By Rachel Beerbower
We have all heard expectant parents talk about baby proofing their homes. Well, this is the time of year when many people are expecting… baby horses, that is! Foaling season is upon all expectant mothers and owners alike. I had a chance to talk to Steve Brown from the University of Findlay to share with me how he “baby proofs” his barn.
“First of all, make sure you have all the first aid equipment on hand. Nothing causes more problems in an emergency than not being prepared,” Steve says. His first aid kit includes iodine, clean towels, and gloves. If a vet is present, they may bring probiotics, tetanus shots, lubrication, and OB chains.
Most mares do not care how convenient foaling is for you. The vast majority of mares have their babies at night. This was critical in the wild. Now it simply means mare owners never sleep! If you are lucky enough to have cameras set up, make sure they work. Steve says he typically wakes up every hour to look at the camera. “But,” Steve laughs, “you have to admit, this is a much better option than walking out to the barn!”
If you have space, keep the mare in a foaling stall. This is much larger than a normal stall, to ensure mare and foal have ample room. Check the stall for any low protruding screws, nails, hooks, or other dangers on which a curious newborn can catch a nostril or their rump. Be sure to have your mare’s stall heavily bedded with lots of straw or bedding, as the mare will often lay down and stand up, moving about as she tries to get comfortable during labor. Offer some hay and water, but don’t be too concerned if she is too uncomfortable to eat. It helps to wrap her tail in vetrap or an ace bandage to keep it from getting stuck in fluids and the birthing process. A good time to do this is when you notice the mare’s teats “waxing up,” or getting a waxy looking coating on the tips. This means she is nearing labor.
Another thing to prepare is a list of phone numbers. Will you need to call a vet or trusted friend? Be sure to have the numbers in your barn and programed into your cell phone.
You should also be familiar with the foaling process. In a normal delivery, the foal should be front feet first, and then the head, followed by the rest of the body. This is often called the “superman position,” with one hoof coming out before the other. This staggering of the front feet is necessary, otherwise the foal’s shoulders will be caught in the birth canal. Once the knees are out, you should be able to see the baby’s nose.
Most deliveries will require no assistance from you, but there may be some cases where you need to help pull the foal out. Discuss these emergencies with your vet so you are aware of what a struggling mare looks like. If you do need to pull the foal, pull out and down. Here is a good rule of thumb: If the baby has not made progress twenty minutes after the water has broken, call your vet. This is where that list of numbers comes in handy! Another reason to call the vet is if the foal is breached, meaning coming out of the birth canal backwards. This is very serious and the mare will need help.
Steve has one more piece of advice: “Do not help the foal stand up.”
“Everyone sees a baby struggling and wants to help it up. In my experiences, those horses do not try very hard when they grow up.” Let mama and baby figure it out on their own! Once you see the foal is nursing, it is best to leave. The first nursing is when the foal gets the colostrum, or first milk. This nutrient rich feeding is imperative for the baby to receive nutrients and immunities from the mother. You can go in and rub on the foal and get it used to handling at an early stage in life. However, remember to give the new pair plenty of space! Peace and quiet is all the mare and foal need. You will have plenty of time to enjoy the newcomer later on.
Be sure to give the foal time and space for exercise, and to try out those new legs! Mama would appreciate some space to roam as well. If you are turning them outside, check all fences to ensure a small foal can’t wriggle through or trip in a hole. If in an indoor arena, ensure the foal can’t get into any trouble with things you have stacked in corners. Don’t worry about leading the baby at first, he or she will be a mini shadow for mom during the first few months. Be careful to not separate the mare and foal too quickly, as it can cause panic for both.
Do not let foaling season stress you out! This is an exciting time of year for horse people. Be prepared and have fun with it!