A lifelong horsewoman, Marcy has worked on breeding farms and has personally bred and raised generations of Arabian and Quarter Horses.
A Foaling Kit, Not a Foaling Guide
There's much to know about expectant mares and newborn foals. This article is limited to the assembly of a convenient, useful foaling kit to aid the first-time mare owner. I have not included specific information regarding veterinary procedures or the "how-to" of delivering foals. Use this as your checklist to ensure you have everything you need quickly at hand well in advance of your mare's due date.
Although I make references to the process of foaling, this is in no way intended to be a guide. Ensure you know what to expect. Study up on the signs of normal parturition and the warning signs that something may be amiss. Have an emergency plan in place, including planning for transportation of the horse and foal if necessary; the number of an emergency veterinarian; and the assistance of a reliable friend or neighbor if needed.
Bucket to Hold Everything
Oh, the humble bucket. What would horse-owners do without coffee cans, bailing twine, and plastic buckets? Although there are prettier ways to tote your foaling kit, when it comes to function I haven't found anything more reliable, easy, and versatile than a simple plastic bucket. I prefer to store my kit during the off-season in those square plastic tubs that originally contained horse supplements, but at foaling time it all gets dumped into a five-gallon plastic bucket without a lid to get in the way.
Since your mare will likely foal in the dark, you don't want to be messing around with a lid or a neatly, tightly-packed box. Give yourself room to grab around. Dig out that psyllium bucket and let's fill it with useful stuff.
The Self-Adhering Bandage Tape I Rely Upon
Self-Adhesive Veterinary Wrap or Cottontail Wrap
Technically described as "self-adhesive bandaging tape," you'll probably know it as simply "vet wrap." Toss a couple of rolls of this brightly-colored tape into your kit. When your mare starts giving signs that foaling will soon occur, use it to wrap the base of her tail to keep it from interfering with delivery, collecting fluids and filth, or preventing you from easily seeing what's going on beneath her tail.
You may prefer to use a traditional cotton tail wrap. I actually use both—a cotton wrap to neatly secure the tail (it's washable) and I keep the vet wrap on hand to quickly replace or secure the cotton wrap. On mares that give you false alarms again and again, you may wrap with the cotton wrap only to have several days go by before she actually foals—and by then the cotton wrap may end up falling off into the muck of the paddock or being chewed up by the gelding next door. Just in case … keep that vet wrap in your foaling kit.
Veterinary Cotton Roll
Rolled cotton is the go-to stuff for cleansing the mare's nether parts and udder. You can tear off a wad of it, clean her up, and toss it aside easily. It's gentle, inexpensive and oh-so-handy—and a roll will generally cost no more than $5. Keep it in the plastic bag it comes in to prevent it from gathering shavings and dirt.
Betadine™ scrub is a foaming scrub containing a dilution of povidone iodine. Generally used as a pre-operative surgical scrub, it's also ideal for washing the waxy substance that will build up between her milk bags. Use the cotton and warm water and discard the cotton. Rinse well.
My Recommendation for Umbilical Dip
Antiseptic Dip for Umbilical Stump
In the past, mare owners kept iodine on hand to dip the umbilical stump. No more! Iodine is considered too harsh for that tender skin. Instead, invest in a .5% chlorhexidine solution (such as Nolvasan™). It's important to dip that stump as soon as possible to prevent the bacterial infection that causes joint illness. Nolvasan™ is gentle and will come in handy for other veterinary applications.
This is the cup you'll use to dip the umbilical stump in the antiseptic/chlorhexidine solution. I save the little lightweight plastic dosage cup that comes with Nyquil™ bottles, liquid vitamins, or cough syrup. Toss a few of those cups into your foaling cup. If you prefer, use a 1/8th cup measuring cup that has a handle on it.
Many foals require an enema to assist them in expelling meconium—that dark-colored goop that collects in the foal's intestinal tract as they develop. In my own desert climate, a constipated foal can go downhill quickly in the heat and an enema is often standard procedure. Pick up a box of pre-packaged enemas, readily available at your local drugstore. You can also make your own enema solution and use dosage syringes and rubber tubing, but why go to the trouble when you can easily prepare in advance with a proper enema? They're inexpensive, safe, and effective.
