27th Feb 2019
Thoroughbred mares foal from the 1st of January through to the very end of May. Mares arrive at the Irish National Stud Foaling Unit (in Sun Chariot Yard) when they are close to their due date and/or are showing signs that they are getting close to foaling, through an increase in the development of their udder (called a bag). The mares in Sun Chariot Yard spend their days out in paddocks in groups and their evenings/nights in their individual boxes (stables). Most Thoroughbred mares still follow the natural instinct of the wild horse to foal during the nighttime when it is dark and quiet. Although the highest volume of foalings at the Irish National Stud occur between 11pm and 3am, some mares do also foal during the daytime. During the 5 months of the foaling season, all mares present at the Irish National Stud Foaling Unit are checked every 15 minutes (24 hours a day), either in their paddocks or their boxes, by experienced staff who monitor the mares for signs that foaling is imminent. These signs include the development of a white/waxy coating on the teats (called wax), the dripping of milk from the teats and signs of agitation/discomfort such as pacing/walking, pawing, rolling on the ground and swishing/lifting the tail. The most promising sign that a mare is close to foaling is when she begins to sweat across her body.
The foaling process officially begins when a mare breaks water. Once a mare has broken water the foal is usually born within 20 minutes. As soon as the mare breaks water she is moved into a large foaling box and her tail is wrapped in a bandage. The foaling attendants will then check the foal’s presentation within the birth canal, to make sure that everything is progressing normally. In a normal foaling situation the foal presents in a “diving position” – on its belly with the head and two front legs present. The foal’s head should be resting on top of the forelimbs. If the foal is not positioned correctly the foaling attendants will work with the mare to correct the foal’s position. Once the foaling attendants are certain that the foal is progressing normally the mare is closely observed, but left alone to begin delivering the foal. Mares usually give birth to their foals while laying down. As the foal’s delivery progresses, assistance will be given to the mare if needed, by gently pulling on the foal’s front limbs as the mare pushes. As the foal is delivered the amniotic sac, which surrounds the foal, is broken and peeled back from the foal’s body and once the foal is delivered completely the attendants respond immediately by sitting the foal up in sternal position, clearing the foal’s nasal passageways and stimulating the foal to breath by rubbing/stimulating the foal with a towel. If an extra boost is necessary, the foal will be given oxygen immediately after birth, for approximately 5 minutes. The mare is also given a thorough check immediately after foaling to make sure that she is okay as well.
The umbilical cord is broken either by the mare standing or by the foaling attendant’s pulling the foal away from the mare, putting tension on the cord. The equine umbilical cord should only be broken naturally through either of these methods and should not be cut. Once the umbilical cord is broken, the foal’s naval stump is sprayed thoroughly with 10% iodine to prevent infection. The foal is also given a warm enema to help pass its first feces (called meconium). At this stage the foal’s genitalia is checked to determine its gender. If the foal is male it is called a colt and if the foal is female it is called a filly. Next, the amniotic sac, which is now hanging from the mare’s birth canal, is tied in a knot to prevent it from dragging on the ground and breaking. This also adds a small bit of weight/tension to the rest of the placenta which is still inside of the mare’s uterus. The mare should pass her placenta within 3 hours. The mare’s hind end/vulva, tail, bag, belly and legs are also given a post foaling wash with cotton wool soaked in warm water and dilute Clorhexidine disenfectant.
The mare’s first milk is called colostrum, which is rich in nutrients and antibodies that are critical for the foal to ingest as soon as possible in order to build its immune system. Because of this, the quality of the mare’s colostrum must be checked soon after she foals. This is done by placing a small amount of the mare’s colostrum on a refractometer, which is an instrument that tests the thickness of the colostrum. The thicker the colostrum is, the higher the quality. Colostrum with a refractometer reading of 20% or higher is of good enough quality for the foal. If the mare has produced low quality colostrum (with a refractometer reading of less than 20%) the foal will be supplemented with bottle(s) of donor colostrum, which would have previously been collected off of a mare with high quality colostrum and frozen. This donor colostrum is thawed/warmed and fed to the foal via a baby bottle. Once the foal has ingested an adequate amount of this donor colostrum, the foal is then allowed to nurse from his/her own mother. If the mare that has foaled has high quality colostrum (above 20%), the foal is allowed to nurse from his/her mother straight away and a small amount will also be collected from the mare and frozen to be used as donor colostrum for other foals in the future.
Once all of these critical steps in the immediate post-foaling care of the mare and foal have occurred, the mare and foal are left to bond, but are monitored very closely. The foal should stand within one hour of birth and nurse within two hours of birth. Only when necessary do the foaling attendants assist with these processes. Approximately 8 hours after birth (in most cases the next morning) the foal is weighed and the mare and foal are given a complete examination by a veterinarian. The mare and newborn foal usually stay in the Foaling Unit for close monitoring for approximately 48 hours and then they move onto the Kildare, Black Cherry or Blandford Yards at the Irish National Stud or go home to their owners.
Lauren Eisemann, Foaling Attendant.