On a Dark and Stormy Night…

A Difficult Delivery and an Orphan Colt: Part 1

by Dave Sauter, DVM


Mares seem to intentionally pick the worst, stormiest weather to deliver their foals. One such memorable delivery happened on a brutally cold, windy night many years ago. The temperature was down in the mid teens (Fahrenheit). The mare—we’ll call her “Red”— was a maiden, meaning it was her first pregnancy.  Maiden mares have more complications with delivery and this one had a bunch.

Red was on a farm with several other near-term pregnant mares. They were turned out in a big field during the day, keeping them active and strong in preparation for delivery. At night they were kept in 12’ by 12’ stalls and watched carefully by a fellow named Gene. Gene never finished school, but he had 30 years of experience foaling out mares and had seen just about everything. He taught me more than a thing or two about delivering babies, at least the horse kind. 

When Gene called with the announcement, “the head is there but no legs,” I felt a surge of adrenaline. Normal deliveries are extremely fast. Generally, after the water breaks, the foal is delivered in 10 to 20 minutes. The normal presentation of the foal for delivery is with front legs fully extended, one leg slightly in front of the other, and then head and neck, also fully extended. The first thing we generally see is a white colored thin fluid-filled sac, the amnion or inner sac of the placenta. Inside the sac are the extended front legs. What Gene first found was a mare in the throes of hard labor with nothing showing and no progress. He decided to wash and check her, discovered the malpositioning and called me for help. It is virtually impossible for a mare to deliver the foal that is in this position; it simply won’t fit. The situation would be a tough one. As the minutes clicked by on my drive to the farm, the foal’s chances for survival kept shrinking.

I drove up to the barn and found Gene in a panic – not a good sign. The mare was in dire straits, sweating and straining but with no progress. Her straining made it difficult to work on her. I could have given her an epidural but in the horse that takes quite a few minutes to work and we needed to get the foal out as soon as possible. We used an old trick of Gene’s which was to get the mare up, if possible, and walk her. Walking reduces the mare’s ability to push, allowing greater ability to manipulate the foal. While Gene walked her I moved behind the mare and, with some trepidation, got into the birth canal and located the foal’s head. It was wedged through the cervix and had to be shoved back into the uterus to create some room to search for the legs. Both legs were flexed at the knee.

Following the legs down from the knees to the hooves, I cupped the hooves and began extending the legs only to discover that they would not fully extend. The foal had contracted tendons preventing full extension. After a lot of effort, the legs finally extended just enough to safely enter the birth canal. Now we had a close to normal orientation for the delivery and returned Red to her stall so she could lay down. Lying flat out on her side, she could produce full pushing force. The foal was large, the mare was worn out, and she still couldn’t make progress so Gene and I pitched in and pulled. It wasn’t easy but we finally got the foal out. However, our troubles were just beginning. 

At first it looked like the foal was dead; there was no movement. Then we noticed shallow breathing and located a strong heart beat. After a few minutes of mouth-to-nostril resuscitation, the breathing improved but the foal remained unconscious. After drying the foal off, dipping the navel, tying up the mare’s placenta and giving her pain medication, the foal still remained unconscious and unresponsive to stimuli. Even deep pain elicited no response.

To be continued…


Published May 2012 Issue

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