Understand Normal Mare and Foal Behavior

Understanding normal mare and foal behavior will help you identify health and management problems before they become critical.

Ever since your mare's pregnancy was confirmed nearly 11 months ago, you've been anticipating her foal's arrival. Now the time is near, and you're a bit anxious, wondering exactly what to expect.

For the most part, nature will simply run its course as the mare delivers her foal and he begins to develop in the days and weeks following his birth. The vital role you can play in the process is to be an astute observer. By understanding the typical course of events as well as the behavior normally exhibited by a mare and her foal, you'll be able to recognize when something is amiss so that you can intervene and summon help before either horse is in serious danger.

Preparing to Foal
As your mare's due date draws near, you'll spend more time checking on her. Look for changes in her behavior. For instance, some mares who normally are unfriendly and aloof may seek attention, while others who usually are sociable can turn standoffish. Some mares may even begin to bite or kick while being handled. Although these types of changes are normal, behavior that is disrespectful and dangerous still calls for discipline.

Although you probably want to be present when your mare gives birth, she may have other ideas. Mares tend to foal late at night or early in the morning--the most tranquil time of day with the least intrusions. In the wild, mares typically give birth when it is dark to hide their vulnerable foals for the few hours it takes them to become physically able to rise and flee from predators. Like their wild counterparts, domestic mares may also delay foaling until they feel safe and comfortable. You may need to leave your mare alone in an appropriate foaling area--a clean, roomy, well-lit stall or a paddock not used for regular turnout--until she enters labor.

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The Stages of Labor
A mare goes through three stages of labor, each characterized by related behaviors.

Stage 1: Contractions. Your mare will be restless as she experiences contractions. The tightening of the muscles of the womb puts the foal in the correct position for passage through the birth canal. During this stage--which lasts from 30 minutes to a few hours--your mare is likely to behave as if she has colic. She may pace, paw the ground, lie down and rise frequently, and look at or bite her sides. These signs are normal, but if she begins to roll and thrash, summon your veterinarian immediately.

Stage 2: Delivery of her foal. A mare enters this most active stage of labor when her water breaks. For the 30 to 40 minutes that follow, she is likely to lie down as the foal passes through and emerges from the birth canal. Occasionally, she may stand up and stay up or reposition herself and lie down. She may look at her sides and nudge or bite them. She also may nicker or whinny. If she seems to struggle for more than 30 minutes and is making little progress in delivering her foal, call your veterinarian.

Stage 3: Passage of the placenta. The placenta--the membranous organ that connects the fetus to the uterus during pregnancy--is passed within 30 minutes to two hours after the foal has been born. The mare may lie down again for a final expulsive push. If she retains her placenta for a longer time, alert your veterinarian. Do not attempt to remove the placenta by pulling on it. Your mare can be seriously injured.

Signs of Normal Newborn Development
Foals perform a series of behaviors in the hours after birth. If your newborn fails to accomplish any of these milestones within the timeframe described, have your veterinarian examine him to determine whether a health or developmental problem may be responsible.

Here's a timeline of what to expect in nine areas as your newborn develops:

1. Breathing. Although a mare commonly rests immediately after giving birth, her foal is busy. Seconds after his pelvis clears his dam's body, he lifts his head and neck and then rolls onto his sternum. This motion generally breaks the amnion--the sac that surrounds him--allowing him to begin breathing within about 30 to 45 seconds. If your foal does not break the sac, tear it open and clear his nasal passages of mucus by getting his head upright and shaking it gently to assist natural drainage. If he does not start breathing within 30 to 45 seconds, rub his body vigorously and breathe into one nostril while holding the other closed--a procedure known as mouth-to-nose assisted breathing.

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