Breeding and Foaling

The recommended age for the first breeding of a mare is no earlier than the spring or summer of her third year.

When breeding a stallion, it is important not to give him to many mares. The best method of introducing a new mare is to have her fence to fence with the stallion. When she comes in heat, she can be hand bred to see if the stallion will accept her. If he does accept her, then she can be added to the herd. Watch the mare from the 14th day of her last cycle and if she doesn't cycle again, she can be assumed to be bred.

The signs that mares are generally in heat are the mare will squat, urinate, open and close her vulva (winking), flag her tail, squeal and nicker. The normal range of heat (Estrus) varies from horse to horse but the general time is 5 to 10 days. However, the cycle itself can be up to 21 days in length. Normally a mare will ovulates 1 to 2 days before the end of her heat cycle.  Diestrus is the period when the mare will not accept the stallion and it last up to 15 days. Most mares will be most fertile during the spring and summer months. When breeding a mare, the breeder can hand or pasture bred. Another method is artificial insemination. Some feel that pasture breeding results in a higher conception rate than hand breeding. When hand breeding or "cover" the mare is breed every other day until she no longer accepts the stallion. Sometime mares have a split heat. This is where she has ovulated twice a few days a part. She shows heat (estrus), breeds, then rejects the stallion. A few days later she repeats the cycle.

The first few mare's cycles in the spring are generally not fertile because normal follicles will not have been produced yet. Types of cycles are Multiple ovulations-- increased chances of twins; Silent Heats -- mare shows no signs of normal heat cycle but does ovulate; Persistent CL's -- mare does not have enough prostaglandin to destroy the CL which keeps her from cycling; and Human Chorionic Gonadatropin -- is used in artificial insemination procedures and hand-breeding. (NOTE artificial not allowed in some breeds)

Now that the mare is bred, there is a waiting of 320 to 360 days for the foal to arrive. We invite you to use or Foaling Calculator to estimate when YOUR baby might be due. Some of the classic signs are that the time for foaling is getting near are the development of the mare's bag, the waxing nipples, and relaxation of her tail-head and pelvis. To help prevent tragedy, there are aids such as foaling alert devices, video cameras, sound sensing monitors, and many more. Some mares, such as older mares, mares that have had problems delivering before, or maiden mares needed to have assistance when foaling. Problems with foaling can be malpositioning, fetal oversize, premature placental separation, or problems of the foal standing or nursing, and the mare rejecting the foal. Therefore, being there is an important step in preventing death of mare or foal.

If you are expecting your mare to foal this year it is important to plan well in advance. It should be emphasised that the vast majority of mares (even maiden) mares foal without difficulty, and produce a healthy foal. You do not need to worry about the event, but you should be well prepared!

These notes are intended to help if your mare is due to foal at home.

Mare Preparation

To help ensure the birth of a live healthy foal there are some basic guidlines you should follow. Foals are born with their immune system intact, but are not born with any circulating antibodies in the bloodstream that can fight off infection. For adequate protection against potential illness, it is crucial for foals to receive the antibodies from good quality colostrum. To ensure that the colostrum has sufficient antibodies the broodmare should receive booster vaccinations.

Vaccinations for Eastern and Western encephalomyelitis, tetanus, equine influenza and strangles are commonly administered four to six weeks prior to the expected due date. For protection against equine rhinopneumonitis, mares may be given an inactivated commercial vaccine during their 5th, 7th, & 9th month of pregnancy. In some areas vaccinations for botulism, potomac horse fever and rabies may be recommended. Contact your veterinarian for his reccomendations. Pregnant mares should also be dewormed routinely except for the last 30 days of pregnancy. Your mares feeding program plays an important role in producing a healthy foal and therefore it is important that her nutritional requirements are met. For a more complete list and schedule of vaccines, please see our Foal Predictor page.

Regular exercise (turn out into a paddock during the day) is vital to decrease the amount of fluid retention (oedema) around the udder and abdomen.

Regular (at least twice daily) monitoring of mammary development is also important. Any changes in the mammary gland should be noted, in particular if there is dripping of milk.

