The Seven Stages of Foaling (in the Owner of the Overdue Mare, That Is)
Ahhh, the joy we feel when the vet, his arm immersed in the mare's nether regions, winks at us and says, "There's a baby in there!" What excitement! In just 340 days there will be a brand new foal on the ground, its tiny hooves covered with "golden slippers," its little muzzle covered with soft whiskers, and its fuzzy little body covered with that new horse smell. We just can't wait. There's nothing quite like a new foal ... except a new puppy. And nothing can compete with a new puppy -- but a new foal is pretty darned close.
There's no doubt about it: we're excited. For eleven-some months, we nurture that mare. We try to imagine what the foal will look like; will it be a colt, or a filly? What color? We work out color genetics. We draft potential names on scraps of paper. We mark the due date in our calendar. We happily tell our friends, "Oh -- I can't possibly go on that day. There'll be a new foal that week!" We post pictures of our pregnant mare on Facebook. We're excited.
As the day approaches, though, we change. Just as the mare's body changes, and the foal changes position, we begin to change from excitement to apprehension. We start reading the stack of books on foaling. Our heart skips a beat when we get to the part about "dystocia" or "red bag." We know that 90% of mares foal without any difficulty -- and that mares have been foaling for thousands of years without us right there to help -- yet we feel we should prepare for the worst, just in case. We read the scary stories and look at the frightening pictures and start to fear what will -- may -- could go wrong.
Meanwhile, our mare is perfectly happy. She's enjoying the extra attention, the extra feed we give to make sure she's getting enough nutrition to support her and the foal. She's loving the time we spend tending to her needs, keeping the stall extra tidy, and grooming her so she'll look gorgeous in those first photos with the new kid.
But day 340 comes and goes. We check the mare religiously -- several times a day. We squeeze a few drops of milk out, checking the consistency and color. We watch for bagging up, waxing, behavioral changes, softening of the muscles around the tail, changes in body shape. We sleep in the empty stall in the barn, surrounded by sleeping bags and cots and flashlights and thermal cups filled with coffee. We stare at ourselves in the mirror the next morning and try to wash the dark circles from beneath our eyes. We return to the barn and stare at the mare again: this can't be real. She can't be overdue.
Each time we awaken we rush to the foaling stall, looking first to see if the mare's standing, then working our ways downward. We know right away if she's foaled just by looking at her ears: once a foal has arrived, the mare's ears tilt back; her focus is entirely on that little baby. If her ears are on us as we approach, there's no baby yet. We can't believe it.
We recalculate the breeding days. Something must be wrong: she can't be overdue. The stallion owner must have made a mistake. We only arranged three days off from work to be here. This can't be happening. Why me, Lord? We can't believe that after all our planning and feeding and nurturing and arranging that our mare is not producing.
We're tired, now. She should have foaled three days ago. We've spent a year preparing this mare for this event, and she still hasn't done a darned thing. We've invested in her good health, and ensured her fitness. We've pulled her shoes, wrapped her tail, and given up weeks of sleep -- and this is the thanks we get? We go from our nurturing kindness to annoyance and anger. We quit calling the mare, "Sweet Mama," every time we are near her, and begin to call her, "Nasty Old Bag!"
We've been betrayed, and we're not good with it. Friends call and ask, "Is it here yet?" and we swear out loud. We tell them we're going to close the barn door on the mare and squeeze that baby right out. They laugh. We hang up.
We quit giving her daily massages and we chase her around the corral a bit, partly because we know that exercise is good for pregnant mares, and partly because it makes us feel better to see her lumber around like that.
Anger has gotten us nowhere. It's now a full week past due date. Being tired has yielded to a full-body zombie-like exhaustion. We begin to bargain with the mare. "C'mon, little Cody. Have the foal tonight and I'll never sell you. What do you want, Cody? More bran mashes? What do you need from me? Whatever it is, you've got it. Have the foal, Cody. Have it tonight." She looks at us with those big, round, soft eyes. She raises her tail slightly -- we catch our breath in anticipation -- and she passes gas. Mares.
