Ask an Expert

Stages of Labor

April 26, 2010

The American Association of Equine Practitioners explains the three stages of your mare’s labor.

Question:

Would you please spell out the time frames of the foaling process, and at what times the foal and the mare become in danger?

Answer:

Labor (or parturition) is divided into three stages:

Stage 1

Stage 1 is the longest stage and, to some degree, can be manipulated by the mare. Mares can actually prolong this stage by hours and even days if they sense a threat (bad weather, presence of predators, etc.) Generally, it may be difficult to determine when this stage starts because most of the happenings are occurring within the uterus as the foal positions itself with the front feet and nose in the birthing canal. Outwardly, you may see signs of restlessness in the mare, sweating or inappetence.

Before Stage 1 occurs, the mare has already begun to develop a full udder and the perineal area has become relaxed. At this stage of the game, there is relatively little danger unless the foal does not get positioned properly. However, this will not be evident until Stage 2 starts. The largest risk during Stage 1 is premature placental separation. This is termed “red bag.” If you happen to see a feathery red “bag” protruding from the mare’s vulva before you see feet, you must act quickly. The “bag” is actually the placenta, which has become detached before the foal is born. In this situation, the foal is unable to receive oxygen from the mare’s blood stream and needs to be born immediately. In this instance, you will need to open the bag and assist the mare to get the foal out as soon as possible. Luckily, this does not occur commonly, but is something to be aware of because there will not be time to wait for a veterinarian (unless you happen to be foaling out on a farm with an on-site veterinarian) and still have a live foal. Stage 1 ends when the mare’s water breaks.

Stage 2

This is the stage of active labor when the mare has active abdominal presses. This stage goes quickly and usually does not last longer than 30 minutes. In a normal birth, you will see a white-bluish membrane surrounding the foal. You should see one front foot first, then the second front foot about 6 inches behind it with the nose between the legs. Don’t be surprised if your mare stands up and lays down multiple times during this stage. As the foal enters the birthing canal, this stimulates forceful contractions from the uterus.

Problems that arise during Stage 2 usually require veterinary assistance, but having a knowledgeable ranch hand or barn manager can help while waiting for the veterinarian to arrive. The foal can be positioned incorrectly, meaning that one or both feet may not be in the birth canal, the head may be back, or the foal can even be backwards (breech). In this instance, the mare will usually require an epidural to get the foal positioned correctly without causing harm to the mare or the foal. As long as the placenta remains attached, the foal will be viable when born. In the case of a breech birth however, if the hind legs are visible, it is important to get the foal out ASAP because the umbilical cord is pinched between the foal’s body wall and the mare’s pelvis. In this situation, the foal is unable to get oxygen until it is all the way out and able to breathe on its own. If your mare has been lying down and actively pushing, but you do not see feet, this indicates a problem. Your veterinarian should be called immediately. Stage 2 ends when the foal is born.

Stage 3

This stage involves the passage of the placenta and should occur relatively soon after the foal is born. There is much debate on what constitutes a retained placenta. Some veterinarians say that a placenta that has not passed within three hours is considered retained, while others will wait until 24 hours. One thing is certain, however. If the placenta does not pass, it can set your mare up for a uterine infection, systemic illness, and even laminitis. After the placenta has been passed, it should be placed in a plastic bag for the veterinarian to examine.

It is worth the time and money to have your mare and foal examined by a veterinarian 24 hours after foaling. This will help ensure a healthy mare and give your foal the best chance at a healthy start to life!

– Dr. Jennifer Schleining, member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners

AAEP’s Ask the Vet forum is answering questions on skin conditions during April. Be sure to submit your questions!