The mare will be preparing to give birth for some time before it becomes apparent to you, she will experience mild contractions that cause her to arch her back to relieve the discomfort, and will leave her group preferring to be alone. Once labour begins in earnest things do move fairly rapidly, and possibly the first visible sign will be a balloon of membrane filled with fluid, the size of a tennis ball, which you will be seen protruding from the vulva.
1. The first signs of the onset of foaling. The mare will move away from other herd members, will seem restless and may get up and down several times, appearing to land heavily on one side or the other, even rolling violently in an attempt to adjust the position of the unborn foal.
2. The mare is visibly uncomfortable and starts to strain with the onset of each contraction.
3. The correct presentation of the fore-feet just visible through the un-ruptured membrane still filled with amniotic fluid. The nose is shown here clearly visible between the forelegs, presented in the ‘diving’ position.
4. The head is almost delivered, one foreleg clearly in advance of the other so that the shoulders are presented as narrow as possible to pass through the pelvic girdle.
5. With only the hind legs left to be released, the bag has now ruptured so that the foal can move freely and breath air; the umbilical cord is still firmly attached and pulsating.
6. Mare and foal taking a breather before the final stage.
The duration of this stage is usually about 20 minutes, although if you are present it will seem a lot longer.
7. The foal starts to move away from the mare and releases itself from the membranes.
8. Although the foal is now an independent person and is managing to move further way from the mare; the cord has not yet ruptured, it is this progressive movement and even the act of the mare standing up, that will cause the cord to break at a pre-determined weak point.
9. The cord has now broken and the foal starts to make first attempts to get to its feet.
10. The protective fleshy pads that cover each hoof prior to birth; these will slowly dry and come away over the next hour or so.
11. Licking is an automatic reflex stimulated in the mare by the birth process and it is this that will help to warm and dry her foal and cement the maternal bond.
12. The foal makes a first attempt at standing by raising up onto the knees.
13. If you don’t succeed try the legs at the other end.
14. Finally success with all four legs in unison, almost!
The duration of this stage is again about 20 minutes, a healthy foal does not stay still for very long and whilst early attempts to stand will be followed by dramatic collapses, balance gets better as every moment passes until standing still evolves into a skip and a jump, and some involuntary gambolling.
15. The final element and a search for food. This is possibly the most frustrating time for all concerned, and the most vital as it is the fist milk or colostrums that lay down immunity from infection and disease. Nature has programmed the foal to seek for nourishment in the shadows, which occur under the chest and behind the elbow as well as under the ventral abdomen. Nature will come right and often human intervention causes more problems than it resolves, with a foal setting its neck and mouth against any attempt to guide it on to a teat. Once the udder is found the mare will relax and try to guide her foal into place by lifting her hind leg and pivoting into the most appropriate position.
So your foal has arrived safely and can breathe a sigh of relief. The mare should cleanse the afterbirth within 2 – 3 hours and you should carefully lay it out on the ground to check that it is complete, with no portion being retained that might set up an infection; at this stage it would be wise to call your veterinary surgeon to give the mare and foal a quick once over, and for the navel to be sprayed with an antiseptic.
Try and keep the visiting hoards to a trickle for a few days as both mother and baby need some calm and time to adjust to life, and the risk of infection bought in by other equine owners is a very real one.