Home > Hoof Beats Magazine > Breeding Basics: Miracle of Birth

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Breeding Standardbred racehorses is both an art and a science. For those who aren’t breeding at the commercial level, but would like to optimize the success of their breeding product either in the sales ring or on the racetrack, Hoof Beats presents part four of a seven-part series on breeding basics. This month’s topic is foaling tips.

We asked veterinary and breeding experts what they thought were the most important factors in ensuring the best possible foaling outcome, specifically, what steps to take to ensure the foaling procedure will produce a healthy and marketable foal.

Offering a range of opinions including preparation and post-foaling are veterinarian Etta Bradecamp, reproduction specialist at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., Richard Arnold, president of Willow Oak Ranch in Tennessee and Montana; and Jim Avritt Sr., an owner and breeder in Lebanon, Ky.

Prepare for Labor

As with so many aspects of horse breeding, said Arnold, the small breeder has an opportunity to have a much simpler management system, including foaling.

“In a smaller operation, it is rare to have more than one foal per day, so a lot of attention can be lavished on the new foal,” he said. “As with all aspects of horse management, planning and preparation is essential.”

Bradecamp said proper preparation prior to foaling; ensuring adequate colostrum ingestion and IgG (Immunoglobulin G) adsorption at birth; and close monitoring--with early veterinary intervention, if needed--during the first several weeks of life gives the newborn foal “its best chance at a healthy start.”

She suggested three important health care procedures:

1. Properly vaccinate the mare against diseases such as botulism and rotovirus, in addition to other core vaccines, which will boost antibodies in the mare’s colostrum and provide protection to the foal for the first several months of life.
2. Screen the mare for antibodies that can cause the potentially fatal disorder, neonatal isoerythrolysis, within 30 days of foaling.
3. Ensure that the mare is not exposed to pasture or hay that contains endophyte-infected fescue during the last three months of gestation. If the mare does not appear to be forming an appropriate udder within two weeks prior to foaling, a veterinarian should be consulted.

Foaling out a mare is usually “a wonderful experience -- watching the mare very quickly birth the foal,’’ said Arnold, who takes precautions if something goes wrong and there is little time to get needed equipment or supplies.

His facilities at Willow Oak include a small foaling and breeding lab within a few feet of its three stalls in their foaling stable which are for foaling mares only. The lab has a double stainless steel sink with one side kept cleaned for sterile use only. Items kept on hand include oxygen and a special bag  to administer it; latex gloves; sterile cotton; bandages; alcohol (both 70 percent and 90 percent); iodine; surgical scissors; needles and syringes of all sizes; Banamine; Combiotic; a thermometer; medical-grade lubricant; and soaps, towels and disinfectants. In addition, the lab has a freezer for colostrum and there are scales for weighing the afterbirth.

The foaling stalls are lined with a hard, durable, white plastic used in dairy barns for easy cleaning and disinfected after foaling when the mare and foal are moved to a mare/foal stall in Willow Oak’s mare/foal stable.

There, the stalls are 15x15 feet with high ceilings and the stable can be opened up and well-ventilated, but is also insulated for foaling in extremely cold temperatures until the foal is up and going.

Foaling Out

Labor for mares is a three-stage procedure, according to Arnold: minor contractions up to the point when the water breaks; delivery; and expulsion of the afterbirth.

“The most important thing is that you be present for all three phases, so we use foal alert and stall cameras to ensure that happens,” he said. “Once the foal is born and assuming normal delivery, the foal needs to be cleaned, nursed and able to defecate before you can relax. Then the fun can begin.”

Avritt also utilizes a foal alarm and a wireless video camera, “which I could not do without,” he said.

He suggests a foaling stall of at least 12x18 feet, properly sanitized and bedded with clean straw.

When the mare goes into labor, he goes into action. Avritt wraps her tail with vet wrap from its root down about 18 inches. As soon as the water bag appears, he checks to make sure the foal is in the proper position, i.e., two front feet pointing downward with her nose in between. He also said to ensure that the foal’s nose is not covered by any portion of the foaling sac.

“If the foal is not in proper position, call your veterinarian immediately and try to keep the mare up and walking,” he said. “The mare can be allowed to get up and down, as this can aid in repositioning the foal; however, if no progress is being made, get her up and walk her. If she needs assistance, place pulling chains on the foal's front legs, both above and below the ankle, and pull gently when the mare strains. Do not pull straight back, but slightly downward instead.”

Once the foal is born, Avritt said to try not to break the umbilical cord for at least two or three minutes.

Once the mare gets up, tie the afterbirth in a knot so that she doesn’t step on it and injure herself.

“If my mare has not passed the placenta within three hours after foaling, consult with your veterinarian,” Avritt said. “A retained placenta is considered a medical emergency and can cause serious illness if not treated appropriately.’’

Even after foaling hundreds of mares each year, Bradecamp is still amazed by the birthing process.

“When the foal is up and nursing, you take a little breath of relief,” she said. “That feeling of new life never gets old. It’s a miracle every time.”

On the Ground

After foaling, there are also important measures to take to provide the foal with its best start in life, including ensuring that the foal stands within an hour and nurses within two hours, which is imperative to the foal obtaining the crucial nutrients and protective antibodies in the colostrum.

“The foal should pass the meconium (first stool) by three hours post-foaling,” Bradecamp said. “If the foal does not meet these important goals, a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Avritt is more proactive to ensure that the meconium is passed.

“I give the foal an enema and, if necessary, repeat the enema an hour or two later if the foal is still straining to defecate,” he said.

Avritt recommends also being proactive in preventing scours, or diarrhea, in foals, which can cause dehydration that would have to be treated.

“Even before giving the foal a bottle of milk or allowing it to nurse from the mare, I orally give it a 10cc syringe of Equine Coli Endotox, a product that is manufactured by Novartis Animal Health,” he said. “This is a scours prevention product and to me its use is a must.

“Before I began using this vaccine, most of my foals would develop scours, for which almost all of them would have to be treated. Some would even become dehydrated and have to be taken to one of the equine clinics in Lexington for additional treatment.  Since I began using this product, I have never even had to treat a foal for severe scours.”

Bradecamp said that unless there are complications, a veterinarian should look the foal over the day the foal is born.

“The first veterinary exam should occur approximately 12 hours post-foaling for an overall physical exam and to evaluate IgG levels, a measure of the foal’s absorption of colostrum antibodies,” said Bradecamp.

If the foal does not have adequate IgG levels, administration of oral colostrum and/or a plasma transfusion are necessary.

If the foal passes its initial physical exam and has adequate IgG levels, diligent monitoring for the first couple weeks of life help ensure that any signs of illness are detected and treated early.

“Foals can succumb to illness quickly and are often much sicker than they appear,” said Bradecamp, who recommended that a foal’s temperature be taken daily for the first two weeks of its life to detect illness at the first sign. Fever, diarrhea, lameness and decreased nursing are all signs of illness and warrant a veterinary exam immediately.

Once Arnold’s mares and foals are up and moving, he transfers them to the 12x24 mare stable where the stalls duplicate outdoor temperatures (minus winds, rain or snow). There they are housed -- depending on weather -- for the first four or five days.

“We have a covered round ring for turnout until the foal is able to move around with the mare,” he said.

Weather permitting, Avritt said he moves the mare and foal out of the barn and into their own paddock the next day after foaling for some exercise. He waits at least two weeks before putting a mare and foal together with another mare and foal.

Although many foals are “crooked” at birth, Avritt said, they usually dramatically improve on their own.

“If they don’t, corrective trimming by a competent farrier will be necessary,” he suggested, “and if that doesn’t work, corrective surgery may be necessary.”


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