Understanding Labor and Delivery

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Welcoming a Foal: Labor and Delivery Care of Your Mare and Foal

If your mare is expecting and you’ve never witnessed the birth of a foal, or if it’s been a long time, you may be wondering what’s normal and what signs indicate a need to call your vet. Make sure you’re ready with this quick guide to equine labor, delivery, and postpartum care.

Labor and Delivery

Labor and delivery is comprised of three stages:

  1. Stage One begins with the onset of contractions and generally lasts one to two hours. Even in a normal delivery, the mare may stand up, lie down, and roll several times in an effort to properly position the foal for delivery. During this phase, contractions move the foal through the cervix and into position in the birth canal. The fetal membranes (allantois) may become visible at the mare’s vulva. When the sac breaks, signaled by a rush of fluid, stage one ends.The rupture of the allantoic membrane and rush of placental fluids may be confused with urination. 


  1. Stage Two is the actual expulsion of the foal. This phase moves relatively quickly. The important markers in this phase are timing, presentation, and the color of the membranes around the foal.


  • Timing – If it takes more than 30 minutes for the mare to deliver, there is most likely a problem. If there is no significant progress within 10 to 15 minutes after the membranes rupture, call your veterinarian immediately. If labor seems to be progressing, wait and watch.


  • Presentation – Normal presentation of the foal resembles a diving position, with front feet first, one slightly ahead of the other, hooves down, followed closely by the nose, head, neck, shoulders, and hindquarters. If you notice hoof soles up, the foal may be backwards or upside down, and you should call your veterinarian immediately. If caught early enough in labor, your veterinarian may be able to reposition the foal for a normal delivery. Remember, a prompt delivery is crucial to the health of the newborn foal.


  • Membrane Color – The most deadly of foaling emergencies is a premature rupture of the chorioallantois, known as “Red Bag Delivery.”  If at any time during stage two you see red/maroon membranes covering the foal as it emerges from the vagina, the placenta must be rapidly torn open. The foal is detached from its blood and oxygen supply. Normal membranes that cover the foal are white or yellow and translucent.

Unless it is a dire emergency, do not try to pull a foal. An exception to this rule might include a backwards presentation or the Red Bag Delivery described above, because the foal can suffocate unless delivered promptly. Under no circumstances should you ever pull with anything more than your own muscle power, and pull only during a contraction (when the mare is straining). Improper pulling risks damage to the mare’s reproductive tract, injury to the foal, and premature separation of the umbilical cord, which will deprive the foal of oxygen.

  1. Stage Three labor begins after delivery and is the phase during which the afterbirth (placenta) is expelled. Most placentas are passed within one to three hours after the foal is delivered. If the placenta has not passed within three hours, call your veterinarian. A retained placenta can cause serious problems, including massive infection and laminitis.

 The First Few Hours

In the excitement of birth, it is important to remember some tried and true guidelines:

  • Allow the foal time to break the fetal membranes (see “Red Bag Delivery” exception above). Once the foal breaks through, be sure it is breathing.
  • Generally, it is not recommended to cut or break the umbilical cord. If it has not broken during delivery, it will usually break when the mare or foal gets up. The cord should break at a site approximately one inch from the foal’s abdomen, where the cord’s diameter is slightly narrower than the remainder of the cord. If it is necessary to manually separate the cord, it should be held firmly on either side of the intended break site, then twisted and pulled to separate (never cut the cord). Twisting and pulling of the cord stimulate closure of the umbilical vessels and reduce the likelihood of hemorrhage from the cord stump. If bleeding persists following cord separation, pressure can be applied to the stump for several minutes by squeezing with a thumb and finger. It is NOT advisable to suture or permanently clamp an umbilical stump. Foals will not typically lose enough blood to become anemic and there is significant danger of trapping pathogens in the umbilical stump when you suture it closed.
  • Encourage the mare and foal to rest as long as possible. Give them an opportunity to bond undisturbed.
  • Treat the umbilical cord with an antiseptic solution, recommended by your veterinarian, soon after the cord breaks and for several days thereafter to prevent bacterial infection. Diluted (1:4) chlorhexadine solutions are preferred over strong iodine for naval dipping. Tincture of iodine can burn the skin surrounding the umbilical stump and should be avoided.

Schedule a Postpartum Exam

It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian do a postpartum examination of both the mare and foal, as well as the placenta.

If you ever have concerns that labor or delivery is not progressing normally, contact your vet immediately.

Carolina Equine Hospital provides a full range of reproductive, foaling, and postpartum care services. Call us at 336-349-4080 24 hours a day, or complete our online form to request a reproductive appointment.