Information about Breeding & Foaling
We generally breed from ponies once they have reached 3 years of age. We have selected our ponies for their pedigrees, conformation and temperament. Our breeding policy is such that we tend not to breed from a mare every year, whilst we could breed more each year, we try to take a responsible approach and can therefore give more attention to foals if numbers are kept low.
I went on an excellent Foaling the Mare course at the renowned Twemlows Stud in 2018 and despite having had 41 foals, I learnt a lot. One interesting fact highlighted is that sadly 10% of foals are lost in the first 35 days and 10% in the remainder of the pregnancy. Some other interesting points emphasised were:
- Broodmares thrive on routine, best not mixed with other stock especially youngstock.
- 65% of fetal growth is in the last 3 months
- 90% of mares foal ok
- Mares have been known to break legs on slippy floors if insufficient bedding when foaling (not helped by the amount of fluid expelled)
- Main complications in pregnancy are vulval discharge, colic, premature udder development/lactation, change in abdominal contour (excess fluid)
- If mares run excessive milk before foaling, foal may need antibody test, milk may need collecting
- Any vulval discharge should be treated seriously as can indicate placentitis, if caught early can avoid late pregnancy loss
- Early in the year mares may carry longer
- Foal picks the day and mare picks the hour of foaling
- If a mare needs assitance best to gently pull on one leg as the reason they present offset is to reduce shoulder width
- Placenta is 10% of the foal weight
- Keep a mare in a familiar environment for the last 2-4 weeks of pregnancy
- There’s a good video on thehorse.com of placental examination
- The hour rule is: 1 hour – stand, 2 hours – suck, 3 hours – placenta out
- Colostrum absorbed best in the first 6 hours following foaling
- 10% of foalings have some degree of dystocia
- Keep track of time during foaling, 10 minutes without progress is of concern. Average time from waters rupturing to foaling is 17 minutes
- If dystocia cannot be handled, try keep the mare up to help prevent straining and repel the foal back in
- Lubricant use can keep track from becoming dry
- Get mares used to having udders touched to avoid mare rejecting foal
- Listen for a foal swallowing and ears twitching to check foal is getting milk
- Remember a newborn goes from warm to cold and no gravity to gravity
- Fillies can take up to 12 hours to pass water, colts up to 6 hours
- Recommend treating umbilicous 3 times in first 24 hours
- A refractometer can be used to test colostrum quality
Our mares run out with stallions ideally from around March to July. We have them externally scanned, as left, around October/November to check which are in foal so we know who to give hard feed to and keep a close eye on. Ray, from Vetsonic, is excellent, he scans all types of animals, from mantarays in the Maldives to our mini shetlands in Yorkshire. He explains what the foal scan shows, which, through thick winter coats, isn’t always easy to find. On his most recent visit, he was using new equipment which used an app that scanned directly onto my phone and I don’t know who was most excited when we saw Lottie’s foals little heart, beating away. We don’t believe in any general internal examination of small mares to avoid any risk to the unborn foal as we’ve heard of foals aborting following internal examination.
One thing that I’ve found invaluable is having kept records of each mare since we started breeding. In my book I record, in diary format, things such as:
- date the mare is in season/covered
- when her milk bag develops, even drawing myself little pictures to compare for future (or taking photos on my phone)
- her general demeanour/behaviour leading up to foaling
- date and time of foaling, how it went, when mare cleansed
- when the foal fed, passed meconium etc
Basically, anything that might be pertinent. Many mares follow the same pattern, others don’t. Nevertheless, these records help a lot when you can look back and compare.
Gestation period for shetlands for us has shown to be from just over 10 months. Because our mares mostly run at grass with our stallion, we cannot be 100% sure how long each mares gestation period is as they can come back in season without obvious signs. We keep a date record of when we see them looking in season or seeing them actually being served (but of course they can be sneaky). The shortest time a mare (Foxy) has gone is 308 days, ie. just over 10 months. The average seems to be 11 months ie. about one week less than the official 340 days gestation for a horse. With anything less than 320 days being considered premature, 308 was quite early but the foal was absolutely fine and Foxy has a tendency to foal earlier than other mares.
We’ve had a few mares foaling 11 months to the day from running with the stallion, not least our mare Emma who at 2 years old got through into the stallion’s field for 2 hours maximum (we had planned to wait until she was 3 years) but we thought it’s 2 hours, we should be ok, but no – she foaled 11 months to the day later. Luckily, Emma had matured well and all was good though we did then give her a year off after as we mostly do with our mares so they aren’t foaling every year.
