggested book and video sources of information; ask your veterinarian if she has any materials you can borrow.  If you have an opportunity to see or help with actual foaling, take it!

Once She's Pregnant

Plan to be there for her.  I get nervous when I hear anecdotes about mares who just go off by themselves and show up afterward with a nice little foal, because4e such stories encourage inexperienced owners to think their mares can probably handle foaling just fine without any help.  Sometimes it works out that way but sometimes it doesn't.  For instance, if you've bred your refined mare to a big, substantial horse to try to get more substance in the foal, the baby's shoulders may be big enough to require some subtle adjustment during the birth to make the foaling less stressful on both mare and foal.  A normal foaling takes about half an hour; if trouble occurs, your veterinarian may not have time to get there and help before damage is done.  But if you've been monitoring your due-to-foal mare carefully enough to contact your vet at the first signs that birth is beginning (again, see “Foal Forecasting on page 91), you increase your chances of having assistance on hand if needed.  If you're not sure you – or another responsible person – can be available when the foal comes, make prior arrangement for your mare to foal at a facility staffed and equipt to care for her, such as a veterinary school or a reputable breeding farm.

Calculate her likely foaling date. 

If you have a job that takes you away from home but you plan to be on hand when your mare foals, you probably want to arrange to take your vacation during the critical time.  From my own record-keeping, I've learned that the majority of my mare foal between 330 and 337 days from the date they're bred.  This is a good window to plan around, but there are exceptions;  I've had foals born as early as 320 days and as late as 3390 days after the breeding.  You'll make your mind easier if your plans include a fallback strategy in case the baby hasn't arrived when you must return to work.

Immunize on schedule.

Your pregnant mare needs to be vaccinated against rhinopneumonitis, a virus that can cause abortion if she becomes infected, at months five, seven and nine after breeding.  Four weeks before she's due to foal, she needs immunization against everything for which you usually vaccinate – such as Eastern/Western encephalitis, influenza and tetanus – so that the antibodies these vaccines stimulate her to to produce will pass to the foal in her colostrum, or first milk.  Important:  Make sure that all vaccines administered during this time are specifically approved for pregnant mares.

Accustom her to udder handling.

If this foal will be your mare's first, she may object – even try to kick him – the first time he tries to nurse.  If you work to desensitize her in that area ahead of time, by gently cleaning and handling her udder, you'll find out if she has an aversion to being touched there, and you'll give her a chance to get used to it.

There's also a slight chance you may need to milk her (if, for instance, the foal doesn't stand up to nurse quickly enough and you want to save her colostrum for him to nurse from a bottle); this job will be easier if she already accepts having her udder and teats manipulated.  No9note:  Clean your hands scrupulously before and after handling her udder.

Make sure you can telephone from the barn.

If you don't already have a cellular phone, consider getting one – or at least extend your home telephone line to the barn.  In that case, a cordless handset will give you greater mobility.

Four to Six Weeks Ahead

Prepare the foaling stall.

Although a double-size stall is ideal for foaling, you can make do with a stall 12 feet square.  Clean it thoroughly, then bed with several inches of fresh shavings.  If it's not her usual stall, move your mare into the foaling stall at least four weeks before she's due.  This gives her time to relax in the new location and even more important – allows time for her immune system to build up antibodies to any unfamiliar organisms in the stall's environment.

I like to foal my mare on oat straw; it's clean, dust-free, and functions as an occasional snack, but it can be difficult to get and is also a tougher mucking job than shavings.  When a mare gets close to her predicted foaling date, I bank the sides of her stall with two or three bales of straw but leave easier to clean shavings in the middle.  When signs indicate she's really about to foal, I need only a few minutes to pull the straw in from the walls and create a deep, fluffy bed on top of the absorbent shavings base

Set up a heat lamp if needed.

If you climate is cold and/or your mare is due to foal early in the year, a safely installed heat lamp can be a valuable asset in keeping a new foal warm.  Check that the lamp is free of any trace of dust and cobwebs, which can start a fire.  Be sure the cord and plug are in good condition and that they'll be out of reach when the lamp is in place.

Arrange to have a helper.

Because so much can happen in a short time, it's not a good idea for even an experienced person to try to foal a mare out alone.  You need a second pair of hands – someone who can, say, run for the phone or fetch any needed item that you don't have close at hand while you stay with your mare.  This person doesn't have to be knowledgeable, just levelheaded enough that you're reasonably confident he or she won't “lose it” if things get exciting or messy.

Pin down hauling arrangements just in case.  If something goes seriously wrong with the foaling, your mare may need attention (a Caesarian-section delivery, for instance) at a facility with full-scale surgical capability.  Identify the clinic or animal hospital that would be your destination in case of need; call now to be sure of their availability  Remember to ask if their telephone is monitored 24/7 – and if not, whom you should call during off hours.  Get directions, too which you'll try on a dry run before you need them.  If you don't have your own rig, locate someone who does and who's willing and able to take you to the clinic at a moment's notice.  If you have a truck and trailer, keep them ready, with the trailer hitched up – and not (as happened to me once when a mare unexpectedly needed emergency treatment) full of baled shavings you intend to unload the next morning.

Assemble everything you'll need during the big event.

I like to store this equipment – the complete list is on page 87 – in a “foaling cart” whose drawers keep things organized.  My policy is always to return each item to the same place in the same drawer, so I waste no time looking for it.

Put a list of vital telephone numbers in a handy, conspicuous place in the barn.  Your veterinarian's number(s) – including pager and home telephone, if you can get them – go at the top of the list, followed by the helper you've arranged and (if applicable) the person who's available for emergency hauling.  Post your directions to the emergency facility as well.

Final Few Days

Monitor your mare.

Because foaling happens so quickly once it begins, you need to observe her almost constantly – waking up every hour when her due date is really close – to be sure not to miss it.  Consider buying (or borrowing) a closed-circuit TV or video cam monitor that enables you to watch her from a distance, or ask your veterinarian about high-tech devices such as the Foal Alert System (see “Foal Forecasting” on page 91).

Wrap her tail – to make it easier to see under your mare's tail before foaling and to help prevent tail hairs from getting into her vagina during the birth.  Begin wrapping about a week before he expected due date.  I like to use a new VetRap every day, rather than a resuable Ace bandage, because I find the VetRap is less likely to be applied too tightly.