Read More From Pethelpful
My veterinarian once expressed surprised dismay at how few of his clients have a simple veterinary thermometer on hand. Not only will that thermometer come in handy if you're taking your mare's temperature daily to predict her foaling date, but if your mare or foal has complications, you may need to report the temperature to your veterinarian. (Incidentally, a foal's temperature at birth may be as low as 98.6º, but should be at 100.4º within an hour.)
If you have the glass-and-mercury type of thermometer, tie a small string through the hole and attach an alligator clamp (or binder clip) to the end of the string. Attach the clamp to the horse's tail hairs when you've inserted the thermometer so that should they expel it, it will not fall to the ground. Although the modern digital veterinary thermometers I've seen do not have a hole you can use for this purpose, you can use that ever-handy duct tape to affix the string. Heck, if you want to just stand at your mare's rear and hold that thermometer in place for three minutes, go for it. Otherwise, rig a string and a clamp!
Scalpel or Sterile Knife
In most cases, you won't cut the umbilical cord. Leave it to break on its own. On occasion, a mare will pass the placenta before the cord has broken, though—and that's where your scalpel, knife, or shears will come in handy. Make sure any sharp objects in your kit have a holder or container to prevent you from cutting yourself.
As the mare is passing the afterbirth (placenta), it will often hang from her body for quite some time. Since you'll want to collect it and inspect it or keep it for your veterinarian to inspect, you don't want her to trample it and tear it. Use the baling twine to bundle the afterbirth into a tidy package above the mare's hocks.
- Note: Never apply pressure or pull the afterbirth in an effort to remove it.
Clean, Dry Towels
Under unusual circumstances, there may be times you need to rub down the foal with the towels to assist with shallow respiration. On a normal basis, you want to avoid this; the mare will clean the foal herself (an important part of their bonding process) and—if you thoroughly clean the foal—she may even reject it.
You'll also want towels on hand for your own clean-up, to wipe mare or foal's eyes or nasal passages, or for other drying and cleansing. I go heavy on the old towels in my kit as they're always handy, whether for sitting on or drying my hands.
Rubber Exam Gloves
Toss several pairs of rubber gloves into your kit. You'll use them when handling the placenta, giving enemas, and so forth. You may even want to use a pair when scrubbing with Betadine™ or performing other exams and clean-up. You can buy them at the local drugstore. Opt for the exam gloves to the heavy rubber clean-up gloves a hardware store or grocery store will sell; they're easier to work with, inexpensive, and disposable.
Bucket to Hold the Placenta
As mentioned above, it's important to inspect the afterbirth (placenta) for a variety of reasons. If you don't know what to look for, such as tears that may indicate retained placenta or weight, quality, and other factors, save it for your veterinarian or an experienced friend to look at. In my region, it's often hot and flies are already present during foaling season. I fill a five-gallon bucket part-way with water, toss the expelled placenta in it, and cover it to keep flies from gathering until I have time to take a proper look at it.
You will also have to dispose of the placenta. If you will be placing it in a commercial trash container, make sure you've bagged it in a heavy black plastic bag and securely tied the end to prevent pests and odor.
Water (and Soap)
Handy wipes, water, soap—they're all necessary for your comfort. I keep a bar of soap in a travel container in my kit. Those hand towelettes are convenient as well. If your mare is foaling while it's still cold out, consider filling a thermos with boiling water before you go out. It just wouldn't be a proper delivery if someone doesn't get to boil the water, would it? Besides, during long hours at the barn, it's awfully nice having some warm water to wash up with!
Flashlight, Lantern, or Headlamp
Although mares can and occasionally do foal during broad daylight, the vast majority will foal after dark. If you do not have the luxury of a lighted barn, keep a flashlight or a headlamp in your kit. I couldn't get by without my own headlamps. Make sure you have checked the batteries in advance or toss a couple of spares into the bucket.
In addition to the flashlights and headlamps, I rely on a battery-operated lantern (basically a camping lantern) around my barn. It will light a larger area, hands-free, if necessary.
