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Birth Day Basics
You've carefully researched and selected the perfect stud for your mare, spent the last 11 months giving your pregnant mare the best attention and management you could provide and now it's time. The foal you spent all that work and worry on is about to make his - or her grand entrance. Don't blow it now! While birth is by definition a natural part of life, even with a healthy mare and foal, there are potential problems. And if the foal is born with a disease or other problem, or the mare suffers some injury, that can create a whole other set of issues to deal with. To go into all the potential problems is beyond the scope of any article; there are whole books already dedicated to the subject. But even with all the things that can go wrong, foals are born each spring without a hitch or with only minor challenges to their success. For this article, we'll focus on these foals, and the things you can do to make their first days healthier and easier.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the actions of overeager "grandparents" can disrupt the process and unwittingly result in complications. We're not telling you that you can't get excited - that'd be like telling you to stop breathing. Just don't let your emotions overrule your common sense and your ability to project a calm, unobtrusive demeanor to your mare. To help you keep your head and ensure that your foal's world debut is as trouble-free as possible, be prepared ahead of time and make sure you know what's normal, as well as how and when to step in should there be any difficulties. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is stay out of Mother Nature's way. If this is your first foaling, read on and take some time to discuss the upcoming event with your vet. And if you've been lucky enough to witness this miracle before, keep this article handy as a reference in case you forget something in your excitement.
To make sure all goes well on Birth Day, choose a safe, clean place for your mare to bear her foal. A grassy pasture, one with the manure removed regularly, is often better than a stall and harbors fewer bacteria. Infections picked up at foaling can be dangerous to the newborn. Also, the footing in a pasture is generally better for a new foal to make his first attempts at standing and he won't be encumbered by bedding. He also won't be hindered by walls or mangers.
However, not everyone has the luxury of a pasture. If your foal must be inside, you'll need to make sure the stall is very clean with fresh, dust-free bedding - but the bedding shouldn't be so deep your new foal will have trouble standing or will be buried when lying down. You must also check the ammonia levels in the stall; ammonia from urine and manure can be very damaging to young lungs. Dr. Heidi Smith of Terrebonne, Oregon, an equine reproduction specialist, recommends you "actually lie down in the stall to see if you can smell ammonia. Often stalls are quite pleasant at our height, but pretty noxious at floor level, and ammonia damage is one of the leading contributing factors to foal pneumonia in housed foals." If you can smell ammonia when lying on the floor, you must clean!
Also, to make a stall foaling-friendly, remove feed mangers and, if possible, any other obstacles he may crash into while he stumbles endearingly to his feet. Inspect every inch of the walls, floor and any surfaces your foal could come into contact with when lying down, falling, standing and even rearing - he'll be able to do that sooner than you might think. Remove any objects that might tear tender flesh, such as protruding nails (either end can scrape and cut young skin), screw eyes, splinters, sharp metal edges and so on.
Birth generally takes place swiftly, usually in the middle of the night, so be attentive if you intend to be there. One advantage of a stall-bound foaling is that you can set up surveillance video cameras and foaling monitors to help you keep abreast of your mare's condition and let you know when your foal has begun arriving. Also, it's generally easier to approach your mare and watch the process from the barn.
Usually there are no problems, but if something goes wrong, timely assistance can make the difference between life or death for the foal; even if a situation is beyond your experience, you might be able to at least summon professional assistance in time to save the day. Besides, there's nothing quite like witnessing a new life entering this world, and most owners find it difficult to tear themselves away from the nativity scene, even after sleepless nights waiting.
By the time your mare's water breaks, unless you have extensive foaling experience, you should have already called your vet. While your mare and foal might manage just fine without professional help, it's usually best to err on the cautious side - most vets would rather be called out needlessly, arriving to find a healthy mom and baby, than to be called out too late to save one or both.
Once your vet arrives, she'll examine your mare to be sure the foal is in the correct position to safely leave the mare's body. If your vet hasn't arrived by the time you see the foal coming, check to see that the nose and both forelegs are protruding through first. Anything else is trouble, but while it may be tempting to try to correct an improper position yourself, keep in mind that untrained attempts can have serious adverse effects.
