Horse Health: You Can Lead a Horse to Water…

By Jen Roytz

We’ve all heard the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” Horses have to be thirsty in order to consume water, and the lynchpin in that scenario is salt. Dehydration in horses–or any animal–can quickly escalate from mild to catastrophic. Their internal environment is water-based, and salt is the driving force behind the regulation and distribution of water in and out of cells.

“Salt is 39% sodium and 61% chloride. When consumed, salt will split in the body into the separate minerals to be used independently (as electrolytes),” said Dr. Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Both these minerals have independent roles in the body, but mainly they work together balancing fluid movement in and out of the cells and acid-base balance, as well as electrical impulse conduction in nerves and muscles. Further, sodium is needed for transport of substances across cell membranes, like glucose.”

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Horse Health: Alert – Baby on the way!

By Jen Roytz

As we embark on a new year full of hope and promise, ’tis the season for early mornings, sleepless nights and seemingly endless anticipation for those in the breeding industry. Those tasked with helping the next generation of equine athletes enter this world go to great lengths to be on-hand when each foal is born and do everything they can to ensure a successful delivery, or to call a veterinarian if any problems arise.

The foaling process is broken down into three stages. Stage 1 being early signs of labor; stage 2 is when the water breaks and the actual delivery of the foal; and stage 3 is the expulsion of the placenta.

Once a mare progresses to stage 2, it is imperative the foal be delivered within 30 minutes or less to avoid hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), which can lead to brain damage or death of the foal. While regularly checking mares throughout the day and night is recommended as they near their due date, it is often a game of minutes versus hours.

Horses have evolved from foaling in the wild and needing to deliver a foal and stand in quick succession to protect themselves and their newborn. By nature, stage 2 of equine labor (water breaks and foal is delivered) happens rapidly and can be explosive. That explosive nature also means that when things go wrong, they go wrong quickly.

“I’d say 80 to 85% of deliveries go routinely, but those 10 to 15% that don’t are why it’s so important for someone knowledgeable to be present.” said Dr. Bob Schwartz, a veterinarian with Midland Acres in Bloomingburg, Ohio. Schwartz and his team foal out more than 200 mares a year. “An experienced attendant will know issues they can deal with themselves, when they need to call a vet and when it’s bad enough that a mare needs to go immediately to the clinic.”

While there are numerous brands and makers of foal alarms on the market today, they can generally be organized into two main categories: externally worn sensors and perineal monitoring systems.

Systems with Externally Worn Sensors

There are several devices on the market that utilize sensors affixed to the head or body of a mare to react to classic presentations in a mare that typically signal birth.

EquiFone/EquiPage, Birth Alarm and Breeders Alert systems, for example, utilize a device affixed to a mare’s halter or to a monitor connected to a girth strap that senses when the mare is in the prone position (i.e. lying flat out on her side–the typical position for labor). The device transmits a signal to either a phone or a pager to alert the person(s) on call that the mare is in foaling position.

Michele Graves of Hickory Hill Farm Thoroughbreds in Fort Edward, New York near Saratoga Springs uses the EquiPage system for her farm, which foals out 25 to 35 mares each year.

“With the EquiPage [system], we know the mare is going into labor before the water breaks [due to being alerted to her movements]. We also use it on the mares in the weeks after they give birth because so much can go wrong then as well,” said Graves. “We use it for other scenarios too, such as horses that have just shipped long distances or those that showed signs of colic during the day because they offer the same presentations when they are colicking that a mare would–the looking at their belly, getting up and down, yawning. You do get some false alarms, but those are worth it to know when a horse is in distress.”

Nightwatch takes this one step further, monitoring a horse’s vital signs and behaviors via sensors embedded in the padded leather crown piece of the halter. Real-time data can be accessed via a Smartphone, tablet or computer and an alert is sent when the system signals a horse in distress due to foaling, colic or being cast.

Perineal Monitoring Systems

Another group of foaling alert systems involve affixing the sensor to the mare’s perineal area or within the vagina.

One popular model is Foalert, in which a transmitter containing a magnet is sutured into the vulva lips one to two weeks prior to a mare’s due date. When the vulva lips are opened due to the foal’s front hooves protruding as delivery begins, the magnet dislodges from the transmitter, activating a signal to alert foaling attendants, either via telephone/pager or by sounding an alarm within close proximity to the transmitter.

“I’ve used the Foalert for years, both on my own mares and on client mares, and I find them very reliable. You don’t get the false alarms you can get with some other system that attach to the halter or girth area when a mare lays down or turns to itch,” said Dr. Joan Tennant, DVM, an equine practitioner based in Ocala, Florida. “I find the alarm goes off when the amniotic fluid bubble is expelled, so you get the alert even in the case of a dystocia that prevents the foal from protruding.”

The Birth Alert system uses a tampon-like sponge that is inserted into the mare’s vagina in the weeks leading up to her due date. When the mare’s water breaks, the device is expelled and the change in temperature activates the device to send a signal to the foaling attendant that the mare is in labor.

The only disadvantage, according to Schwartz, is the possibility of the sponge and sensor being dispelled unintentionally and offering a false-positive.

“I think these systems have a lot of merit for those who don’t have full time attendants through the night,” said Schwartz. “There is less chance of false alarms with these types of systems, but if the foal is breech or otherwise malpositioned, you may not get an alarm.”

