Mares and foaling time

vet voice - horse - mare - foal

Despite the majority of foalings being uneventful, serious complications that require immediate veterinary attention can arise during and after the delivery, so familiarising yourself with the normal stages of foaling and what to expect following the delivery, will enable you to be on the front foot if any intervention is needed.

The foaling process

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules around the exact timing of foaling events, the following can be used as a general guide. The mare’s mammary glands will enlarge about 2-4 weeks prior to foaling and around seven days out, the external genitalia will swell and relax. Wax plugs will appear on the end of the mares teats around 24-72 hours prior to foaling (but can sometimes appear much earlier).

The foaling process usually occurs at night and is very fast compared to many other domestic animals like dogs and cattle. It can be divided into three important stages:

  1. In stage 1 of foaling, the mare may show signs of restlessness, they may walk consistently, paw the ground and generally look uncomfortable. The duration of this stage of labour can be variable from mare to mare but is usually between 1-2 hours.  
  2. Stage 2 is marked by the rupture of the membranes (the waters breaking). The mare will experience strong abdominal contractions and will generally lie down to deliver the foal. Foals should present forelegs first, followed by the muzzle and head and then the body and hind legs. This stage is quick, and should be completed within 15-30 min after rupture of the placenta.
  3. In stage 3 (the final stage), the foetal membranes should be naturally expelled by the mare within 3 hours of birth. Retained membranes can be a very serious medical problem in mares if not addressed promptly by a veterinarian.

The 1:2:3 rule for foals

  1. Within 1 hour, the foal should stand.
  2. Within 2 hours, the foal should suckle.
  3. Within 3 hours, the mare’s placenta should be passed.

If any part of the 1:2:3 rule is not satisfied, you should contact your vet immediately.


Both the mare and foal should be assessed by a veterinarian within 24 hours of foaling. A post-foaling check involves assessment of the mare for any trauma or tears, bleeding, uterine infection, and udder health. The foal should be assessed for vitality, umbilical health, the presence of any hernias, congenital conditions or limb deformities.

The foal’s blood IgG immunoglobulin levels should be tested at 12-24 hours of age to determine whether colostrum quality and intake have been adequate. Foals with low IgG levels are more susceptible to infection, and should receive an intravenous plasma transfusion using commercially available frozen plasma, rich in immunoglobulins.

When to call your veterinarian

  • If stage one labour is taking longer than 2 hours and is not progressing
  • If stage 2 labour is not progressing significantly within 10-15min after the membranes rupture
  • If you suspect a ‘red bag delivery’ – if this is the case, the membranes that first appear are bright red in colour. This means that the placenta has partially or completely separated from the lining of the mare’s uterus prior to the foal being delivered. This is an emergency because the foal can suffocate unless the placenta is opened, and the foal delivered as quickly as possible.

Foals should stand, suckle, urinate and defecate quite soon after birth compared to other species. Failure to do any of these, or frequent, unsuccessful attempts may mean there is a problem and veterinary attention should be sought.