Dr. Ahmed Tibary, Professor of Theriogenology in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Washington State University, says that the most important thing he emphasizes to breeders is that even if foaling occurred quickly and with no observed complications, this does not mean there are no problems in the mare.
“You cannot see cervical or vaginal injuries, and these may occur even without a dystocia,” he explains.
Dr. Jerry Black, Colorado State University, says mare owners should make sure the mare is bright and alert after foaling.
“One of the more serious problems that may occur is post-foaling hemorrhage due to rupture of one of the uterine blood vessels during parturition. Most mares, once they foal, will want to eat something fairly soon, and have a drink of water, if they are not too nervous and worried about their new baby. We like to have a small amount of hay available for them, to help us know whether they are in a normal post-foaling mode.”
If the mare is not interested in food, it may be an early sign there’s something wrong.
“Any mare that shows an abnormality in the first few hours becomes an emergency,” says Tibary. “This would include anything from profuse bleeding to colic, to abnormal appearance of vulva and/or rectum, a mare that is shivering or shocky, rejecting the foal, a foal born dead, or any other abnormalities,” he says.
Emergencies would include severe accidents such as a prolapsed uterus, prolapsed rectum (both of which are rare), prolapsed or inverted bladder, severe rectal-vaginal tears (as when the foal’s foot pushes through the vagina into the rectum), severe bruising or laceration of the vagina, etc.
“These can be complicated if the mare becomes infected, or can become aggravated by severe inflammation. Simple vaginal bruising that’s painful may prevent the mare from urinating or defecating because it hurts,” he explains.
Then the mare becomes impacted, and this secondary problem may be worse than the primary problem. A preventative treatment for mares before foaling would include laxative feeds like bran mash, so bowel movements will be softer and more readily passed without causing pain. Some broodmare farms and practitioners administer mineral oil to all post-partum mares, and particularly any that have had some trouble during foaling.
Asking your veterinarian check the mare and foal within the first 24 hours of birth is a great precautionary measure.
“Minimally the veterinarian will take a look at the mare physically, check her temperature, and look at the perineum. If any post-foaling trauma is suspected, a rectal/vaginal exam may also be performed,” he says.
One of the biggest emergencies in the mare after foaling is bleeding. Just because a mare seems fine after foaling doesn’t necessarily mean she’s out of danger and should not be monitored.
“This may take hours, or a few days, depending on the extent of the hemorrhage,” says Tibary. “This is why it is important to do a post-partum examination during the first 24 hours. Even if everything seems normal, the examination can help classify the mares as normal, or needing more follow-up examination.”
The follow-up examination can alert the owner and veterinarian to something to potential problems.
“Many mares have mild to moderate uterine cramps after foaling, and they will lie down to expel the placenta,” says Black. “This is not something to worry about. The cramping is usually temporary, and a normal process, but you need to watch the mare. If pain continues or the mare becomes violent in her colic, this may be an indication of muscle cramping or some other serious condition and you need to contact a veterinarian.”
If the mare is rolling, steps should be taken to make sure she doesn’t endanger her foal.
Experts also advise that after foaling, the mare’s placenta should be saved and checked by a veterinarian who can tell if it has been expelled completely.
“The placenta can give a number of clues about whether there might be a post-foaling problem,” Black says.
On many farms, it is also common to check mares’ temperatures periodically for the first 24 to 36 hours. There will usually be some temperature elevation prior to any other signs of infection. Post-partum infections are fairly common and can be very serious because of the potential to create laminitis. Normal temperature in mares is between 99.5 and 101.5.
“If you suspect a problem check the mare’s temperature every 4 to 6 hours. It’s amazing how high, and how quickly, the temperature can climb, with an acute endometritis. By the time the mare looks depressed and is starting to show the first signs of laminitis, it has been going on for awhile,” says Black.
“When checking temperature, it’s also helpful to monitor digital pulse. If we see a mare that may be borderline on temperature (101.5 to 102), we also reach down and check her digital pulse (on the large vein above the foot, below the fetlock joint), to make sure she’s not in the early stages of laminitis. This is something your veterinarian can show you how to do,” says Black.
It’s also important to check manure output.
“Many mares become mildly dehydrated. They may not want to pass manure because of post-foaling abdominal pain—especially if it’s their first foaling. So make sure they are eating, and passing manure,” says Black.
For the first 3 or 4 days after foaling, mares are also prone to displacement colic. There may be a mild displacement of the colon if it shifts into the suddenly empty space after the foal is born and the uterus is shrinking up (involuting).
“We want to make sure the mare has plenty of milk for the foal. The immediate concern is colostrum. Some mares are slow coming to their milk. The baby needs a full complement of antibodies from colostrum within 12 hours of birth—preferably within the first 4 to 6 hours.”
Optimum absorption of antibodies takes place within the first 2 to 4 hours.
“Foals that are continuously trying to nurse or bumping the udder are not getting enough milk, and you need to call your veterinarian. The only real way to make sure the foal has adequate passive transfer is to run an IgG test. This should be done between 8 and 16 hours after the foal is born,” he explains.
“On our breeding farm, we used to just check IgG levels on foals from mares we thought had problems, but it is good management practice to check every baby. For several years now, we’ve checked every foal’s IgG levels,” he says. This can alert you to a potential problem and the foal can be given an alternative source of antibodies before his health is compromised.