Prior to Foaling
We keep a close eye on the mares day as foaling approaches. Checking milk bags and for any vulval discharge (which can indicate infection and need veterinary attention) Within the last couple of weeks before foaling, the mares are inside at night on a clean, thick straw bed and we watch them on CCTV installed in the stables and viewed from our beds!
Our camera system can also be viewed on a mobile phone/computer so I can even nip to the shop whilst on foal watch and friends/family can watch the ponies from anywhere in the world. ! I’m getting used to getting messages at silly o’clock such as “mum, did you see Foxy has just rolled?” How good is new technology? We use the Swannview cameras and their customer support were excellent in remotely linking the cameras to our laptop. It was £200 well spent when we bought them several years ago, beats getting out of bed to check! When you know your mares well, you can often see them behave out of character which can suggest they are close but all mares are different so we never take anything for granted.
At first, I had many stressful, sleepless nights, checking mares constantly and thought there must be an easier way. Foaling alarms didn’t work well for us but in 2011, I discovered Mother Nature’s foaling predictor kit from the USA, it’s proved a godsend. I’ve never looked back and wouldn’t be without it now and highly recommend it. It works by testing a very small amount of mare’s milk to predict foaling. When a mare’s result reaches the 95% reading, she is likely to foal within 12 hours; then foal watch can be stepped up. Observing the milk colour also indicates proximity of foaling, as it goes from clear amber coloured to white opaque. We’ve used the tests numerous times, none of our mares have ever suffered any detriment from milk tests and it’s proved totally reliable and worked for us every time. Photos show a non foaling test result on left and a result indicating foaling likely within 12 hours on the right.
From getting the 40% reading to the 95% has averaged 7 days, the shortest being 4 days but each mare can vary so it’s a guide. Milk tests increase the chance of being present at foaling to help in any crucial situations eg. bag not breaking, the outcome of not being there doesn’t bear thinking about.
I’m so sold on these tests that I’ve become a UK/Europe distributor – I would only sell something I believe in! Kits can be purchased via this website – see For Sale page. Anything that helps save sleepless nights has got to be good. Mostly, our mares have foaled without assistance and we don’t intervene unless necessary – though in some cases, just being there can makes a difference, as most will know, being there to break the bag if it doesn’t break naturally can save a foal’s life.
Bagging Up Period
As foaling gets close, mares bags are checked at least daily for size, they gradually increase in size and then when the teats point down rather than together, they are usually close, but we get exceptions, especially maidens. Our mares have displayed all sorts of behaviours immediately prior to foaling, from simply eating grass one minute to going down to push the next, to charging across the field and standing by the gate for it to be opened so they can foal in their place of choice. One did a very good job of tricking me and acting all cool – I went inside after watching intently all morning, was gone 5 minutes and went back out to a foal!. Another indicator that the mare is close is waxing appearing on her teats, this can be as small as a pin head but once seen, foaling can be within 24 hours. We’ve seen differences between mares and how early they develop a milk bag. The earliest a mare has started to get a bag was over 2 months before foaling; Poppy kept us on pins all one summer, to the extent I missed a family wedding in Sicily on 1st September – she foaled that very morning! The shortest bagging time has been 2 weeks prior to foaling but the average that the milk bag starts to develop from my records is 4 weeks prior to foaling. Only once for us has one of our mares had no significant bag before foaling. Photo below left shows a bag 2 weeks before foaling and right on the day of foaling.
Times of Birth
73% of our mares have foaled during the hours of darkness (seeming to like privacy, not knowing they are being watched!) leaving 27% of foals born during the daytime. 40% of mares have had night foalings only whereas, the rest have had both day and night foalings. One mare has had her foals within 15 minutes each time – 3.15am seems her favourite time, certainly not mine though! . At night time, 1.30 to 3.30am is the favoured time though some have been more considerate and foaled around 9pm. Most common daytime foaling time has been just after noon which is great – beats hanging around at night for foals to feed and pass meconium when we could be tucked up in our warm beds!