Where to Foal

It's okay for a mare to foal outside if weather conditions are suitable. A small clean, dry, grass paddock with shelter and sufficient lighting is best. Be sure that it is of a size where the mare can be observed at all times.

If foaling in a stall is your choice, the stall should be a minimum of 14' x 14' or larger if possible. The stall should be located so the mare can be observed inconspicuously. Make sure the door opens outward! A closed circuit television camera is ideal but if this is not available, a window from which the mare can be observed without disturbing her, will work.

It is important to thoroughly disinfect the foaling stall prior to foaling. Incidences of foal diarrhea, may be greatly reduced through good sanitation practices. Wrap the mare's tail and wipe off her vulva and udder with warm water. Have supplies close at hand for disinfecting the umbilical cord, and anything else that may be required in case of emergency, include emergency phone numbers by the phone, as you may need to contact your veterinarian should a problem arise.

The best bedding is CLEAN STRAW. Do not use shavings and put the bed down the day before the expected foaling so as not to create too much dust.

There should be no sharp edges, buckets or feed bins. GOOD LIGHTING is essential. The box should be warm. 25oC (78oF) is the correct temperature.

Remember, you may have to sit up with the mare for several nights so a warm room for the attendants is useful!

Basic foaling equipment.

Notify your vet

Make sure that your vet knows that you have a mare expecting a foal & when it is due so that, should you require his assistance, he can be prepared for any eventuality.

If you are uncertain about any part of the foaling process, call your vet for help or advice before the big day.

Is it Time Yet?

That's a tough question to accurately answer, even if you been with this mare for quite a while and you've been with her through this process before. There are some signs you can watch for, though.

The mare's udder usually starts to swell anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks before foaling. The teats usually begin to extend from 4 to 6 days before foaling, as the udder lets the colostrum down into the teats. The teats may become covered over, due to colostrum oozing from the teats. Known as waxing, this usually occurs anywhere from 2 to 4 days before foaling. Normally, when the waxing falls off from the ends of the teats, they may begin to drip a white opague milk that is thick, and sticky. When this happens, the mare should foal within 8 - 12 hours. If streaming of colostrum becomes continuous, it may be neccesary to collect and refrigerate or freeze it for the impending foal. I strongly recommend having 'Extra" colostrum available at foaling time, just in case it is needed. As the mare nears foaling, her croup muscles and vulva will relax and become flaccid. The mare may become restless, walk the stall, fence line, urinate and or clear her bowels frequently. This is considered normal behavior at this stage. If foaling out in a group of mares, they tend to go off away from other horses to seek out a private place to foal. Some mares may foal without any or few of these signs of labor. Aprox 80% of mares will foal between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Three Basic Stages of Labor

Stage 1) During the first stage, the foal begins to position itself for delivery. The foal will turn from lying on its back, to it's stomach, with its head positioned between its front feet. As the initial uterine contractions begin, the foal will position itself with front legs and head pointing toward the birth canal.

At this stage, the mare will become quite restless. It is not uncommon for them to go off feed. Pacing, lieing down, and getting up and down, is common. She may roll, stomp her feet, bite at, or make kicking motions at her belly. These signs may be present for several minutes to several hours. Some mares may show some of these signs for several days before foaling. At this stage, the mare is quite capable of postponing delivery if she becomes nervous or upset. This is why it is important for the mare to be familiar with her surroundings and attendant watching over her.

Stage 2) Stage two begins when the mares water breaks (passing of allantoic fluids ). At this point, delivery is imminent and the mare usually begins abdominal pushing to help assist with the uterine contractions. After the water breaks, the foals forelegs should appear at the vaginal opening within 15 minutes. This stage ends with the birth. It should last 15 to 20 minutes. When the foal is pushed through the birth canal, its umbilical cord becomes compressed. If not deliverd soon enough, the fetus can be deprived of oxygen. From the time of rupture of the amnion and delivery of the foal, there is a maximium time of 40 - 60 minutes, after which the foal is at serious risk of death.

