From the Foaling Barn

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The Maiden Mare

Maiden mares make me uneasy, even though I've never had any real problems with any of the ones I've foaled out. I think my uneasiness comes from my human experience of birth. Human babies are completely helpless and remain so for several years. And human mothers have virtually no natural instincts for mothering. We need books, and labor coaches, and nursing experts,and all manner of advice from others. It's hard to imagine that a dumb (relatively speaking) creature like a mare can know exactly what to do when she gives birth for the first time.

Right now, I'm waiting for one of my two maiden mares to foal. Chicky is 10 days overdue, and if I were to go by her udder development and the quality of milk I've been able to collect from her, I'd say she still isn't close to foaling. But I say that with a caveat--maiden mares are notoriously hard to predict. I had one maiden who was a full five weeks late, and I've had maidens who were a week early. Also, maidens often do not follow the textbook description of prefoaling changes in udder development--many do not wax or let down their milk til after foaling. This can be a problem for someone like me who absolutely and positively wants to be there when she foals.

I try to be present when each of my mares foal, but it's especially important with maiden mares. While it is not common in quarter horses, mares do occasionally reject their foals, especially when the foal tries to nurse. I know  mare owners who had no experience in breeding.  When their mare exhibited aggressive behavior toward the foal, they did not react quickly enough.  The mare kicked the foal, breaking its

leg so badly the owners had to put it down.  If the mare becomes aggressive toward the foal, biting or kicking, the foal and mother should be separated immediately. The mare needs to be restrained (tied, hobbled if necessary), so that the foal can nurse and receive the colostrum it needs. Usually, once the foal has nursed several times, the mare settles down and does her job. Sometimes, the mare will need to be restrained for longer periods.

Even if the mare is not rejecting the foal, new mothers can have difficulties with the whole nursing process. We had one mare who would turn to look at the foal every time it approached to nurse, with the result that the foal would toddle right past the mother and never get close to her udder. Waiting for the foal to nurse is frustrating even with mares who are old hands, but with new mothers, I think our instinct is to jump in and try to help the foal and mother too quickly. It becomes a judgement call then as to when you stand aside to let mother and foal work things out and when you must step in to protect the foal or help the mother.

A first time mother, especially, needs the time and space to bond with her foal. Too many people watching, entering the stall, making noise can cause the mare to become worried or excited. Many of the maidens I've dealt with have been overly protective of their foals, so much so that the foal check-up was an ordeal.

I'll continue to watch Chicky closely for changes in her udder or her behavior. For the last week, I've put her in the stocks and rubbed her flank and her udder to get her used to being touched. So far, she's been pretty mellow about it all. I watch her at night on a foal cam that feeds to our televisions at the house. Also, she has a foal alert sewn across her vulva, which will alert us when her water breaks. Still, even with all these precautions, I won't rest easy til we have an healthy, nursing foal.

I'll update you when she does foals.

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