by Kathleen Reiman
After a long, cold winter spring is finally here and the mare you bred last year has grown large with new life. You have had her ultra-sounded, vaccinated and wormed. She is in good condition and in her last weeks of her pregnancy. Everything looks great until one afternoon you step out to feed in the evening and your mare is showing some of the classic signs of colic:
- Biting her sides
- Grunting and groaning
Colic is, by the simplest definition, abdominal pain. A mare in labor experiences various levels of pain and discomfort in her abdominal region. How do you know if she is in the first stages of labor, or experiencing a more serious, possibly life threatening, form of colic?
A mare in labor will often display similar symptoms to that of more serious colic variations such as gas, impaction, sand colic, intestinal stones and severe torsion or twisting of the intestines. The main difference between first stage labor and more serious colic is that when in labor she will usually continue to eat, drink and defecate normally. With more serious colic, the horse will not usually be interested in food.
I say “usually,” because horses being what they are, there are always exceptions to the rule. Another important difference between first stage labor and more serious colic is the duration of the pain. Like most women when they labor, a mare will often experience a period of time where the pain of labor comes and goes. During this stage your mare is generally uncomfortable. She may pace, get up and down, look at her sides, stretch. She will commonly urinate and pass manure. This stage can last 1-2 hours or more. This stage helps your mare’s body prepare for the passage of the foal through the birth canal. The first stage ends and the second stage begins when your mare’s water breaks. While at this point your mare is still dealing with abdominal pain, at least you know it is labor and the foal is on the way!
Pregnancy and Colic Risk
Pregnant mares are at a higher risk of abdominal colic than horses that are not pregnant. In addition to the normal risk factors all horses are susceptible to, she is experiencing great strain on her abdominal ligaments, the discomfort of a foal kicking in side of her, and increased nutritional needs.
Occasionally a mare will experience a high level of pain associated with cramping in the uterus as the uterus returns to pre-pregnancy size. If the mare seems to be in a great deal of pain it is advisable to have your veterinarian check her out. A vet can also give her medication to take the edge off her pain. A mare in pain is less able to focus on her new foal and may thrash and roll trying to relieve the pain. This can lead to the foal being injured and possibly a twisted gut (a life threatening situation) in the mare.
Here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Know your mare: The better you know your mare’s everyday habits, the easier it will be to notice when she isn’t feeling herself. This is important whether she is pregnant, due to foal, or not.
- Observe all the usual cautions to avoid colic: Not sure how help your horse to avoid colic? Check out this article by Equisearch on great tips on how to reduce your horse’s risk of a colic episode.
- When in doubt, call your vet: Colic is not something to fool around with and can quickly escalate into a life threatening situation. If you are not sure if your mare is colicing or foaling, it is best to call your vet.
- Eating, drinking, and pooping?: She should be just fine. Find a place where you can observe her without bothering her.
- Some discomfort after birth is normal: But it is advisable to get veterinary help if the mare is in so much pain she cannot care for the foal or is rolling and thrashing.
Mill Creek Veterinary Services of Fort Collins, Colorado provides an excellent printable handout on colic information.
Remember…when in doubt, call the vet!
About the author: Kathleen is a freelance writer, owner of Hassayampa Sport Morgans, and breeder of fine Morgan horses near Prescott, Arizona. She has been breeding horses since 1985 and received her MA in English in 2014.