For example, if a leg is positioned wrong, the mare may stop pushing, allowing gravity to help reposition it. But an arm inserted in the mare's opening to adjust the leg can trigger contractions to begin again, catching the leg in a dangerous location. Also, you may be impatient with a long delivery, but there are several hazards of pulling on the foal's legs to speed up his trip, including broken bones, pressure on the foal's heart and lungs and damage to the mare.
If your vet still hasn't arrived by the time the foal has fully emerged, the first thing you must do is make sure he's breathing, says Dr. Smith. The newborn foal cannot go very long without oxygen without leaving him susceptible to serious problems and permanent damage, she adds, so if your foal is having a breathing problem right after birth, unless your vet is already there, it's up to you to help get him going.
Immediately after a normal birth, most foals raise their heads and roll up into an upright position on the chest, with forelegs extending in front of them. Because of the way the horse's chest and ribcage are constructed, he breathes best when standing or sitting upright, so the lungs can expand properly. Also, an upright position changes pressure in the blood vessels, which opens them more near the air sacs in the lungs, so they can take in more oxygen.
By contrast, if your foal is tired and weak from a long, difficult birth, or some other birthing problem, he may remain lying flat. In this position, his lungs are partially collapsed and can't fill completely fill, so he can't breathe as well. And if the amniotic sac didn't break during foaling, it could even smother him. If you see the unbroken sac covering your foal's head - especially if it's still filled with fluid - you'll need to clean it off instantly, but do so quietly and remain calm.
Your newborn may show immediate, obvious signs of lack of oxygen or weakness (lying flat, unable to sit up or just limp and listless), or he may appear normal at first, then begin gasping for breath. If he seems listless or remains lying flat, but appears to be breathing, you may be able to help. Left unattended, a weak foal may not try hard to sit up and will lie flat - becoming increasingly weaker due to compromised breathing.
To encourage circulation and respiration, make sure his airways aren't obstructed, position the foal on his chest in an upright position, then gently rub his body with a rough towel and move his legs while giving him a body massage. Do this until his blood has sufficient oxygen to give him strength to attempt sitting up on his own and eventually stand, advises Dr. Smith. If he cannot stay upright by himself as you rub him, prop him up with bedding or hay bales to help make sure he does.
If the sac has broken, but your foal isn't breathing at all at birth, clear the mucus and fluid from his nasal passages with a suction bulb. If you don't have a squeeze bulb to do this and it's obvious his airways are somewhat blocked, position him briefly with head downward to help the fluid drain out, and gently squeeze out fluid by pressing your thumb and forefinger along the top of the nostrils toward the muzzle, as if you were squeezing a toothpaste tube.
If he's still not breathing within a minute of birth, immediately givehim artificial respiration. With him lying on his side, head and neck extended, cover one nostril tightly with your hand, holding his mouth shut. Gently blow into the other nostril - not forcefully or rapidly or you may rupture a lung. Blow until you see the chest wall rise, then let the air come back out on its own. Repeat as long as there's any heartbeat, until the foal starts breathing on his own.
Usually once the tissues become less oxygen-starved, the foal will regain consciousness and start breathing - it may be erratic at first, but if everything else is normal he will develop a more regular breathing pattern in a few minutes, and his heart rate will rise to normal level.
You can feel the heartbeat with your hand on the lower left side of the ribcage just behind and above the elbows - fairly easily in a foal because there's little tissue between the heart and the outside chest wall. Heart rate can be an indication of the respiratory distress; it drops as body tissues are depleted of oxygen. Normal rate is between 80 and 120 beats per minute for the new foal, however, if he was stressed in the birth canal, it may drop lower. If heartbeat stays low, the foal is usually in trouble. If you don't let your foal go without oxygen for too long, there's hope for him while there's a heartbeat.
That Magic Moment
If the foal arrives safely and seems to be breathing fine, don't rush in to clean up soiled bedding, cut the umbilical cord or handle the foal. After the birth, the mare and foal will usually lie there a few moments; in fact, the foal will often be trying to stand up even before the mare does. The umbilical cord breaks when the mare stands up, but don't disturb her or try to get her up, cautions Dr. Smith.
"The mare and foal should be left alone until the cord breaks. The placenta can contain 1 or more liters of the foal's blood, and the foal can be deprived of this if the cord ruptures too soon. If a person must go into the stall to clear membranes away from the foal's nose, do so quietly and quickly and then get back out."
