The 3 Stages of Labor
Stage 1 (early labor)
During Stage 1 labor, inside the dam the foal (fetus) is extending front legs and head into position in the birth canal. The unborn foal is in a white amniotic sack filled with amniotic fluid, within the mare. The mare may be rather quiet during Stage 1, or may be very obvious about her discomfort as the fetus moves into position. The mare may use gravity (stretching or rolling) to help position the fetus. During this period the unborn foal has potential to position awkwardly - a fetal malpresentation/malposition - which can result in a more difficult deliver and cause problems such as perinatal asphyxia or dystocia. A longer, more blatant Stage 1 suggests there may be positional problems to address.
While mare behavior may vary greatly during the process of positioning the fetus in the birth canal, during this period the mare will normally produce rather wet manure in preparation for parturition, which is the actual birth of the foal that occurs in Stage 2. The mare is capable of delaying or even stopping labor during Stage 1.
Stage 2 (delivery)
During Stage 2 labor, the “water breaks” and the foal (still in the sack) goes through the process of emerging from the mare gradually as she pushes her baby out. Sometimes a mare will trickle fluid instead of the more obvious gushing fluid. From water breaking to foal out is commonly under 30 minutes, and may be notably faster. Some mares will push that baby out, unassisted, in a matter of minutes. Assistance may be required to reposition malpresented front legs, hind legs, head, or an upside down foal or breech birth.
The sack must break for the newborn foal to breathe and survive. When the mare stands up, the umbilical cord breaks and remnants of the torn sack are visible under the mare’s tail until the afterbirth is released in Stage 3. If the placenta has premature separation and emerges with the foal, blood fills the sack and the emergency is often referred to as a “red bag” delivery where prompt action is required to save the foal from suffocation.
Stage 3 (afterbirth)
Stage 3 of labor includes the expulsion of the afterbirth (placenta) by the mare, which may occur soon after normal birth, or may take a couple of hours. The mare may be uncomfortable and may receive a low dose of pain medication, such as banamine. If the placenta is still retained by the mare after a few hours, commonly a veterinarian is called to administer oxytocin. The foal nursing can also help the mare release the afterbirth.