What is Parturition?
Parturition, or the process of giving birth, is usually relatively speedy for horses, usually only taking a few hours from the start of labor to the expulsion of the placenta in a typical birth scenario. Most births in the equine world go smoothly, however, when something does go wrong it can turn fatal quickly without intervention. Commonly encountered difficulties are similar to many of the problems that humans can run into, including premature separation of the placenta, an incorrectly positioned foal, or internal hemorrhaging.
Parturition is another name for giving birth, which is generally a relatively quick process for equine animals. It is important that the mare is monitored during this process as life-threatening complications can happen in just minutes.
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Symptoms of Parturition in Horses
Symptoms that indicate that labor is about to start occur between 320 and 360 days and can vary somewhat from mare to mare, but several of the physical and behavioral changes that occur are common:
- Attempts to separate from the herd
- Colostrum leaking from teats
- Loss of appetite
- Nipples develop a waxy cap
- Patches of swea
- Unusual nervousness
- Vulva relaxes (visibly)
The first stage of labor is when contractions start for your horse. This stage of labor generally takes a few hours to go from start to finish and prepares the body for the act of giving birth. Stage one of parturition ends and stage two starts when the mare’s water breaks, and lasts around fifteen to thirty minutes. This period would be considered the active phase of the process and generally consists of clusters of three or four contractions followed by a rest continuing until the foal is released from the uterus. The final stage of parturition is when the placenta that was nourishing the foal is also expelled, which generally occurs within about three hours after the foal is born.
Causes of Parturition in Horses
It is generally best to allow the dam to give birth with as little assistance. Some of the circumstances that can commonly result in a troublesome parturition experience in equines:
- Hemorrhage - Hemorrhaging can occur inside the uterus during a difficult birth and may require blood transfusions, and in some cases surgery
- Premature separation of the placenta - This is characterized by a red bag protruding from the vulva during labor as the placenta appears before the foal; this complication can lead to the asphyxiation of the foal if no intervention occurs
- Poor positioning of the foal - Foals are typically born with their front feet being followed closely by their nose, then the hindquarters; horses that are positioned with their hind feet first or sideways before the parturition process often require human intervention
Diagnosis of Parturition in Horses
In most cases, foaling goes relatively smoothly, and very little intervention is required, however, when things do go wrong, they do so rather quickly. Mares will need a clean, safe paddock that is isolated from the other stalls, and proximity to a veterinary professional may be a consideration. When complications arise from equine parturition, mere minutes can make the difference between life and death for both the mare and the foal. Many horse owners elect to move their horse to a farm with the appropriate facilities to provide twenty-four-hour monitoring and nearby veterinary assistance.
If you decide to foal yourself in a more modest setting, there are tools that you can acquire to prevent the foaling from occurring without your knowledge. One of the most convenient methods involves the use of a foaling alarm. This device attaches to the mare’s head collar and sends an alert to the base unit in the event that your mare is laying flat for a prolonged period of time.
Treatment of Parturition in Horses
The process of labor is quite short with equines, usually only taking a few hours from start to finish. When complications arise that slow this process down it can be detrimental for both the foal and the dam. There are several interventions that your veterinarian may be required to make in order for the labor to be successful. The veterinarian may assist your horse in the labor process by moving the fetus into position by hand, and sometimes by helping to gently pull the fetus out.
If the red bag characteristic of a prematurely separated placenta is seen, it will need to be torn, and the birthing should take place as quickly as possible to ensure that the foal is receiving enough oxygen throughout the process and to make sure that the umbilical cord does not get tangled or twisted. A prematurely separated placenta can be fatal to the foal in a very short amount of time as well, and if the veterinarian is not yet physically there, they may give you directions on how to complete this process yourself. Both of these procedures will generally require that the horse is partially anesthetized to avoid injury to the horse or the person making the adjustments.
Recovery of Parturition in Horses
It is important that the foal is given an adequate time to rest and recover next to their dam before the umbilical cord is cut, usually at least five to fifteen minutes. During this resting period, large volumes of blood are transferring from the dam to the foal, and cutting or breaking this cord before that transfer has finished may cause severe bleeding. If this occurs, then stopping the bleeding is crucial for the health of both mother and foal. Under normal circumstances, the dam will stand and break the umbilical cord herself once the transfer of blood is complete. The foal will also have its blood tested within the first twelve to twenty-four hours to ensure that an adequate level of antibodies from both this transfer of blood and the first meals of colostrum have made their way into the foal’s system.