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Management of Reproduction in Horses

By

Patricia L. Sertich

, MS, VMD, DACT, New Bolton Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

Last full review/revision Sep 2019 | Content last modified Oct 2019
Topic Resources

A fully detailed discussion of the reproductive biology and management of reproduction in horses is beyond the scope of this section. However, an overview of key aspects of the horse’s reproductive cycle, pregnancy, and foaling are provided.

Reproductive Cycle and Breeding Management

Most mares only have estrous cycles during the seasons of the year when day length is long. During winter, the ovaries are inactive, and the reproductive hormones are at baseline levels in the bloodstream. As the days get longer in the spring, mares go through a transitional stage as the reproductive tract starts to prepare for the breeding season. During this transition, mares will have 3 to 4 episodes of sexual receptivity due to the development of waves of large follicles on the ovaries. Mares are not fertile at this time of year because the ovaries do not release eggs. After 8 to 10 weeks, the level of luteinizing hormone will be high enough to cause one of the follicles to ovulate. Once this occurs, the mare will then establish a normal estrous cycle with regular ovulation. Mares ovulate every 21 days throughout the breeding season, with periods of estrus (receptivity to breeding with a stallion) lasting 2 to 8 days. During estrus, follicles on the ovary enlarge. One of these will become dominant and release a mature egg. The follicle becomes a corpus luteum and produces the hormone progesterone, which prepares the uterus for implantation of the egg. If the mare breeds and the egg is fertilized, the egg passes into the uterus and begins a pregnancy. Otherwise, the corpus luteum is destroyed and another estrous cycle begins.

After the period of winter inactivity and transition, mares naturally begin estrous cycles in April in the northern hemisphere. Because the changes in cycling are stimulated by increasing amounts of daylight, it is possible to hasten the onset of cycles by exposing the mare to increased amounts of artificial light during the winter. The timing of ovarian cycles can also be manipulated by giving injections of various reproductive hormones. This is typically done to facilitate breeding appointments and to allow mares and stallions to remain in competition during much of the breeding season. Your veterinarian can advise you on how this is done.

Detecting Estrus

A successful breeding program revolves around good estrus detection. The mare should be presented to a stallion (teaser) daily or every other day during the breeding season, and an accurate interpretation and record of her response should be made. A mare in estrus (the receptive phase of the cycle) raises her tail, squats, urinates, and presents her rear to the stallion. She will also allow the stallion to mount and copulate. A mare in diestrus (the nonreceptive phase of the cycle) usually squeals, kicks, bites, and rejects the stallion’s attempts to sniff or mount the mare. Adequate exposure to the teaser stallion is necessary to determine the mare’s receptivity. Prolonged and irregular periods of estrus are common at the beginning and end of the breeding season.

A mare in estrus may not appear receptive at first due to nervousness or inexperience. Some mares with a foal at their side will appear less receptive because they are protective of the foal. The mare’s behavior should be consistent with the condition of her reproductive tract as determined by a physical examination. The response to teasing can determine if estrus has begun and indicate when a mare should be bred. Failure to return to estrus 2 to 3 weeks after breeding may suggest that the mare is pregnant. Pregnancy can be confirmed by several methods. Ultrasonography of the uterus (through the rectum) allows the earliest detection. Examination by rectal palpation (feeling a bulge in the uterus) can detect pregnancy from as early as day 28 in some mares. Hormonal tests are most accurate after about day 60 of pregnancy.

Health Programs During Pregnancy

Proper health care of pregnant mares is important to help ensure delivery of a healthy foal. Consult your veterinarian to make sure that your horse’s vaccination and deworming programs are up to date.

Parasite Control

Most horse dewormers are safe for use throughout pregnancy, but your veterinarian’s recommendations should be followed. In general, mares should not be given antiworming medications during the first 2 months of pregnancy, or during the last few weeks before foaling. Otherwise, mares should be dewormed every 4 to 8 weeks. It is recommended that the specific medication used be switched periodically to prevent development of resistance in the parasites. Mares can also be dewormed 1 or 2 days after foaling to reduce the number of small strongyle worms passed to the foal. Foals should be dewormed at 6 to 8 weeks of age on the same day as the mare and again at weaning.

Vaccinations

Immunizations should follow an annual schedule based on local health concerns. Vaccinations that require annual boosters should be given 4 to 6 weeks before the estimated foaling date of the mare (see Table: Sample Vaccination ScheduleforBroodmares*). This will allow the mare to produce protective antibodies that are passed to the foal in the colostrum. Vaccination schedules for previously unvaccinated mares will be different. See Vaccinations in Routine Care for a more detailed discussion.

Table
icon

Sample Vaccination ScheduleforBroodmares*

Vaccine

Timing

Core vaccines recommended for all horses

Tetanus

4 to 6 weeks before foaling 

West Nile virus

4 to 6 weeks before foaling

Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis 

4 to 6 weeks before foaling

Rabies

4 to 6 weeks before foaling

Optional vaccines, depending on local risk

Equine influenza

4 to 6 weeks before foaling

Equine herpesvirus (EHV, rhinopneumonitis) 

5, 7, and 9 months of pregnancy using an inactivated EHV-1 vaccine licensed for prevention of abortion; some veterinarians recommend also vaccinating at 3 months of pregnancy

Botulism

4 to 6 weeks before foaling in geographic regions where botulism causes disease

Equine viral arteritis (EVA)

Serology to check for antiviral antibodies should be done before vaccination; pregnant mares should not be vaccinated; if serology is negative, mares should be vaccinated before breeding to a positive stallion that is shedding the virus; mares must be isolated from other horses for 3 weeks after initial vaccination; positive titers may cause problems if the mare is to be shipped internationally

Rotaviral diarrhea

8, 9, 10 months of pregnancy; for all mares, regardless of vaccination history, in high-volume breeding programs

Potomac horse fever (equine monocytic ehrlichiosis)

4 to 6 weeks before foaling

*Recommendations are for previously vaccinated mares. A different schedule is required if a mare is unvaccinated or vaccination history is unknown.