We’ve had 57% fillies and 43% colts so slightly better on the fillies but not far off 50/50. I’ve read some interesting facts about an acidic uterine ph favouring fillies though how you can achieve this is something else. Some reported using cider vinegar with success but without a controlled trial I guess single reports are questionable. Other studs report filly success by timing mare covering, on the basis female sperms live longer, male sperms swim faster but die sooner, hence when the mare is covered in relation to actual ovulation is the key, aiming for the males sperms to have died by ovulation, leaving the females to fertilise the egg. To achieve any success with this theory you would need to know exact ovulation time and serve in hand or use A.I. If you google it, there’s some interesting reading but who knows, Rosie has had all fillies so far so defies the odds.
As well as having the obvious handy – clean bucket/warm water, mobile phone, vets number, headcollar etc, in our foaling box we keep:
- Tail bandage
- Scissors & round ended scissors (sterilised)
- Thick cord & lengths of string
- Enemas (phosphate type) for foals struggling to pass meconium
- Plastic bags / bin bag for afterbirth
- Hand wipes / kitchen roll
- Clean Towels
- Purple spray for foals navel
- Jug for expressing colostrum/milk & feeding bottle/small bowl
- Large syringe
- Disposable gloves
- Antiseptic cream
- Bag clip
- Notebook and pen
- Camera & video – with full charge!
With all the best intentions of scrubbing hands with hibiscrub, often there’s little time and events seem to take over with some of the fast foalings we’ve had.
When Foaling Begins
If all is going well, we watch from a distance, checking for correct presentation (head and 2 offset legs) and removing and laying out the afterbirth from the stable (as right) which the mare should pass naturally, then leaving the mare and foal to bond but being close enough to keep an eye out for anything amiss. If it’s warm the mare will lick the foal dry, if it’s cold and the mare is slow to do the job, a clean towel helps! I won’t go into the full ins and outs of foaling as there are good books out there written by experts and most people have good contacts always willing to advise, just beware of those professing to be experts when they’re not! If you have a mare and it’s your first foaling, it can be a worrying time, it may help to watch a video of a straight forward foaling on youtube so you know what to expect, we have a couple on our youtube channel – minishetlandponies accessed via our youtube link.
You can scare yourself reading too much but there are alarm signs at foaling to watch out for such as a (rare) red bag presenting rather than a clear one or a head and only one leg presenting or the mare fails to make progress (once actual foaling starts, it’s usually quite quick) Most foalings are uncomplicated. If we have any concerns then we would always call our vet, though this is seldom necessary and even when we’ve called our vet, things have often resolved before the vet has arrived. Every year can offer new experience; last year at one foaling, blood was spurting into the white bag as our mare pushed, which the vet said was caused by blood vessels bursting under pressure. She was making slow progress and then had a rectal prolapse which was worrying. She foaled with our help but the foal went floppy on me twice after being born, which was concerning. Strange how at 11pm outside in early March with your sleeves rolled up, naturally, your only thoughts are; I’m not going to let this foal slip away if I can help it after all his stressed out mum who is laid out exhausted has been through. Both recovered thankfully and next morning you wouldn’t know to look at them of the trauma of the night
Once the foal is born, photo right shows newborn Bee with mum Foxy,they are incredible in the way they are so quickly on their feet, trying to feed, sometimes within minutes. Once they attempt to feed, we make sure the foal latches on properly and isn’t just sucking on the side of the teat – you should see the tongue wrapped around the teat (maybe as you’re on your hands and knees with a torch!) It’s really important to check this both from the point of view of the foal getting nourishment but also as the colostrum they can only absorb in their first hours is essential for their immunity. Foals seem to feed little and often, according to the National Foaling Bank, around 20 swallows each time is okay at first, (listen for the swallows and the ears often twitch too!). We also check that the foal passes meconium (dark and stringy from the bowels) this is usually within a couple of hours, we make sure that the foal isn’t straining without passing anything. We also stay around to check that the foal is passing water too though this can take a while. We buy Fletcher’s enemas from our local chemist to aid foals struggling to pass meconium, I sometimes wonder if my local chemist must think I suffer constipation annually every spring. If there’s any doubts, of course calling the vet for advice is the best policy. For foals born early when the weather is still very cold, we often pop on a dog coat until we’re sure they can withstand the cold without, for example, Snowy was born last year on 29th January and from being in a warm cosy stable at night to going outside with rain/snow, it made sense. I’m sure she enjoyed playing out in her dog coat rather than being shut up inside.