As soon as the foal's navel cord breaks, the stump should be dipped in antiseptic (such as Betadine or chlorhexadine) to help it dry quickly and seal off the entrance to prevent infection. You should repeat this twice more within the next few hours. One way to apply the antiseptic is to completely immerse the navel stump in a small jar of the solution, pressed up against the foal's abdomen and swished around, being careful not to spill any on the foal's skin. Another method is to spray on the solution.
Unless the weather is extremely cold and the wet foal might freeze, don't dry him off with towels immediately. Give the mother a chance to lick and smell him so she can learn his taste and identify him as hers to aid in her bonding.
The normal foal will try to get up soon after birth. Expect him to fall down several times before gaining his feet. While it's tempting to help your little guy, it's usually unnecessary and sometimes even harmful. Occasionally a foal has a fractured or cracked rib from the pressures of birth, which believe it or not, is normally fine. But attempts to pick him up or help him stand may displace the fractured ends and cause them to puncture a lung, cautions Dr. Smith.
Monitor his progress in getting to his feet and to the udder, but help him only as a last resort to ensure he gets his milk in time. Too much "help" too soon may interfere with bonding of mother and baby, especially if it's the mare's first foal or she's a nervous horse anyway.
Imprint training, or getting the foal used to human handling and sensations, can be beneficial if it's done at the right time. But you must be careful not to interrupt the mare/foal bonding process or she may reject her foal and refuse to allow him to nurse. Remember, a mare's instinct is to go off by herself to foal away from the herd. Some mares even object to being observed and won't foal until completely alone. The first hour is the most important time for bonding. During this time, after applying antiseptic to the cord, leave the two alone, observing quietly from a distance as the new mother nuzzles her foal.
Also, keep in mind that instinct has programmed the foal to follow any large moving object at birth, and if he spies you before he gets a firm fix on mama, he may have trouble bonding with her and looking to her for nursing.
It's important that the foal nurse within the first 2 hours of birth and get an adequate amount of colostrum, or first milk, within the first 4 hours, to get the most benefit from its antibodies. "Foals lose 75 percent of their ability to absorb colostrum by 4 hours of age," says Dr. Smith. "The foal's intestinal lining begins to close its membranes to absorption of large molecules - the immunoglobulins in colostrum - soon after birth." The antibodies can no longer slip through the gut lining into the lymph system and bloodstream. A foal that fails to nurse soon after birth gets only a fraction of the antibody protection he will need to protect him from diseases (such as those that cause diarrhea and pneumonia).
Dr. Smith explains that colostrum is still advantageous after the first few hours for prevention of gut infections, because some antibodies still have some local activity in the gut. "But ability to absorb antibodies into the bloodstream is quickly diminished," she adds. "I'd advise owners to be sure foals get the colostrum as long as possible, but if they miss (or think they have missed) that golden 4 hours, they should have their veterinarian take a blood sample from the foal to check immunoglobulins levels."
This simple inexpensive test can be run in just a few minutes. If there's a failure of passive transfer (immunities from mare to foal) for any reason - whether the foal failed to nurse in time, the mare did not have sufficient antibodies in her colostrum or the foal's intestines failed to absorb the antibodies - the foal can be transfused with a commercial plasma preparation.
Your normal, healthy foal will have a strong desire to nurse and will keep trying until he accomplishes it. As long as he gets a good nursing by 2 to 3 hours old, he'll be fine, so don't interfere with his clumsy attempts unless your mare is refusing to let him nurse or is trying to harm him. If her udders are sore, or if she's had a bad prior foaling experience, you may have to enlist a friend to hold her against a fence or wall to allow the foal to nurse, while you guide the foal. Nursing stimulates hormones that triggers maternal instincts, and the udders won't be so tight and therefore sore, so generally after one or two nursings a mare accepts her foal.
If for some reason the foal is unable to nurse, you can feed him colostrum from a bottle, or at your vet's direction, by stomach tube if he is weak and unable to suck. If the foal is so weak he needs to be fed by a tube however, he probably needs to be in a neonatal intensive care unit, or at least be receiving intravenous solutions and other supportive care. A stomach tube is a simple plastic tube that goes into the nostril to the back of the mouth, then down the esophagus into the stomach. The vet may leave it in, stitching it in place with a few strands of suture thread so it won't come out. Then you can milk out the mare periodically (with very clean hands, into a clean container) and have your vet funnel
the milk down the tube at specific intervals and specified amounts. This has advantages over bottle feeding if the foal is very weak. You can get the proper amount of milk into him without any effort on his part that might tire him and without danger of milk getting into his windpipe.
