Recent Advances in Equine Obstetrics

Equine obstetrics is more than "pulling a foal out." At the American College of Theriogenology (ACT) meeting held in August in Lexington, Ky., the basics of this specialty--as practiced with today's advanced capabilities--were defined by Grant S. Frazer, BVSc, MSc, MBA, Dipl. ACT, associate professor of reproduction at The Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbus.

Frazer categorizes deliveries four ways: 1) Assisted vaginal, which means the mare is doing "ok," but she might need some help while straining once the foal's head and limbs are correctly placed; 2) Controlled vaginal, formerly done only in the hospital, when the mare is anesthetized and her hind end is hoisted up a couple of feet to let gravity help move the foal for repositioning; 3) Fetotomy, when a stainless steel cutting wire is used on a limb or neck of a dead foal to correct the obstruction, with the warning from Frazer that an inexperienced veterinarian shouldn't try that; and 4) Cesarean section, which usually is referred to a major hospital and is relatively expensive.

Cognizant that no two situations are the same, Frazer spells out his "ABCs of Obstetrics." What ultimately transpires depends on these factors:

Ability--What are the experience and expertise of the individual examining the mare? Prolonged intervention by lay personnel can be disastrous and can severely limit the options that a veterinarian has when he/she is eventually contacted.

Bucks--How much is the mare worth? What is her future use? A million-dollar broodmare in Kentucky might warrant a different approach than a child's pony, even though the presenting obstetrical complication is identical. Also, consider potential complications--such as fetal membrane retention--that can further increase the cost.

Center for referral--Is a surgical facility nearby? Prompt referral and expert care might save the foal and improve the mare's chances of continued fertility. If a referral center is not available, then the veterinarian's options might be limited, especially if on-farm facilities are inadequate, i.e., can the mare be hoisted?

Overzealous owners can do harm with intervention, which is a major cause of uterine rupture. "Don't just pull the leg up, or head and neck around," says Frazer. "Most injuries occur in the uterine body and damage can result to cervix and vagina. Most foals are delivered within 20 minutes of the water breaking, but a live foal may be delivered later provided that the placental attachment has not been disrupted. When problem cases are referred promptly, up to 30% of the foals may survive when delivered by Cesarean section."

Doctors recognize that foals incur serious birth-related injuries, some of which are difficult to detect, such as fractured or bruised ribs, blood in shoulder joints, or internal hemorrhaging. A veterinarian examining the foal should also check the mare. If problems aren't detected for one or two days, they might prove difficult or impossible to remedy.

The process of delivery is dictated by everyone present and involved in the "decision tree," explains Frazer. That tree grows stronger than ever, due to the wealth of knowledge being learned and shared in the advancing field of equine obstetrics.

About the Author

Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a USEF Media Award winner and American Horse Publications award winner whose work appears in major consumer magazines worldwide. She lives in Southern Calif., but she splits her time between New Zealand and the United States.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners