In the previous articles we covered the foal's development, progressing from a tiny little egg to a full blown baby horse. Your excitement and anxiety are both starting to peak and, very annoyingly, the mare simply won't tell you when she is going to foal.
So how can you tell when the mare is going to go into labour - particularly when the mare has so much control *(see note)?
There are a lot of methods that, more or less, give you an indication of when the mare might foal. Not all mares show all signs. Some may have very few signs. I will bold the most common signs.
- Behavioural changes: restlessness, anxiousness, pawing at the ground, circling, rolling, colic-type symptoms, urinating and loss of appetite.
- Physical changes: relaxation of the rump muscles, relaxation and elongation of the vulva, full udder, sweating, drop in milk pH, increase in milk calcium, wax build up on teats.
Waxed up Elongated vulva Full udder
One of the easiest and cheapest 'monitoring' methods to help you predict when your mare will foal is to test her milk pH. You can do this with pool pH test strips. Add a few drops of milk to the test strip and wait about 15 seconds. As the mare gets closer to foaling the colour should change to lemon yellow. This method was pioneered by Patricia Blinkhorn. Here full method can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/horse-breeders-group/testing-a-mares-milk-with-ph-strips-by-patricia-blinkhorn/326211080807236/
How can a good foaling monitor/alarm help you during this time?
A good monitor can show you what your mare has been up to. This is particularly important when you aren't sitting there watching her like a hawk. You can look at the app at any time, scroll through the history and see what you missed.
Importantly, there are other signs of foaling that you can ONLY see with this type of monitor/alarm.
Here we will run through a few screenshots of the Smart Foal live view so you can see what is normal and what happens during labour.
Mare grazing - normal behaviour. Small repetitive spikes indicate movements of the jaw while eating.
A short spike is usually a quick flick of the head in response to flies/insects. Sometimes it's pulling hay out of a hay net.
The magnitude of her activity gives you a good idea of how restless your mare has been. Remember, the more restless your mare becomes the closer to foaling she is. Rolling often helps the foal get into position.
Excessive rolling can also indicate that the foal is having trouble getting into position - and should be monitored more closely. If significant amounts of rolling occur well before her due date (under 320 days) it can indicate placentitis (infection of the placenta), torsion (rotation of the uterus leaving a kink), early labour or abortion. Veterinary intervention may be required.
Here a mare is lying down to sleep. The activity graph is flat.
Typical graph of a mare in labour. She is lying flat - setting the alarm off. Then sitting up and pushing, then lying down again. As you can see, the spikes are NOT high, barely passing the number 1 on the left scale. This is quite typical during labour. Being on the ground restricts the mare’s movements and suppresses the height of the spikes. The graph is also clearly different to the grazing graph and sleeping graphs shown earlier.
You can watch the replay video of this mare in labour on our Facebook page.
Other foaling alarms:
How it works:
These types of alarms are VERY accurate for foaling. They work by having a magnetic switch sutured into the mare’s vulva. As the foals feet pass through the birth canal the magnets separate and the alarm is triggered.
Initial cost quite high (~ $2000), then add the cost of vet to implant and replacement transmitters each year.
No monitoring facility. 10 day battery life. If the foal has contracted tendons the alarm will never sound and both the foal and mare can be lost.
Traditional halter mounted alarm
How it works:
These alarms usually have a tilt switch (or accelerometer) in a transmitter that the mare wears on her halter. When the transmitter is tilted to the side (by lying down, getting caught on a fence/feed bin) a threshold is reached and an alarm is raised in the house.
They start from around $750 AUD and go up to $1500 AUD. Adding a mobile dialing box can cost an additional $500 plus sim card and SMS credit.
No monitoring ability. High false alarm rate. Still need to be present to 'check' the mare. Often poor range. No way of knowing if the device has gone flat or out of range.
Phone as an alarm
How it works:
Very similar to a traditional alarm, the halter transmitter is replaced with a phone. When the phone is tilted to the side an alarm is raised on another phone.
Initial outlay very cheap; weekly recurring fees for the app.
No historical information or monitoring. High risk of damage to the phone and fires caused when the lithium batteries gets damaged.
There are various other alarms that use different sensors. Sweat and rolling come to mind. They have relatively limited use and have proven to have just as many false alarms as other types of alarms. They are generally more expensive than the other alarms.
How it works:
Sends you a video stream of the mare.
Relatively cheap depending on the model.
No alarm or method of waking you.
Sending your mare to a professional
You can send your mare to a professional to foal down. Let them take care of night watch, checks, monitoring etc.
Variable – could be around $600 per mare. Also, transportation to and from the facility.
The only problem is if you want to be present or do it yourself.
Take away messages
Whatever method you choose to monitor your mare, just remember to keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs. A soft squishy rump either side of the tail and testing the pH of the mares milk is one of the easiest places to start!
Another guide to milk changes written by Jos Mottershead http://www.equine-reproduction.com/articles/predicting.htm
It should be noted here that the mare has the ability to go into labour and then change her mind if she is uncomfortable. For example, if you have removed her from her normal paddock and paddock mates she may simply refuse to allow the foal to be born. We had a mare in this situation – the foal was in the birth canal ready to be born. She was in a small foaling yard and was ready to give birth. She saw people watching her; she was in the wrong paddock and changed her mind. She then assumed a position that looked like she literally sucked the foal back in; and that was that. No foal. The next morning we released her back into her normal paddock and within minutes she was on the ground giving birth. Once a mares’ water break there is no going back, but until that point the mare has a lot of control.
We have noticed (with our mares) that they will pick one spot in their yard/stall etc. that will be where the give birth. They lie down there, rest there, and help the foal shift into position. If you mare is getting very close to foaling and she starts lying down in her favourite spot, it might be go-time.
Bear in mind that some mares don't develop an udder (or only have a small udder) prior to birth. Some mare’s milk doesn't change pH prior to birth. Some mares don't lie down to give birth. Some mares sit and watch their rear end the whole time - fascinated - which can prevent an alarm going off.
Those of us who are not vets refer to the milk pH test in terms of fruit. Pink is called watermelons, orange is oranges and yellow is lemons. We’ll often say “she has been sitting on lemons for 2 weeks now!”.
The muscles around the tail and vulva SHOULD always relax - if they don't relax the foal will do a lot of damage on the way out. The process will become noticeable from about 3 weeks prior to delivery.