Notebook, Permanent Marker or Pen
Since there's a timeline during which normal foalings proceed, and specific time frames during which the foal should be standing, nursing, and passing meconium, it's a good idea to take notes of each milestone. You may be tired from lack of sleep or you may be excited, but don't rely on your memory. Your vet will also appreciate it if you can tell her exactly what time various events occurred.
Should the delivery or aftermath turn problematic, you will also want to advise your vet of key information such as temperature, heart rate, and so forth.
I recommend a fine-point Sharpie™-type marker. It won't smudge or run if your paper gets wet.
Camera and Extra Batteries
Well, of course you'll want to commemorate the big event with lots of photos! Toss a point-and-shoot camera into the kit, and don't forget the batteries! Sure, you'll have your cell phone camera on hand, but if you prefer a better camera, as I do, make sure it's readily available.
Things usually go well with only nature's assistance, but sometimes you'll need to summon emergency help. Make sure your phone is charged in advance, and most importantly, make sure your emergency veterinarian's phone number is programmed into your phone.
Many of us like to boost our foal's digestive tract with probiotic gel to prevent them from developing diarrhea (scours) after birth and when the mare has her foal eat. While you're putting your kit together, consider adding a couple of tubes of Probios™or a similar probiotic gel. Follow the instructions on the tube or consult your veterinarian for dosage dates and amounts.
Standard Emergency Remedies
If you maintain an emergency kit for your horses, you may wish to review it now to ensure any pharmaceuticals have not expired or gone empty. Make sure everything is quickly accessible in the event you require it during foaling.
Perhaps now is an ideal time to put together that emergency kit if you don't have one!
Now You're Nearly Ready!
Now that you've got your kit assembled, make sure you label it. I reuse those plastic supplement tubs for many things and it's convenient to walk into the barn or storage room and see clearly-labeled tubs and bins so I know just what I'm reaching for. If you're looking forward to more foals in the future, consider re-packing them right away and storing them for the next foaling season.
More on Foals and Foaling
- The Seven Stages of Foaling (in the Owner of the Overdue Mare, That Is)
Anyone who has had an overdue mare can easily recognize these seven stages of foaling -- in themselves, that is. After nearly a year of waiting for the foal's arrival, we do get a bit impatient!
For Mare Owners Only
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is it better to wean a foal at four or at six months? The sources I've read all say different times. One even said to wean at 3 months!
Answer: Although a foal relies little on its mother's milk for nutrition by the time it's four months old, I personally don't care for weaning them until they're six months old. It goes beyond nutrition: the mare continues to shape the foal's behavior and teach it to be a responsible citizen. Mare's milk emits calming pheromones which can assist you in teaching the foal such life lessons as picking up its feet, loading in a trailer, etc.
I often use the condition of the mare as a guide; there seems to be a tipping point where suddenly she's unable to keep up her own body weight while lactating. When I see the mare suddenly look too thin, I pull the foal. Personally, I also like weaning them gradually by putting the foal in an adjacent stall and even letting them nurse through the rails. If you have another foal or a donkey as a companion when you wean them, that's a great benefit. A gentle gelding to buddy up with in the next stall is often ideal.
One other benefit of having the foal remain on the foal is you can ride the mare and let the foal be exposed to new experiences, eventually ponying the foal off the mare. If trail riding is one of your interests, taking the foal along (if safe to do so) can be an amazing way to build the foundation for later experiences.
Many advocates for early weaning are influenced by the need to either put the mare back in service / training or the desire to rebreed. Large breeding operations will often wean all the foals at one time, as well. The actual "best" age for weaning can be dependent on your own personal set-up, stable management needs, and other individual factors.
© 2014 Marcy J. Miller
Talk About It!
Teri on June 10, 2020:
If i am keeping a foal i will allow them to nurse until the Dam makes them stop.
Which could go as long as two years.
Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on March 20, 2014:
RaymondPhilippe, thank you for your visit and kind words. I appreciate it!
Best -- MJ
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on March 20, 2014:
Stopped by your excellent informative hub. Voted up.