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Close Observation Vital at Foaling Time

19 May 2017
Type Media Article

By Wendy Conlon, Equine Specialist, Teagasc

Foaling season is underway for sport horse and pony mares. Usually there's no requirement to intervene. However, things can go badly wrong very quickly so it is critical to monitor mares closely as foaling approaches. Minutes can make a significant difference to the outcome where intervention is required.

Two weeks before due date have mares with a stitched vulva opened to avoid damage during foaling.

Correct Presentation and Timing:

Correct delivery presentation is with the head lying on top of the front legs and the spine of the foal lying against that of the mare.

Check presentation is correct: Insert a gloved (sterile) and generously lubricated arm gently through the vulva taking care not to rupture the amnion. Dirt and bacteria can be introduced so first wash down the vulva with water and clean cotton wool.

Feel for the feet and, running the hand along each leg feel the knees. Confirm front legs are presented, hooves facing down. One leg should be slightly in front of the other, head lying on top of the legs slightly off centre. It's important to identify which limbs are present and in what direction.

Once the mare has broken water there is, on average, about twenty minutes to the foal being expelled (rarely exceeds thirty minutes).

Dystocia (difficult/abnormal foaling):

It is imperative to recognise quickly when a vet is required. Inexperienced manipulation may potentially result in fatal damage to the mare and/or foal.

Foetal causes of dystocia include abnormal presentation; dead foal; developmental defects (contracted tendons); or, rarely, an oversized foal. Less common maternal causes may include birth canal defects; expulsion defects (age/weakness/pain); and premature separation of the placenta (placenta praevia). Serious maternal causes of dystocia include for example twisting of the uterus and rupture of the uterus.

Six main signs of dystocia:

  1. White amnion with front legs and nose fails to appear shortly after waters break
  2. Bright red membrane at the vulva with no fluid loss ('red bag' / placenta praevia) 
  3. Repeated forceful straining with nothing happening 
  4. No straining for lengthy periods once waters have broken and amnion appeared
  5. Mare continually getting up and down, rolling from side to side 
  6. Foal stuck at the hips once head and chest are out

In the case of all except 2 above, try preventing straining until the vet arrives. Get the mare up and walking. Gravity helps return foal to the uterus in a standing mare. A foal half in and half out is worse than a foal in the uterus due to serious risk of the umbilical cord being trapped and foal being deprived of oxygen.

Any limb 'pulling' must be at the same time as the mares own contractions, in a downward arc toward the mare's hocks, equal on both limbs ensuring one limb remains slightly in front of the other, but only if confirmed that the foal is in the correct position for delivery.

Red Bag Presentation (Placenta Praevia)

'Red bag' delivery is an emergency. The placenta hasn't ruptured and appears as a bright red membrane at the vulva. It must be ruptured immediately otherwise the foal will suffocate, being deprived of oxygen. It may require a blunt ended scissors to break the membrane.

Hind limbs or tail first. Vet is required a.s.a.p. as fast delivery is necessary for survival.

Mares foaling standing up: 
If she remains standing the foal must be cradled as much as possible during delivery. Clamp the navel as soon as the foal is delivered and bring the mare around carefully. There's greater risk of pressure on the umbilical cord when foaling standing up and consequent loss of oxygen to the foal.


The passing of the placenta usually occurs within three hours of delivery, if not call the vet. If the placenta isn't absolutely complete, call the vet. Not addressing this may result in at best a mare with serious laminitis or septicaemia; and worst case a mare may die as a result of toxins/ infection in her bloodstream.


Where a dystocia occurs decisions and manipulation must be accomplished within 10-15 minutes. Have the vets' number on speed dial. Regular committed observation of heavily pregnant mares and presence at foaling time is critical. If you lack experience consider sending your mare to a professional foaling yard. Foaling alarms are widely available and can be a big help. Those stitched into the vulva are the most reliable.