Colostrum is vital to the new foal. It provides antibodies against diseases, and has more energy, protein, vitamins and minerals than regular milk. It's a gut stimulant, helping him pass his first bowel movements. These first evacuations are often firm and hard-packed and can be difficult to pass. Sometimes an enema is necessary to help him get rid of these hard pellets, but in most cases the laxative effect of colostrum gets things moving.
The colostrum contains a creamy fat that is high in energy and easily digested. This is an ideal first meal for the foal, giving him strength and calories to generate body heat. The foal that nurses soon after birth is more lively and vigorous (and able to stay warmer if born on a cold night) than one who hasn't yet nursed. Once the foal gets some colostrum he'll usually have the energy to keep looking for more, becoming stronger and more coordinated with each meal. The newborn nurses small amounts, frequently. Equine behavioral studies have shown that during the first few days of life, a foal will nurse on average seven times an hour.
Some newborns are slow to nurse due to complications from foaling, or a birth defect or impairment, but others are slow for no apparent reason. In these instances, you may have to hand feed the foal until he begins to nurse on his own.
While fillies seldom have any problems urinating, colts are more susceptible to bladder ruptures during the birthing process, which would prevent them from urinating. Unfortunately, the only clue you'll have is if he hasn't urinated by the end of his first day. However, this can be difficult to determine unless you watch him relentlessly all those hours. By 48 to 72 hours, if your colt has a ruptured bladder, he'll appear weak and despondent. Since by this time he'll be quite sick from the toxins in his system, this is another reason to have your vet present at birth to check on the new foal's health.
You'll also need to monitor your foal to see if he shows signs of constipation, which is more common. If you see him lifting his tail and straining, but see no signs of the meconium, or first stool, by the end of the first day, you'll need to administer an enema. The meconium is usually dark and very dry, and so can easily cause an impaction. For this reason, many breeders administer enemas as soon as the foal has nursed.
You can buy an inexpensive enema at the drugstore, or use a cup or two of warm, slightly soapy water or mineral oil, gently squirted into the rectum with a big syringe or with a regular enema tube (put carefully into the rectum a few inches) and squeeze bulb. Have someone hold the foal for you, with an arm around his chest and one around his hindquarters, while you give the enema.
Some foals have many tightly packed pellets and need an additional enema to get rid of them until the colostrum works through. However, you should consult with your vet to avoid overdosing, causing the colon to balloon or build up toxic levels of phosphate, a common ingredient in enemas. Some stubborn cases may need a small quantity of mineral oil orally, or Milk of Magnesia, to soften up a high impaction that is out of reach of an enema. If the foal continues to have trouble passing bowel movements
or shows discomfort, consult your vet.
If born in a stall, the foal and his dam should be turned out into a paddock or pasture as soon as he has nursed a few times, and the pair is well-bonded and seems healthy - unless, of course, the weather is bad. The foal needs exercise; moving around will help him become stronger and more coordinated, and stimulate his mind, as well as his appetite and digestive tract.
Turn the pair out alone in an enclosure with no snake or gopher holes to trip up little hooves, and with solid, safe fencing - no barb wire! There should be no other horses with mom and baby, as these others might pester the mare and try to steal the foal. It's possible for mares to swap foals if several mares and new foals are in the same pasture and foaled at the same time. To prevent this, keep each pair by themselves the first few days until bonding is fully established.
The paddock should be away from the influence of other horses, as an overly protective mare may charge at interested onlookers leering over the fence, possibly injuring her foal in the process. If the ground is wet or weather is cold, leave them out for only a few hours the first time, bringing them back in the barn when the foal gets tired and wants to lie down. But if the weather is good, the pair is better off left outside.
With conscientious care, you can ensure a healthy birth day for your new foal. Even with a normal, easy birth, you should closely monitor your foal for the first few hours to make sure he is healthy and doing all right. Paying close attention to details and analyzing your foal's attitude and behavior can clue you in to problems in time to take action or get veterinary help, and prevent small problems from turning serious. Besides, it's a nice excuse to give your family about why you must spend hours watching the adorable antics of this new life.
By Heather Thomas Donated by Melissa Duncan