Horse-Breeding Problems: Dystocia

Learn what options you have in the event of a mare’s abnormal or difficult birth.

Dystocia. The word alone is enough to send shivers down the spines of horse breeders and keep them awake at night. The term dystocia refers to an abnormal or difficult birth. Dystocias occur in approximately 1 to 2 percent of foalings and are more common in mares during their first foaling than in mares who have had multiple foals. The most common cause of dystocia in the mare is an abnormal alignment of the head or forelimbs of the foal in the birth canal. Foaling is usually a rapid and forceful event. As a general rule, once a mare has broken her water and is in active labor, the front feet and nose should be visible at the vulva within 10 minutes. Complete delivery is normally accomplished within 20 to 30 minutes after the mare breaks her water.

If no progress has been made by 15 minutes, a vaginal examination should be performed by an experienced individual to assess position of the fetus. A veterinarian should be consulted if no progress has been made by 20 minutes after the water has broken, if labor has stopped completely or if the normal progression of foaling has been interrupted. A delay in labor can result in compromise to the health of the foal when oxygen delivery is decreased as the placenta begins to separate from the uterus of the mare. The goals in managing a mare with a dystocia are to save the life of the foal, save the life of the mare and preserve the future fertility of the mare. It is important that a brief physical examination be performed to identify the obstetrical problem, to determine whether the fetus is alive and to formulate a plan. Caution should be used if a mare experiencing a dystocia is to be examined in stocks, because many foaling mares try to lie down during vaginal examination. Veterinary intervention can include sedation of the mare, epidural anesthetic to decrease pain and straining, and/or general anesthesia to facilitate safe evaluation of the mare and correction of the problem.

Foals require special care and have specific nutritional needs, whether they experienced a dystocia or not. AQHA’s Equine Breeding Techniques and Foal Health Tips report can help you prepare to raise a healthy foal.

Choices for relieving an equine dystocia include vaginal delivery, Cesarean section surgery or fetotomy (removal of a dead foal). The final decision might depend on the status of the fetus, duration and severity of the dystocia, economic value of the mare and fetus, clinician expertise, client preference, facilities available and other considerations. If the fetus is alive, a vaginal delivery can be attempted with the mare awake. If significant progress is not made in 15 to 20 minutes, the mare might be put under general anesthesia and an assisted vaginal delivery attempted. If progress toward a vaginal delivery is not forthcoming, a Caesarean surgery is often performed. Elevation of the hindquarters of an anesthetized mare can be beneficial to increase space in the caudal abdominal cavity and therefore make it easier to reposition fetal body parts that are not aligned properly in the birth canal. Liberal application of obstetrical lubricants along all sides of the foal and within the uterine cavity will greatly enhance repositioning and extraction of the fetus. It is critical that careful traction be applied to the fetus once it has been confirmed the limbs and head are correctly aligned within the birth canal. It is recommended that the amount of traction used to pull an equine fetus not exceed that provided by two people. In addition, mechanical devices should never be used to pull an equine fetus. Traction should only be applied when the mare is pushing, and traction should be released when the mare stops straining.

Whether or not we are ready, foaling season is upon us. Calm your last-minute anxiousness with AQHA’s Equine Breeding Techniques and Foal Health Tips report. Discover the ins and outs of mare care, stages of labor and more with the help of AQHA.

Resuscitation equipment should be available on farms that foal out a lot of mares, and farm personnel should be trained in the proper care and use of the equipment. The foal is at high risk of many neonatal diseases, including neonatal maladjustment syndrome, failure of passive transfer, ruptured bladder and trauma, such as rib fractures. The mare should also be examined following resolution of a dystocia. It is common for the placenta to be retained after a dystocia, and preventative treatments are often instituted after a dystocia has been relieved. Finally, the reproductive tract of the mare (perineum, vagina, cervix and uterus) should be carefully examined for trauma that might limit her future reproductive performance.


Now that you have that long awaited foal, learn how to best care for him in his first hours with this AQHA Video.