Mares usually recover well, occasionally some can experience complications or bad after pains, in severe cases vets can give relief. We give ours small, easily digestible feeds and check their bowels and waterworks are working, although bowel movement is often delayed, most mares having fully emptied their bowels before foaling, but again we would consult our vet if we had any worries.
If the mare foals outside, they are brought in and usually stay in for around 12 hours away from the other ponies, then they often go out on their own with their babies to begin with so the mare can relax with her foal and teach the foal to follow her without the distraction and interference of the rest of the herd though it all depends on the mare. We waste lots of time through summer sitting in the field for hours with the foals!
We will quietly go in with the mare and foal during their first hours and many foals are friendly from the start, others can be a little shy at first but we see them all daily from then on and encourage human interaction – Bambi below loved going to sleep on your knee!
We spend lots of time with the foals over the summer, brushing, picking up feet and later putting on headcollars. They love to “help” with any jobs – they’re very good at upturning barrows, stealing your brushes etc. Those that are more shy respond well to us coming down to their level, we’ll often just sit in the field and find that their inquisitive nature means they come to us. Once they are weaned, we teach them to lead and start to tie them up in a safe place for short periods initially, keeping them observed, then gradually increasing this once they accept it.
Buying a Foal
We only sell foals to homes where they will have other equine company (as is the preference for any pony we sell). We learnt a lesson the hard way when we were promised a foal would have a companion, he didn’t, nor did he have adequate space to exercise – a garden or allotment is in no way suitable. Luckily he came back to us and was subsequently sold on to a lovely home as a companion. Imagine being recently separated from your mother and everything you know and then being taken to a strange place….. all alone.
Despite shetlands loving human company, it’s not a substitute for another pony that they can groom, graze and play with! Often we sell foals in pairs which is ideal when they can go to a new home together. Others have become companions to other horses/ ponies and as long as they are introduced carefully to make sure the little one comes to no harm, this works well. Scotty and Otter were best friends from the word go:
Obviously, we always want any pony we sell to have a long term home, most buyers have thought long and hard before visiting us but we’re more than happy if, after talking to us and taking away this information, buyers want to consider further . With our open and honest policy, buyers can know as much about the pony as possible before they commit to buy. This helps to make sure a long term home for a pony is more certain.
Foals can be reserved with deposit until weaning (at around 5-6 months of age). If for any reason you can’t take the foal at weaning, the deposit is forfeited. We ask for 50% deposit. Once a foal is reserved, we encourage buyers to visit their foals if they wish before they take them so they can get to know the foal – and the foals love the attention!
All our foals are miniature shetlands growing up to 34” at maturity, they are all microchipped by a vet, registered and passported with the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society which means they are pure bred shetlands with full pedigrees.
By sale time, all our foals are wormed, halter broken and have been used to being groomed, been taught to lead and be tied up and pick up their feet which will have been checked by our farrier – all of this will need to be continued regularly in their new homes. Some foals take to everything quickly and easily, others can take longer but we persevere, taking a quiet approach so that the foals are not frightened and are confident when handled. Of course a foal will need time to settle into new surroundings but keeping a routine that they are used to can only help them settle more easily.
We are sometimes asked if colts can be gelded at weaning before going to new homes though most are not ready at that age as their testicles have not dropped so the procedure is more difficult and my vet doesn’t recommend gelding at this stage. Buyers therefore take their foals as colts usually for gelding as yearlings.
The Weaning Process
We have weaned here trying different methods, both have advantages and disadvantages. Once the foals have become accustomed to eating hard feed, one method is to separate the mares and foals at a cut off date – usually by taking the foals indoors and then taking the mares to a separate field. Many are fine with this as the foals are getting to an independent stage where they have been taking less milk. Some mares and foals will be upset for a couple of days but then settle down well. The alternative method is a more gradual weaning where the foals are put in for an hour/day to start and then gradually increasing by an hour or 2 each day to overnight, then separation. I now favour the gradual approach as it seems less stressful for mares and foals and the mares milk dries up more gradually. I have read recently that studies support the latter way has been proven to cause the least stress.
Once weaned the foals have each other for company, going in at night when the weather is bad but always going out all day to get plenty of exercise – very important for their wellbeing and development.
We’ve had 41 foals here at Kettlesnout but still marvel each time one is born.
Visitors are welcome but please contact us first.