The first thing you should see will be a white sack (the amnion) with a front foot in it, with the sole of the foot facing down. The mare will probably get up and down a few times to help the foal get positioned right to come out. The other front foot should soon follow, a little staggered to help the shoulders come through the birth canal a little easier. Resting on top of the front legs should be a nose. So far, so good.
The foal’s feet will have soft feathers on the soles that will wear away as soon as he stands up for a short time. If the feet are facing up, they are either back feet or the foal hasn’t turned over yet for the delivery. If you are unsure, or the foal’s nose isn’t resting on its knees, call the vet.
In this age of cell phones it wouldn’t hurt to arrange to have your vet on the phone for reassurance and to walk you through the foaling. If you suspect things aren’t right at any time, call for help and get the mare up and walking. In the wild, if the mare sensed danger, she would get up and on the move to escape and postpone the delivery until she felt safe.
Sometimes the sac that appears is red instead of white. There are two parts to the placenta, or what will be known as the afterbirth: the white amnion surrounds the foal, and the reddish-purple chorio-allantois attaches to the uterus to exchange oxygen and nutrients between the foal and the mare. If the red sac appears early in the foaling it means that it has detached from the uterus a little early and the foal will have limited oxygen supply. When a foal is delivered under these conditions you will likely have to break the thick red sack so the foal can breathe.
Pulling too hard on the foal can damage the foal’s legs and the mare’s cervix. Resist the urge to 'help' too much. The shoulders can take a few minutes to clear. If you feel that you need to do something, you can help a little by holding what you gain with each contraction. Allow the mare to work away at it herself, giving her time to relax her cervix and catch her breath. Minutes will seem like hours, but you managed to wait 11 months…
If the shoulders are clear of the vulva but the foal doesn’t seem to be making any further progress, this is one time where you will have to get in there and help: sometimes a foal may ‘hiplock’, where his hips will meet the mare’s hips head on. If you picture it like a lock and key, you may have to turn the ‘key’ or turn the foal to allow his hips to pass through. It is important to act quickly if this happens because the foal cannot breath on its own at this point, nor can it get oxygen through the pinched umbilical cord.
The foal is still surviving on oxygen from the placenta until his rib cage has cleared the birth canal. Once his flanks clear the vulva he can expand his chest and take in air. Once he’s come this far, break the amnion (the white sac) if it is not already broken and clear his nostrils for his first breath of fresh air.
Take a deep breath yourself too; you’re almost there.
At this point you will be dying to know if it’s a colt or filly, so take a quick peek but then leave them alone so that the foal can take in that last remaining blood supply through the umbilical cord before it breaks. Let the mare stay down if she will. She deserves the rest. Enjoy watching as your foal starts to struggle to get up and your mare looks around to see what she’s got.
The umbilical chord should break on its own. Treat the naval with an iodine tincture over the next few days, and check to see that it is drying up well.
The foal should pass his meconium – his first poop – within a few hours of foaling. It will appear like black rabbit droppings in sauce. Some caretakers will routinely give an enema to make sure that this important bowel movement occurs. Watch the foal closely for any signs of colic, such as straining or lying down with one leg up over his head like a puppy.
You may find a small beige object in the straw after foaling, about half an inch thick and three to four inches in diameter. It is the subject of many wives tales: some say it comes in the foal’s mouth, but it is most likely a free-floating sediment puck that has developed in the womb throughout the pregnancy.
Junior should be up and standing within an hour or so. Try not to interfere too much. It is important that he gets his colostrum and he may be grateful for a little assistance in standing on wobbly legs, but this is all pretty new to him and he will likely figure it out whether you are there or not. He will nurse soon enough. He may try a few times and need to lie down to rest in between, and that’s okay. If he hasn’t figured it out in two to three hours, call the vet for advice.
Resist the urge to pull on the placenta: if your mare doesn’t pass it within six hours, call the vet. Once the mare has passed the placenta, save it for the vet to look at when he or she comes to check your foal the next day. It needs to be examined to be sure it is complete.
Check the foal over to make sure he came complete and healthy, and keep an eye on the mare. She has, after all, done all the work! Make sure she’s eating and drinking, her colour is good and that the foal is nursing on both sides of her udder.
There is no better sound than that of a foal suckling his dam for the first time. Congratulations. To a horse lover, what can top that?