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During the Birth

When do horses give birth?

When they’re ready…

Horses nearly always birth in the small hours of the morning.

We use CCTV cameras in large stables for mares that are due so we can check them from the bedroom several times a night without having to keep getting up. This also allows the horse to relax without being woken up by nosy humans.

Most horse people think that a horse will foal more readily if she’s not being watched, so expect a surprise.

Preparing for the birth

Some people advocate letting a horse foal in the field, but we prefer to use a large stable (20′ x 20′) with a deep layer of clean straw which is banked steeply at the sides.

In the winter a heat lamp can be a good idea.

Install soft lighting if you intend checking her and leave it on all the time – turning on the lights frequently will confuse and stress the horse. Ensure phones are working or carry a mobile with you in case of problems.

Having a kettle or thermos nearby can be a useful addition for the humans on a cold night.

What do I do at the birth?

Keep calm and quiet.

Horses are pretty good at giving birth without our help and unless something is obviously wrong, stay at a distance and keep quiet.

If something is obviously wrong, call the vet out immediately.

For most births however, just let nature take its course and stay clear. The afterbirth should follow the foal within a couple of hours, and if it hasn’t then you must call the vet for a cleansing.

Check the afterbirth (placenta) thoroughly to ensure it’s intact and part hasn’t been left inside (it’s a thick, strong and slimy sac that coats the foal before it’s born)

What if something goes wrong?

Occasionally something may go wrong.

The things to watch for before and during birth are general signs of distress.

Excessive rolling, indications of severe abdominal pain, straining for too long and so on.

When the waters break, the foal should start showing within about 20 minutes, if there is no sign after 20 minutes, call the vet out. Delays at this stage will be serious – the birth canal dries out and starts to contract again if left too long.

Checking the foal after birth

The first few hours of a foal’s life are critical. Check his navel often – it should be clean and healthy, the cord should dry up and eventually drop off on its own.

Foal needs the colustrum of his first few drinks of milk. The mare passes on her antibodies via this (it’s thicker and yellower than normal milk).

Foals sometimes have problems getting their digestion started, so watch for signs of straining. He’ll hold his tail aloft and totter around showing signs of distress if there’s a blockage. His manure should be soft little balls of a light colour, but watch the mare’s too as any problem will show in her manure first.

Navel ill, or joint ill are believed to enter the foal’s system through the navel string, directly or soon after birth. This is quite a rare condition but for your information the syptoms usually become clear in the second or third week from birth. The first symptoms are dullness, fever, reluctance to get up, difficulty in moving, and eventually marked lameness. The navel will be found to be wet and suppuration. Soft swellings will be, or will soon be apparent on one or more of the joints, stifle, elbow, hip, hock or fetlock. These swelling contain a large amount of pus and are exceedingly painful. It is a form of blood poisoning. I have never seen a case and we have had quite a few mares foal here.

Another problem that could occur from the navel, is unbilical hernia. This is a swelling, usually the size of a hen’s egg or maybe even bigger, that occurs directly from and underneath the navel; if it does happen, it will usually do so when the foal is two or three months old.

My mare ate the afterbirth!

Don’t worry, all species of animals, even the vegetarian ones, may eat their afterbirth. It’s not a sign that something’s wrong. Current thinking suggests it’s an instinct to remove traces of the birth that might otherwise draw scavengers.

Are horses born with their legs at full length?

No. This belief came about because a foal’s legs look out of proportion from their body.

This is nature’s way of ensuring they’re fast enough to outrun predators as soon as possible.

A horse’s legs do grow as they progress towards maturity, but at a slower pace than the rest of the body.