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So you want to breed your mare: Are you prepared for what can go wrong?

Two young horses playing at Lordships Stud. Photo owned by Lordships Stud.

If you have decided to breed your mare and you have decided you can afford it and thought carefully about how you are going to go about it, one of the final things to consider is are you aware of all the things what can go wrong? And will you be able to cope with them?

Unfortunately breeding horses isn’t plain sailing. Even if you manage to get your mare pregnant and she stays pregnant, there is no guarantee you will end up with a healthy mare and foal at the end of the process.

Foaling Problems

Many problems can occur during foaling. The first of which is a difficult foaling, which is often referred to as dystocia. Dystocia is essentially when the foal is in the wrong position so that the mare cannot give birth easily. Therefore you will need to help her reposition the foal (or more likely, call a vet or experienced person to do it instead.) It is really important to remember that once the foal is in the birth canal, the mare laying down and getting up etc can put her and the foal at a lot of risk. This is because the foal is through the mare’s pelvis.

Usually the foal can be manually repositioned. However, if it can’t there are usually two options, which depend on the health of the foal. If the foal is still alive and healthy, a caesarean is an option. This will need to be done as soon as possible and can be very traumatic for both mare and foal. The second option is only done when the foal is already dead and is pretty horrific. It essentially involves the vet cutting the dead foal up while it is stuck in the mare to remove it in smaller pieces as quickly as possible. Both these procedures are last options for very difficult births.

Other birthing problem can include the mare splitting her vulva or the foal putting its foot through the vaginal wall and splitting the mare’s rectum. Both these injuries can be very serious, and potentially fatal. It is unlikely that the mare will be able to have another foal after more serious tears even if she recovers.

After the foal has been born, it is very important to make sure the mare passes her placenta within an hour after birth. This is because a retained placenta can cause some serious, potentially fatal health risks to mare if it goes unnoticed. Many studs will spread the placenta out after it has passed to make sure it is all there. If the placenta hasn’t been passed within an hour a vet should be contacted.

Post Foaling

Once the foal is born, it is important to check that it is breathing okay and check for any obvious defects. Rubbing the ribcage with a towel can help get the foal breathing better. If you are unsure about the health of the foal call the vet immediately. It is also important to make sure you never walk between the mare and foal as this can interrupt the bonding process and can cause the mare to reject the foal.

You should expect the foal to start trying to stand up within the hour. This is important as really he needs to be drinking as soon as possible. If after this time he hasn’t stood up, it might be worth helping/lifting him to his feet and holding him up so that he can have a drink from his mum. His mother’s milk will give him strength to hopefully be able to do it for himself next time.

However, some foals are born with limb deformities which can be very difficult to fix and can make standing and walking very difficult. Although in many cases, with correct management these problems improve, in some cases they do not and the foal may need to be pts. I knew a foal which for the first week of his life (if not longer) had to be picked up by staff every half hour-hour so that he could drink from his mum. His limbs were so lax that he was standing on his fetlocks with his pasterns sticking out in front of him like clown feet. Although he improved slightly in the first few months of his life, the sad decision was made to put him to sleep due to him being unlikely to improve anymore and him still struggling to walk.

Losing the Mare or Foal

It’s sad but a lot of mares and foals are lost and often quite early on. Foals need a mum for at least the first few months of their life. Otherwise you have to bottle feed them every hour (even at night) to keep them healthy. You would also need to find a friend for them to look after them and teach them how to be a horse.

Foster mares are fantastic for orphaned foals. However, it is not an easy process. If a mare loses a foal, but you think she might be a foster mare, you need to keep the dead foal with her. This is important so she bonds with the smell. Very few mares will just accept a new foal. So once a foal has been found, the dead foal will usually be skinned and the skin will be wrapped around the new foal, so that the new foal smells like hers. Many people will also put a strong smelling cream on the mare’s nostrils to make it harder for her to smell, masking the new foals smell.

Every year I see hundreds of posts on Facebook of foals desperately seeking a foster mare after losing their mother. However, there is already a fantastic organisation set up in the UK to do just this! The National Foaling bank costs very little to be a member of and it is there to find a foster mare for foals as soon as possible. If a member loses a mare or foal, they contact the National Foaling Bank and they match them with another mare/foal. They are very successful but unfortunately cannot help everyone, largely because not everyone who breeds registers with them. If more people registered with them they would be able to help more people.


If you are thinking about breeding your mare, please consider what I have said in this post. Luckily, the majority of pregnancies are relatively straightforward, breeding your mare isn’t a decision you should take lightly. These were just brief examples of problems and how they can be resolved. But make sure you know the warning signs of different problems you may face and that you are prepared for what might need to happen. And please consider signing up to the National Foaling Bank before breeding your mare, or at least before your mare is due to foal. It could save a life.

Last Updated on 22/12/2021

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