Some people have concerns about mares that leak excessive amounts of milk before foaling, but most of the pre-foaling fluid in the udder is not colostrum. Those foals should definitely be checked, however, to make sure they obtained enough antibodies.
“If you are going to give a foal supplemental colostrum, it has to be done before the foal is 12 hours old. Anything after that has to be plasma,” says Black.
Sometimes during a difficult foaling, or manipulation of the foal in order to assist delivery, one of the foal’s feet may scrape or tear the uterus.
Some mares suffer vaginal trauma during parturition.
“It’s always good to look at the perineum, especially in mares that foaled unattended, to make sure there are no tears of the vulva or lacerations and hematomas of the vaginal mucosa that create a big hematoma. Those would require a visit from your veterinarian because there may be repairs that need to be done, and the mare may need antibiotics,” says Black.
“One of the things we’ve found through the years is that mares tend to have more post-foaling trauma from well-intended owners who are trying to assist the delivery by pulling. Unfortunately, this can sometimes do more harm than good. If we start pulling unnecessarily and try to get the foal out too rapidly without letting the mare to relax and rest between contractions, we have higher incidence of injury to the mare,” says Black.
It’s best to leave Mother Nature alone, unless you know there is a real crisis.
“If you are pulling on the foal you are risking damage not only to the reproductive tract but in some cases to the foal, as well. You may cause premature separation of the umbilical cord, and then the foal may have oxygen deprivation,” says Black.
“A common problem that is not quite an emergency but needs to be taken care of is rectal-vaginal tearing,” says Tibary. “There are different degrees of seriousness. Some are more dangerous than others. Uterine prolapse and uterine tears are not as common, but always serious,” he says.
“In mares, bladder prolapse is relatively common after severe dystocia, compared with other species, because the urethral opening in the mare is so large. Sometimes it is so large that you can put your whole hand into the bladder. The minor problems that may become complicated later are bruising of the cervix, etc.,” he says.
“These are some of the reasons that every mare needs to be looked at after foaling, to pick up on those situations. Even if it is not life-endangering, it may be a problem for the mare’s future fertility,” Tibary says. You may be able to treat or correct something now, and prevent problems later. And some situations may or may not be correctable. You may have to make the hard decision about putting down the mare, and end up with an orphan foal.
A situation that requires prompt attention is a mare that delivers her foal normally, but does not shed the placenta on time.
“Usually we define retained placenta as one that hasn’t been delivered completely by 3 hours post foaling,” says Tibary.”
Some mares retain the placenta with no adverse affects, but this is no reason to do nothing. “I wouldn’t take a chance. The overwhelming majority of mares that retain the placenta have severe complications, including endotoxemia and laminitis,” he says.
“One caution with retained placenta is the over-use of oxytocin in these mares. A lot of people use oxytocin on every case of retained placenta, without knowing why the placenta was retained, or use large doses. Ideally, a plan for treatment should be devised after examination of the mare to determine why the placenta was retained. Occasionally, part of the problem may be hypocalcemia, or a shortage of calcium. Without treating this situation, you are not addressing the real problem,” explains Tibary.
It is important to examine the placenta, to determine whether the mare has a small piece still within the uterus.
“This can cause a problem just as severe as if the whole placenta was retained. It is easy to see the problem when the placenta is hanging there, but more difficult to make that judgment when the placenta has already been passed—particularly if foaling was unobserved out in the field and the placenta is missing or has been torn apart,” he says.
If the mare foaled unobserved, you may not know exactly when she foaled. “If the placenta is still hanging there, we don’t know whether we are talking about 2 hours or 3 hours. If the placenta is retained for more than 6 hours, management of the case must be much more intensive than when it is still fresh,” he says.
Knowing the length of time elapsed since foaling is crucial in order to know whether there’s a problem with the placenta, with the foal or with the mare.
“If the foal is not able to rise and nurse within a certain length of time, it also needs attention. Also, we may have a mare that foaled normally but now is displaying signs of trouble.”
Dr. Black says one of the first things to monitor after a mare foals is to see if she accepts the foal or becomes aggressive.
“Foal rejection is most common in maiden mares. If the mare is aggressive, the mare should be restrained to protect the baby. This immediately becomes a job for at least two people. One will need to keep the foal safe, and another person can restrain the mare with a halter and possibly some mild sedation. Some mares, particularly maiden mares, we’ve had to tranquilize, and even use a humane twitch,” says Black.
“Basically, her behavior and attitude is generally not her fault. She is frightened of this new baby. You want to be as gentle with her as possible. The baby is part of the equation and very vulnerable to injury,” he says.
“Often the cause of foal rejection—not allowing the foal to nurse—may be due to pain in the udder, says Tibary. The mare may have mastitis or severe edema. This can jeopardize the life of the foal if he can’t obtain colostrum. You need to have a plan, in case of this emergency—to be able to supply substitute colostrum to feed the foal, or to make up for lack of quality of the mare’s colostrum. It is important to examine colostrum quality.”
About our experts
Dr. Jerry Black founded Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., where he practiced for 37 years, specializing in equine reproduction, and clinical orthopedics. He and his wife Melinda also operated Valley Oak Ranch, a large breeding operation. In July 2010 Black became Director of the Undergraduate Programs in Equine Sciences at Colorado State University, and continues a small breeding program there.
Dr. Ahmed Tibary, Department of Clinical Sciences, Washington State University, teaches veterinary students about reproduction and deals with problem mares at the University’s referral hospital.