Signs and Stages of Labor in the Mare

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Is your mare in foal this spring? Are you ready for the big day and the new arrival? I recently had a friend adopt a mare and has been surprised to find out she is expecting, and asked for help. One tool for her, and anyone in this situation for their toolbox is to understand the stages of labor. Mares may display some or all of the signs below.

Signs that the time is near:

  • Filling of the udder (2-4 weeks)
  • Distention of the teats (4-6 days)
  • Waxing of the teats (1-4 days)
  • Obvious dripping of milk
  • Sagging muscles around tailhead
  • Sagging of vulva (up to twice normal length)

STAGE 1:  Contractions started  (1-4 hours)

  • May act colicky and paw the ground
  • Sweat around neck and flanks
  • Frequently passing small amounts of urine or manure
  • Pacing or circling stall or paddock
  • Up and down; nervous
  • Dilation of birth canal; water bag may become visible
  • Rush of fluid when bag breaks. Do not break the water bag!

Breaking of the water bag is the transition from Stage 1-2

STAGE 2: Delivery of the Foal (15-20 minutes) 

  • If this stage goes past 30 minutes or you see a red, velvety sack, call your vet immediately!
  • Usually, the mare will lie down for delivery. If not, be close to catch the foal. The mare may get up and lie down again to reposition.
  • Normal delivery is front feet first with the nose tucked level with the knees, Soles of the hooves should be pointed down. One foot may be slightly in front of the other. If soles are up, call the vet immediately!
  • The foal will be encased in a thin, transparent to whitish membrane (amniotic sac). If it does not rupture during delivery, tear it open and pull back from the foal’s face.
  • The mare and foal may rest with the foal half out, but if stage 3 goes longer than 30 minutes, call the vet. 

STAGE 3: Expulsion of the placenta (1-3 hours) 

  • If the placenta has not passed in 3 hours, call your vet!
  • A retained placenta is toxic to the mare in less than six hours.
  • The mare will usually stand up after delivery and the umbilical cord should break naturally.
  • Do not cut the umbilical cord! If needed, the cord can be broken manually by a twist/pull method or tied with twine, but best to follow your veterinarian’s guidance.

After foaling, the foal and mare should be monitored closely for at least 24 hours. The foal should be breathing normally, bright and alert, and should stand within 30-60 minutes after delivery. Nursing should happen within 2 hours; if not, call your vet. The first 8-12 hours are critical to absorb enough antibodies through the colostrum. The foal should also pass the meconium within 12 hours. It is recommended for the mare and foal to be seen by the vet within 24-36 hours after birth to examine them and the placenta/afterbirth.

Information in this article was compiled from The Equine Reproduction Lab at Colorado State University, along with a Vocational Services, Inc. (VSI) foal kit and an article from the University of Illinois CVM.