. During this stage, the foal is positioned in the birth canal so that its head, neck and back are lined up with the top of the mare's pelvis.
. Normally the amnion (a clear membrane) appears first, followed by the foal's front feet, with its nose lying on the knees. One leg is usually slightly ahead of the other. This helps the foal pass through the birth canal. If the amnion has not ruptured and still covers the foal's head, it must be torn so that the foal may breathe.
. Once the foal has cleared its shoulders, the difficult part is complete. Once the hips have cleared, it is not uncommon for the foal to rest with its hind legs still in the mares vagina for 10 to 20 minutes. The second stage of labor is completed when the foal is clear of the mare. Do not disturb the mare and foal at this time. Allow them to rest. The umbilical cord will break when the mare or foal stands. DO NOT attempt to break the cord.

Stage 3) During the final stage, the mare will have additional uterine contractions, forcing the placenta out through the birth canal. The uterus will shrink and the placenta is expelled, within two to three hours. You should tie up the umbilical cord to prevent the mare from stepping on it. Save the placenta so it can be examined by either your veterinarian or you, if you know what to look for.
A retained placenta can cause serious problems, such as toxic infection or founder. If the placenta is still attached more than three hours after delivery, do not remove it. This could damage the uterus or cause the placenta to tear. Contact your veterinarian.

Parturition, or delivery, in horses takes about one hour. Initially, mares may have patchy sweating, pawing at the ground, looking around at the flanks, pacing uneasily around the box, and curling of the upper lip. These signs are not infrequently mistaken for colic! The first stage of labour may last from 1 to 4 hours, but can be very variable, and sometimes there may be repetitive false alarms (esp. in maiden thoroughbreds). Once it has been established that the mare has started to foal a tail bandage should be applied. The mare may lie down and roll from side to side, this is thought to help the foal move into the correct position for foaling.

Mares usually foal lying down. The first sign that foaling has actually started is often several gallons of clear fluid escaping from the vagina, it is possible to miss this, as it happens very quickly. Within 5 minutes a white glistening membrane should appear between the vulval lips. First one front foot and a few minutes latter the second front foot should appear within this membrane. The nose should then follow. It is not uncommon for mares to stand up just after the feet are presented and then lie down again. Foals that experience difficult births do not have very long before they experience lack of oxygen and suffer side effects. If there is a problem, it should be corrected quickly for the mares' and foals' sake.  Dystocia, or difficulty delivery, can be caused by fetal abnormalities, malpositioning, Hydrocephalus or enlarged skull, ankylosed or fused joint, and contracted tendons. Dystocias usually involve a misplacement of one or some of the foals body parts that inhibit it from proceeding through the birth canal. Dystocia can also result due to a foal being too large to pass through the pelvic opening of the mare. If a dystocia occurs, the miracle of birth can turn into a heart wrenching event, having grim consequences for the foal and mare. It is important to have a plan of what to do in case a dystocia occurs. Some of these are so bad that they require C-sections.

But what do we do if the delivery does not proceed in the orderly manner?
What are you going to do if your mare begins active labor and one of the following things happens:

1. The mare has been having heavy contractions for 10 minutes and you have not witnessed the water break.

2. The mare has been having contractions and she begins to either roll repeatedly or gets up and down and rolls after about 10 minutes of labor.

3. The bubble presents itself at the mare's vulva or you notice a foot in the bubble but after a period of additional contractions, there is no progress of the foal to be born.

Anatomy Lesson

The diagram above shows a typical foaling with normal presentation and all of the important structures to recognize. Notice that the foal is essentially contained in two sac-like structures. The outer one is the reddish PLACENTA which actually attaches to the inner surface of the mare's uterus. The second is called the AMNIOTIC SAC. The foal is found within this translucent white sac. The foal floats about in the amniotic fluid. The amniotic sac floats about inside the placenta in Allantoic fluid. This is commonly called the bag of waters. Notice that when the foal passes into the birth canal, it pushes through the placental membrane (break her water). This causes the Allantoic fluid to gush out of the mare. In most cases, shortly (within a very few minutes) after the gush of water, the BUBBLE appears at the vulva. As shown in the diagram, this is the amniotic sac containing the foal.

Know your anatomy

Each dystocia situation is potentially different, so the first step to remedy the situation is to determine exactly what the circumstances are. Keep in mind that all of this exploratory investigation is going to be done by feel. It is very useful to study the anatomy of your horses ahead of time, particularly the differences in the way that the front and back legs move and attach. Much of correcting a dystocia is determining whether there are front feet or rear feet present and whether they are right side up or upside down.

