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How to Think Like A Horse: The Essential Handbook for Understanding Why Horses Do What They Do

Horse Stable and Riding Arena Design

Horse Owner's Veterinary Handbook (Howell Reference Books)

Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage: Designing and Managing Your Equine Facilities

The Birth of a Foal

'A fine little smooth horse colt, should move a man as much as doth a son.' Thomas Kyd, an English playwright, couldn't have described the experience of witnessing the birth of a foal more eloquently. Without a doubt, watching a baby horse make its entrance into the world is one of the greatest thrills of a lifetime. Despite the presence for potential problems, every moment is absolutely precious from the time the mare begins exhibiting signs of giving birth to those first wobbling, precarious steps of the colt or filly. Even for someone who may not be enthralled with horses, a brand new baby bobbing around on stick-figure legs is a sight to behold.

Anticipation rises as the end finally nears ' after eleven months of pregnancy, the mare indicates she is ready to deliver her baby. She will show several significant signs when the birth time draws near. Her flanks will drop towards the ground and the muscles around the hindquarter area relax to make easier passage for the foal. The simplest way to check for this relaxation is to press the mare's quarters; her rump will feel like Jell-O. The udder will fill with colostrum, the first milk, and the mare's teats will 'wax' a short time before the foal arrives. Waxing is the dripping of milk from the swollen bag. The mother-to-be will pace around her stall, often with discomfort, and will seem unable to stand still. She may even lie down and stand up frequently as the foal changes position inside her distended belly. Although for the most part a horse's contractions are barely visible to the viewer, the mare may pull back her lips to show her gums as a sign of intense internal pain.

Wild horses deliver their babies without help out of necessity, but human intervention is occasionally necessary for the domesticated horses of today. Onlookers, although eager to help, generally will only be in the way during the birth and would do best to let the mare perform as nature ensues. Ideally the foal should come out of its mother's womb with the head lying on extended legs; in such a case the bottom of the hooves will be pointing towards the mare's feet. However, if the foal were to be 'breeched', or born with its back feet first, the hooves would be pointing up towards the mare's tail. A breeched foal must be hand-delivered quickly or it will drown from breathing in the amniotic fluids gathered in the womb, and the mare also will most likely die. The hooves will break through the placenta as the birth progresses, enabling the baby to breathe when it is completely out of the womb. If the placenta does not break the foal will suffocate; this is not usually a prime concern because the mare will usually stand and break the sac.

Mares prefer privacy and darkness to give birth, partly because of their vulnerable position on the ground.  Many broodmares stand until the baby's hooves emerge, then lie down for the remainder of the process because the foal's shoulders, the widest part of the body, are the most difficult part to push out. Most mares perspire liberally during the delivery and may also act distracted or somewhat subdued. Once the baby's shoulders are past the opening of the birth canal, the rest of the body should come swiftly and without difficulty. The standard time for the birth is around two hours from the point the mare's water breaks until the foal emerges completely from its mother.

The mare may take a little while after delivery to stand and break the umbilical cord because she will, expectedly, be exhausted. When she does stand and the cord breaks, the foal is given passage to begin life on its own. It is still on the ground, helpless, wet, and small. The mother will lick her baby dry with a rough tongue and clear away the afterbirth from its nostrils so her foal can breathe. The caressing of her tongue warms the foal and stimulates its blood circulation, at the same time creating a bond between mare and foal.

More energized by now, the baby will begin to move around a bit and try to gather its long legs under its body. Typically within thirty minutes of its birth, the baby will attempt to stand. Because of its newborn status, the foal is very uncoordinated and will fall back to the floor several times. The urge to nurse, coming from both nature and its mother, convinces the foal to keep trying. Eventually those long legs will bring the baby's body up and brace it until balance is obtained. Often the mare will nicker to her child with encouragement, even touching it gently with her muzzle until it can make its way to adequate nourishment, nursing for the essential first milk the mare provides. The mare's milk has a sleep-inducing factor to it, and within minutes the foal will lie down and sleep as its body begins to adjust to an exciting new environment.

When the phenomenon is over the spectators can sit back and relax, having just witnessed an incredible miracle. Excitement is evident when the mare begins showing signs she's ready to foal because witnessing the birth is a thrill that would animate almost anyone. Once problems are proved to be nonexistent, all spectators must do it sit back and let nature run its course. Although the ecstasy of watching the new baby stand and nurse for the first time is over, many more fantastic events will mark the foal's life throughout the years.
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