Foaling

General preparations for managing delivery and caring for the newborn foal are described below (see also Breeding and Reproduction of Horses: Foal Care).

Preparation

The mare should be taken to a foaling location at least 4 weeks before the expected foaling date so she can produce antibodies to any disease-causing organisms present in that environment. These antibodies will be passed to the foal via the colostrum (the first milk produced by the mare after foaling).

Foaling box stalls should be large (at least 12 by 16 feet [4 by 5 meters]). The foaling area should have good ventilation and be well bedded with clean, dry straw. The walls should be solidly constructed and free of sharp edges. Observation of the mare should be possible without disturbance.

Although certain signs occur before delivery, they do not allow any accurate prediction of the time delivery will occur. The mammary glands (udder) start developing 2 to 4 weeks before foaling and distend with colostrum in most mares 1 to 3 days before delivery. Colostrum drips from the teats and dries to form a waxy material at each teat opening. This “waxing” develops in almost all mares 6 to 48 hours before foaling, but in some cases it occurs much earlier or not at all.

Stages of Delivery

It is critical to understand the normal progression of events during delivery of a foal. This allows you to know if something is going wrong and whether intervention is needed. Delivery is divided into 3 stages.

Stage I is characterized by signs of abdominal pain and restlessness due to contractions of the uterus and typically lasts 1 to 2 hours. Patches of sweat usually appear on the neck and flank and behind the elbows a few hours before foaling. The uterine contractions increase in frequency and intensity, causing the fetus to move into the pelvic canal. This causes the cervix to open. The fetus changes from a pelvis-up to a pelvis-down position prior to delivery. Mares may roll during this stage, which is thought to assist with the rotation of the fetus. Increasing pressure in the uterus causes the fetal membranes to bulge out of the opening cervix. Rupture of the fetal membranes and release of the fetal fluids (sometimes referred to as “water breaking”) marks the end of the first stage of delivery.

Stage II starts when the fetal membranes rupture and ends when the foal is delivered. This is a fairly fast process, and if significant progress is not made within 10-15 minutes, call your veterinarian. An uncomplicated labor usually takes no more than 30 minutes. If the delivery takes more than 30 minutes, call your veterinarian immediately.

During this stage, the pressure of the fetus on the cervix stimulates abdominal contractions in the mare. The fetal membrane that normally appears between the lips of the vulva is a white, fluid-filled structure. The straining efforts of the mare consist of 3 or 4 strong contractions, followed by a short period of rest. The mare usually lies on her side with her legs extended during labor. The foal is normally delivered head-first, with the head, neck, and forelegs extended. One front hoof usually precedes the other, allowing the elbows and shoulders to pass through the pelvic canal more easily. The foal is usually born with the umbilical cord intact. The white amnion is usually intact, but is easily torn open by the movements of the mare or foal. If the membranes remain covering the nose, they should be removed by an attendant to prevent suffocation. If left undisturbed, the mare may lie for a few minutes with the foal’s hindlegs in her vagina. If the foal has not been delivered within 30 minutes of the rupture of the fetal membranes and release of the tea-colored amniotic fluid, veterinary assistance is warranted.

If the fetal membranes separate from the uterus too early, the fetal membranes first seen at the vulva in Stage II of labor will appear bright red and velvety instead of pale and white. This means the separation has occurred before the foal is able to breathe air on its own. The fetal membranes must immediately be ruptured and the foal delivered manually, or it will not receive enough oxygen. Depending on the level and duration of oxygen deprivation, the foal may not survive or may have permanent brain damage.

Foals are normally delivered head first, with the head, neck, and forelegs extended.

Foals are normally delivered head first, with the head, neck, and forelegs extended.

Stage III involves the expulsion of the afterbirth (fetal membranes). Normally, the afterbirth is passed within 3 hours of birth of the foal. The weight of the membranes helps them separate from the inner surface of the uterus. Powerful contractions of the uterus complete the separation of the membranes from the uterus. The mare will stand with the fetal membranes hanging from the vulva. The membranes may extend past the level of the hock. If the mare kicks, which can endanger the foal, the membranes should be tied above the hocks. You should never manually pull on the membranes, as this can tear the membranes or cause damage to the uterus. If the fetal membranes have not been passed by 3 hours after delivery of the foal, your veterinarian may decide to give injections of the hormone oxytocin at 15- to 30-minute intervals until they have been completely expelled. (Learn more about retained placenta.)

The Early Postdelivery Period

The uterus contracts and returns to its nonpregnant size soon after delivery of the foal and fetal membranes. Horses have an average pregnancy length of about 340 days (about 11 months). It is possible to breed a mare during the “foal heat” that occurs 5 to 11 days after delivery. However, mares that have had a difficult birth, retained fetal membranes, or metritis should not be bred on the foal heat. Foal heat pregnancy rates are higher for mares bred at least 10 days after delivery.

For More Information

See our professional content regarding the management of reproduction of horses.

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