There are a number of different positions that can occur. Just about every one can be corrected if quick action is taken. Once it is determined that there is a dystocia, you must realize that you are "working against the tide". The mare's uterine contractions are attempting to expel the foal. In most cases, you may temporarily have to push parts of the foal back into the mare's uterus to get them repositioned. This requires some measure of strength and stamina. The sooner it occurs, the easier it is to accomplish. Since there is significantly more room in the uterus than in the vagina, most Dystocias are corrected by pushing parts of the foal back into the uterus or actually going into the uterus to retrieve a front leg, for example. There are occasions when it may be necessary to enter the mare past your elbow to retrieve a misplaced body part to successfully correct a dystocia.

Keep in mind that the mare's uterus is a large muscle. Once the "water" has been broken, there is no hydraulic pressure to prevent the uterus from contracting. The natural tendency is for the uterus to contract around the foal much as a tube of toothpaste and push the foal through the cervix. The more time that the uterus is allowed to contract around the foal, the smaller the space that the foal will have to occupy until the uterus essentially "shrink wraps" around the foal unless it is born. For this reason, it is more difficult to reposition a foal of a mare that has been in labor for a long time. This is why veterinarians who arrive after a substantial period of labor may have few alternatives other than Caesarean Section or fetotomy (dismemberment of the dead foal in the uterus).

The diagrams that are included here show two primary dystocia positions and the brief "textbook" procedure for resolving the mal-presentations. One is called an ANTERIOR presentation which simply means that the foal is coming out head first. The other is a POSTERIOR presentation. Obviously this means the foal is coming out backward.

This particular anterior presentation shows 2 problems. The right front foot is back and the head is back. Essentially, the dystocia is resolved in three steps. First, a strap is placed on the left foot, above the fetlock joint. This is done to prevent losing this leg. If two loops can be made around this leg with one end of the strap, the attachment will be more secure.

Notice the upper arrow in the second diagram. This indicates that this leg is then pushed backward toward the mare's uterus. Secondly, take the other end of the strap into the uterus and locate the neck. Follow it down to the head and locate the lower jaw. Place the loop over the lower jaw. Obviously, this is some distance back in the uterus. Carefully guide the head around by applying pressure with the strap on the lower jaw. If this is attempted early in labor it is much easier than if labor has been occurring for some time. By applying pressure to the strap and guiding the head with a hand, the head can rotate forward. The left front leg needs to be kept backward and in the uterus so that there is room for the head to rotate forward, however. With the head rotated, the same procedure is used to get the right front foot positioned.

Take a strap into the uterus, and identify the front foot by its point of attachment or manner of bending. Slip a loop over the fetlock joint. Cup the hoof with one hand while applying pressure to the strap with the other. Cupping the hoof prevents it from injuring the uterus as it is rotated. Keep in mind that the leg must be lifted upward and rotated forward in the same manner that a horse takes a forward step.

With all parts facing in the right direction, the birth can take place. Using hands and straps to guide the front legs and head out in order provides the textbook delivery.

The reality of most Dystocias is that only one body part is out of position. This scenario was provided to cover a variety of steps with one situation. Most anterior presentations are a variation of this procedure. A living foal is not real comfortable having its head bent back and will more than likely be working hard to head for daylight. If there are multiple parts out of position, one should question whether there is a live foal in the first place. Usually this can be determined by placing a finger in the foal's mouth or moving the leg. If the foal is alive it will usually respond by moving its mouth or leg in response to your touch. If the foal is dead, it may be wise to reconsider your intentions to remove the foal and let the veterinarian do the work. Dead foals are substantially harder to work with than live foals, since there is no muscle tone and they just tend to "flop" around in the mare.

Posterior presentations are not as common. In this case, none, one or both of the rear legs may appear at the vulva. The first step is first to determine if it is a rear leg. This is relatively easy to do by following it up to feel whether you come to the hock joint. Look at the diagram below and notice that with a posterior presentation, the bottom of the hooves will be pointing upward toward the mare's tail. In the case shown, the same applies as before.

