After 11 months of waiting, the big day has arrived; your mare is about to deliver. Of course, the birth itself is a miracle of sorts, but as you'll soon discover, a youngster's first minutes and hours of life are a remarkable mixture of joy and anticipation.
This, after all, is the period when a newborn foal adapts to life outside the womb. His first gasps of breath inflate the alveoli in his lungs. An arterial shunt, which before birth channeled blood past the pulmonary system, will soon close so that freshly oxygenated blood can be sent from the lungs to the rest of the body. When the foal nurses for the first time, his gastrointestinal tract springs into action with a burst of hormones, enzymes and other substances. Meanwhile, other vital systems--renal, thermoregulatory, neurological--quickly come on-line, ready to meet the demands of this brave new world.
The vast majority of the time, all of this goes off without a hitch, and all you need to do is to schedule a veterinary exam within the first day to confirm that all is well. But if anything does go wrong, detecting the problem quickly can make the difference between life and death.
"A newborn foal can deteriorate very quickly, so call your veterinarian at the first sign of a problem," says Heather Kaese, DVM, of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. "Oftentimes it is easier and less expensive to treat sick foals right away, and it can improve the chances of a positive outcome."
It's important, then, to understand the normal stages of development during those first critical hours so that you can recognize the earliest signs of trouble. The following time line tells you what to look for during your newborn foal's first day. As long as everything appears normal, mare and foal will take care of themselves. But if you find yourself considering whether to make an emergency call to your veterinarian, err on the side of caution: All of these times are approximate, and if you have any doubts, it's best to go ahead and seek help.
Once the mare's amniotic sac ruptures (known as the water breaking), the birth is under way. Within 10 to 20 minutes, you will see one front hoof appear, followed by the other, about three to four inches behind. In a normal birth, both hooves will be front side up, or just slightly turned. The muzzle follows, on top of the legs. Once the body of the foal is on the ground, possibly still encased in the amniotic sac, the mare may stop to rest while his hind legs are still inside her. If the first two hooves to appear are sole upward, you may be seeing the hind feet, an indication of a breech presentation; a breech birth may also proceed normally, with little harm to the foal.
Your role: During a normal birth, you are primarily an observer. Disturbing the mare or interfering with the process won't help and may cause problems. Unless something goes wrong, don't intervene.
Call your veterinarian if: having medical help at hand would make you feel more comfortable. "Some people call the veterinarian as soon as the mare's water breaks, then hope there's nothing for him to do when he gets there," says Jon Palmer, VMD, director of Perinatology/Neonatology Programs, New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania. "That's a personal preference, not a necessity, as long as what you are observing appears normal. If it doesn't, call your veterinarian immediately."
It's an emergency if: more than 20 minutes elapse from the time the mare's water breaks until the delivery is completed or if an improper presentation seems to be delaying the birth. The appearance in the birth canal of only one forelimb, or of both legs but not the muzzle, or the soles facing upward indicates that the foal may need to be repositioned by an expert. If the first thing you see is not the white amniotic sac but rather the bright red surface of the detached placenta, the foal's life is in immediate danger.
The foal will begin to draw his first breaths within about 30 seconds of birth, and within two minutes, he ought to be breathing regularly at a rate of about 60 breaths per minute. The first breaths will be irregular and ragged as the lungs inflate for the first time. As the foal starts to breathe, don't be surprised if you see some clear liquid coming out of his nose. In utero, the fetus's lungs are filled with fluid; during birth most of this fluid is squeezed out and some is later absorbed into the blood and lymph system, but a small amount may still need to drain, a process that may continue for up to an hour.