We make other promises. We promise we'll buy her a new fly mask and that we'll ditch the spurs and that we'll never, ever turn her out with the boss mare again and let her get pushed around. We will bring her carrots every day and twice on weekends. She'll have such a good life. Just have the foal. We sound like a used car salesman: "So, what's it gonna take to get you to foal tonight?"
We're ten days overdue now. The mare waddles around like a goose with a poopy diaper. Hey, that might not make sense, but when's the last time we got any decent sleep? We're worried, fatigued, and depressed. We are listless and have trouble getting excited anymore. "So, new baby on the way, huh?" someone says, meaning well. We glare at them with as much emotion as we can muster at this point. "Yeah, what about it?" we murmur. "Whatever." At this point we figure we'll give up horses completely, if we have the energy to do so. Why did we ever breed our horse anyway? We're losers.
How Well Can You Relate?
How much experience have you had with pregnant mares?
Two weeks past due, and all's well. We have given in to the fickle whims and caprices of the pagan pony gods. Nature will take its course. "When's that mare going to foal?" our friends ask. "When she's ready," we smile. "Aren't you worried?" they say. "Oh, no, whatever will happen will happen," we say stoically. We quit wrapping the mare's tail every night; we know we can't hurry things. We recognize that everything might be just fine but even if it isn't, we can handle it. We quit sleeping in the barn.
We check the mare at midnight. She's just standing there, perfectly content. We're good with that. We have a zen-like attitude, now. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.
Three weeks pass. Four. The mare has now carried the foal for over a year. We call the vet ... but rather than asking panicked questions, we leave a cheery message: "Well, it's over a year now. She's seriously overdue. But she's in no distress, and she'll have it when she's ready to have it! Talk to you later!" We have gone from the passive to the sublime. We sleep.
We mosey out to the barn. After all, it's been 368 days now since the mare was last bred. We're war-hardened gestation combat veterans. We've already made our chai -- the right way, with a tea bag, no dunking, and honey, pre-stirred and melted before we add the chai, and some whipped cream on top. After all, why hurry? The mare's not going to have that foal anytime soon, anyhow -- heck, it's been a year. Why rush?
As soon as we step out the front door, though, we sense it. We can see her ears, tilted back the way they do; her neck, bent at the poll as she reaches around to nuzzle what can only be a brand-new foal. She's alert all over, glowing -- truly glowing. It's true. They glow. They exude happiness. She makes that little "huh, huh," noise that mares make to their babies. We start to jog, just slow enough that we don't startle the new mama. Chai sloshes out of the cup. Hell, we ditch the cup into the shrubbery. We're in a bolt now. There's a new baby! It's here! It's standing! It has all it's new-horse parts, little fingers, little toes -- well, little hooves, anyway.
We start calling, texting, tweeting, and taking photos of the baby with our smart phones all at once. "It's here!" is all we need to say, and the world knows. Our horsey friends reply, "One hole or two?" and we realize, in our rush to check the placenta and dip the umbilical stump and imprint the foal and admire the white markings that we didn't check to see if he's a he or a she. It's embarrassing in our excitement to realize we just dipped his little boy part in the antiseptic, and totally missed the umbilical stump, but it happens. We're excited. He's here.
We've done it. We've had our foal. He's beautiful! And it seems like only yesterday we bred that mare. Are we breeding back? We snicker. Of course! We can't wait to do this all over again! Nothing is as exciting as having a foal to look forward to!
Get Your Foaling Kit Ready!
- The Essential Foaling Kit for the First-Time Mare Owner
Congratulations! You're about to experience one of the most rewarding experiences of horse ownership: the arrival of your long-awaited foal. Here's what you should have on hand.
My 2011 Filly Sassypants' First Day
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
My mare is twelve days late, and no milk has appeared yet. Should I worry?
No, there's no reason to worry yet. Sometimes mares won't bag up until immediately before foaling is imminent; other mares will start to bag up weeks in advance. Are you positive of the breeding dates, and was your mare checked/palpated and found to be in foal?