Other types of Dystocias occur that we don't have pictures of, but are a reality for horses. These are the "upside down foal", the "dog-sitting foal", and the "hip lock".

Upside Down Presentation

The upside-down foal is a situation where the foal is starting to be born in a forward position but is trying to come out on it's back with its feet pointing toward the mare's backbone. The natural arc of the mare's pelvic cavity and bend of the foal's torso will not allow this birth to occur. The only option is for the foal to be rotated 180 degrees to the normal foaling position where it is lying on it's stomach as it comes through the birth canal. First of all, it needs to be determined whether this is a posterior delivery or an upside down delivery. In both cases, the pads of the feet will be pointing upward. In this case, a person will encounter the front "knees" and head with the lower jaw upside down behind the upturned hooves. This is a difficult dystocia to resolve. In order to accomplish it, it is necessary to guide one front leg above the head while passing the other beneath the head. Of course, all of this has to be done in the mare's uterus. Placing a strap on one leg and having someone hold and put pressure in the desired direction of one leg helps while a hand is used to guide the other leg around the head in the opposite direction. If successful in rotating the foal, the delivery of the foal will be in the normal position.


Dog-Sitting Dystocias occur when the rear hooves of the foal start through the pelvic opening before the hips of the foal. As the foal moves out of the uterus, the rear leg(s) becomes flexed and forms a wedge that prevents the foal from being born. This can occur with one or both rear feet. About the only option available is to push the foal backward partially into the uterus. Then, go in beside the foal and carefully push the rear leg(s) back into the uterus to allow the foal's hip to pass through the mare's pelvis. These are also difficult Dystocias to resolve. Lots of lubricant and assistance is required in most cases to get this one straightened out. There have been a couple of cases where breeders have, upon seeing a rear foot, pulled the foot hard forward to straighten it along the body and the dystocia has been resolved. Pulling only on the front legs without addressing how to unlock the wedge created by the back leg(s) does little but compound the problem when there is a "dog-sitting" dystocia.

Hip Lock

Hip Lock is a situation where all appears well with the foaling and then the foal just stops progressing after it is half way out. Of course the first thing to determine is whether this is a dog-sitting situation or a hip lock. Obviously, if it was a dog-sitting dystocia, a rear leg would be found in the vagina. No rear hoof is present with hip lock. Below is the recommendation of veterinarian Dr. Bob Anderson, on how to resolve the situation.

"Hip lock occurs when a foal's hips get stuck inside the bony pelvis. The mare's pelvic opening is shaped like an oval and not a circle. This is supposed to allow for the hips to easily pass through. If the mare is standing, pull the foal downward so the hips flip up into the pelvis and then through. If the mare is on her side, first have someone hold the mare's tail to anchor the mares body. Pull the foal out, arching it slightly upward toward the mare's tail and occasionally through the mare's hind legs to pop the hips up and through. If this doesn't work, do the same but bending the foal to one side to pull one hip through the pelvis at a time."

Red Bag

Although not actually a dystocia, any discussion of high risk births would not be complete without mention of PLACENTA PREVIA or RED BAG. As its name implies, a red bag appears as the mare starts into active labor. Of course, we are all expecting a white bubble. What is all this about? Well, it is the placenta and it has detached from the uterus prematurely. Without the placenta attached to the uterus, the foal has no source of oxygen. If this thick red membrane appears (see below) this means that foetal membranes have not correctly separated. This is a critical situation for the foal. There is no time to wait. It is imperative that the placenta be broken when it protrudes from the vulva and the foal is given assistance to be born immediately. Oxygen deprivation occurs in a very few minutes and unless the vet happened to be driving up your driveway, there probably isn't any use making a call if you want to have any chance of saving the life of the foal.


