From January to June the normal day on a Thoroughbred farm especially for a breeding and foaling operation is one few people get to experience but even for veterans of many foaling seasons it is always a special time of year.
A mares gestation period is approximately 340 days give or take and 95% of mares foal after dark. The foaling barn with mares that are closest to their foaling dates is staffed during the evening with an experienced foaling person. One that can recognize the many signs of impending foaling. If a full time nightwatchman or foaling person is not in a farm’s budget they can use available monitoring systems worn by the mare that will set off an alarm and/or closed circuit television systems. Milk calcium testing strips or a combination of any these can be used to determine how close mares are to foaling. But the tried and true night watch person that stays watch over the mares during the night has long been the accepted protocol if financially affordable.
The nightwatchman or foaling person which encompasses both men and women are experienced at watching for early signs of impending labor in a mare that may start days before she actually delivers. Knowing a mare’s normal habits and recognizing differences including backing off her feed, hay and water intake, more actively pacing the stall, increased size in her udder, waxing of the teats and/or running milk along with relaxing of hindquarter muscles and changes in the vulvar area all some early signs the mare is getting closer to foaling. Mares will also “heat up” as her delivery time draws even closer. Her body will feel hot to the touch and her neck will become sweaty as the pains of labor begin. A call to the farm owner or management living on the farm will be made as they see her breaking water and the waiting process will begin for full labor and delivery, not much different as with the human delivery process.
As the delivery process starts some assistance is given by gentle pulling on the foal as the mare pushes. Most deliveries go smoothly but if complications arise this is where having someone who has years of experience becomes vital. With this experience early signs of these complications can make all the difference in a successful delivery. One scenario would be if the foal is coming facing up with the feet pointing up toward the tail instead of down toward the ground, measures can be taken to turn the foal while still in the birth canal into a correct delivery position resulting in a successful delivery.
Once delivered the foal is given an enema to help it pass meconium, is started on a short cycle of antibiotics, the mare is given a shot of banamine to help with after birth pains and the placenta is tied up to keep her from stepping on it and tearing it and to add weight to it making it easier for her to pass. The mare and foal are then left to the bonding process with close observation still given to make sure the foal acts normally and nurses in a timely manner and if the mare is a maiden (who has never had a foal before) that she is calm and responsive to the foal.
A foal will start trying to stand almost immediately and is usually standing and nursing within an hour as nature instills a drive for the need to keep up with the herd. Within hours this wobbly confused newborn is bucking and playing in the stall ready to be turned out to learn how to manage what seem to be impossibly long legs.
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