Break the placenta with your hand. The water will probably gush out. Chances are that the foal is in normal position just behind the placenta. If foaling is progressing normally the foal should be delivered within 15 minutes of seeing the first foot. If there is excessive delay, you may need to assist in the delivery. Rarely, is the foal born with the clear foetal membranes unbroken around its head. This will prevent it from breathing. You must clear these membranes immediately yourself. Do not separate the umbilical cord. Blood continues to flow from the placenta to the foal for several minutes after completion of the birthing process. The cord will separate naturally when the mare stands up. The final stage of parturition is delivery of the placenta (cleansing). This usually occurs within one hour of foaling. If cleansing is delayed, it may become necessary for your vet to manually remove the afterbirth. DO NOT pull on the placenta yourself, as this can cause a prolapse of the entire uterus (which is often fatal). Mares should be cleansed within 24 hours of delivery of the foal. Remember to retain the placenta in a clean plastic bag or bucket, to be examined later.

If the foaling does not progress normally, you may have to either tear the amniotic sac or hold onto the foal's legs and assist with the extraction of the foal from the mare. The foal needs to breath very soon! If the foal does not start breathing on it's own when it is born, straighten out its head /neck to make an air way and give the foal mouth to NOSE breathing. Remember that horses have a very poor airway from their mouth to their lungs.

It can be very advantageous to stand a mare up when attempting to resolve a dystocia. Obviously some mares will not stand up while in labor, but many will. If it is possible to get the mare to her feet, gravity becomes a great help. The mare's organs and the foal tend to settle back toward her abdomen. In many cases, this can provide just enough room to allow the foaling attendant to reposition the foal and achieve a successful birth. Of course, the contractions will continue and this is the most difficult issue to deal with while attempting to reposition a foal.

Veterinarians can take advantage of medications to help themselves with the resolving a dystocia. Most highly experienced reproductive veterinarians will take two similar procedures to resolve a dystocia. First, they will administer drugs that will sedate the mare and stop the uterine contractions. We have seen this done by the administration of gas in the surgical theatre. In the field or barn environment, we have seen the veterinarians use a combination of Rompum and Ketamine.

Once the contractions have been halted by the veterinarian, the typical procedure is to use some form of "the mare in the air". In most cases, a bale of hay is used and a piece of plywood is laid upon it to form a ramp. The mare is turned on her back with her hips in the uphill position. The mare is then generously lubricated internally and the repositioning of the foal is made.

The foal

Any foal born after 320 days gestation is considered full term. Some mares gestate for 365 days or more and produce totally normal foals, so in the absence of any adverse signs, do not be alarmed if your mare has a prolonged gestation.

Within 5 minutes of birth, your foal should be able to lift his head, and after 15 minutes, should be making some attempts to stand.

Remember to treat the navel with 2% tincture of idodine.

Foals should be able to stand within 1/2 - 1 1/2 hours of birth. It is vital that foals suckle colostrum (first milk) from the mare within 4 hours of birth. After 12 hours, the foal should be nursing strongly and bonded with its mother. Some foals (esp. colt foals) have difficulty in passing the foetal faeces (meconium). This should start within four hours of birth. If the foal does not pass faeces or shows signs of colic, consult your vet. (see below).


This foal needs urgent veterinary attention, as it has a retained meconium causing colic.

Post Foaling

The foal should stand and nurse within two hours.
Disinfect the foal's navel with 2% tincture of idodine. Do not tie it off.
Store placenta (refrigeration is best).
Observe mare & foal for normal or abnormal behavior.
Contact your veterinarian for a post-foaling evaluation for both the mare & foal within the first 24 hours of birth. He will want to carefully check the placenta. Any tears in vulval lips can be sutured and repaired at this time. In high risk foals, prophylactic antibiotics may be administered, but only if your vet thinks that this is necessary. He may also administer an enema is the foal has not passed its meconium.

The topic of dystocia is certainly not the most upbeat that can be addressed, however, it is a reality that everyone who intends on raising foals needs to be aware of. Whether you, as the owner of a broodmare, choose to intervene in the case of a dystocia is a value judgment you must personally determine. There are risks involved for your horse at foaling time. It can definitely be a life and death circumstance whether you intervene or choose to wait for professional help.

Fortunately the vast majorities of foaling are natural events where we can simply behold the wonder of nature. Being prepared for those occasional births that don't follow the "textbook", however, can increase your chances for positive results.

Lucky T Ranch makes no guarantee or representation to the accuracy of the information contained on this page. This page is intended only to share our opinions and experiences with you. Lucky T Ranch cannot be held liable for any outcome that you might experience by following any of these suggestions.

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