For these and similarly invasive systems, a sterile application is key. It is recommended that a veterinarian apply/insert the device to prevent infection or irritation.

Video Monitoring

Closed-circuit video feeds can also play an important role in monitoring mares as they near their due date, especially when used on conjunction with foaling alert systems.

“We’ve used NightWatch for the last six years or so and we also have cameras on all of the mares. The key for us is the audio that goes along with it,” said Braxton Lynch of Royal Oak Farm in Paris, Kentucky. “In my opinion, you can’t beat eyes and ears on a mare prior to foaling.”

There are also smartphone apps available, such as Foal App, which allow users to monitor your mare via video and movement and will alert those whose phones are connected to the app if the mare lays down for a prolonged period.

While technology has afforded the luxury of many types of birth alarms, no device is 100% effective. All birth alarms should be used in conjunction with good horsemanship and monitoring practices, including regularly checking each mare every 30 to 60 minutes when foaling is imminent.

“What works for a large farm probably wouldn’t work well for a small one and vice versa. If a farm with a large number of mares had monitors on each, they’d be getting false positives constantly, but they can afford to have staff on-hand around the clock,” said Graves. “For a smaller operation that can’t afford night staff, foaling alarms are a good solution.”

Added Schwartz, “You can’t watch them 24 hours a day–you have to sleep too–so for smaller operations, foaling alerts can be an important tool to help keep mares and newborn foals out of trouble.”

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Pregnancy Problems: How to Increase Your Chances of Delivering a Healthy Foal

By Jen Roytz

What could be that difficult about breeding? You select a stallion that suits the mare and your goals, breed your mare, then keep her fed and watered for 11 months until you’re rewarded with a healthy foal.

If only it were that simple.

There are many reasons a mare can prove difficult to get into foal, or to stay in foal. It could be as simple function of age. It could be results from a complicated delivery. Or, it could be a multitude of other reasons.

Regardless, now is the time breeders should be paying special attention to preparing their breeding stock for the upcoming season, and for those with known issues there are added safeguards and steps breeders can take she gave themselves and their horses the best chance at a successful pregnancy.

Issues that Can Impact Conception

There are many reasons a horse may have issues getting impregnated, the most basic of which are her age, not breeding her at the appropriate time during her cycle, or poor reproductive health of the mare or stallion.

A typical mare’s ovum, or egg, begins to lose viability within just five to six hours post-ovulation, and typically loses all viability within 24 hours. While a stallion’s semen typically remains viable for 48 hours, a reduced number and quality of a stallion’s semen can limit its viability to just a few hours. Age can negatively impact these timeframes for both sexes.

The mare’s body condition can also play into her chances of becoming pregnant. Most veterinarians recommend mares to rank around a 5 or a 6 on the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS). When a mare’s weight and overall health decline, so too does their reproductive efficiency.

Outside of age and general health-related issues, endometritis is the most common reason for infertility in mares. This condition, which is an infection or inflammation of the lining of the uterus caused by foreign contaminants such as bacteria or spermatozoa, can either be acute as a result of breeding (both artificial and natural), reproductive examination or as a result of poor conformation.

“There are simple, but important steps one can take to improve the chances of conception, including a physical examination of both the mare and the stallion, a careful and thorough reproductive exam of the mare prior to the breeding season and during the estrous cycle during which breeding is to occur and to optimize the overall health of the horse,” said Kristina Lu, VMD, an equine reproductive specialist with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

Early vs. Late Term Pregnancy Loss

Just as there are a number of reasons a mare can be difficult to impregnate, the same can hold true for keeping her in foal. Most pregnancy losses occur in the initial weeks and months of pregnancy.

Again, age can play a role. As mares age, they may experience uterine fibrosis, which can lead to a placenta that is less-efficient in getting nutrition to the growing fetus.

Other causes for early-term pregnancy loss can be unavoidable complications, such as genetic defects or embryonic abnormalities. They can also be due to uterine infections that may have been low-grade and undetectable at the time of breeding/conception but proliferate in the subsequent weeks and months.

Late-term losses can have their own set of culprits.

“Placentitis, umbilical cord torsion, systemic illness can all cause late, and in some cases mid-term abortion in mares,” said Lu. “Diseases such as leptospirosis, equine herpesvirus 1 or 4 and equine viral arteritis are threats to a healthy gestation as well, some of which can spread quickly through a herd and may not generate obvious clinical signs other than abortion.”

Then there are also those mares that have little trouble carrying a foal to term, only to be prone to dystocias (difficulty giving birth), which can be caused by congenital abnormalities, such as contracted limbs that prevent the foal from properly fitting through the birth canal. This, in turn, can lead to oxygen deprivation in foals.

Safeguards to Protect Both Mare and Foal

While some complications are simply unavoidable, there are safeguards and protocols that can be implemented to support the gestation and delivery of a healthy foal.

“Some simple things horsemen and women can do to protect their mares and future foals are to maintain good general health of a mare, conduct thorough reproductive examinations, monitor the mare’s reproductive tract before and after breeding, ensure regular core vaccinations, consider screening for placentitis if the mare has a previous history and consider vaccinating for herpes or leptospirosis if appropriate,” said Lu. “Breeding as close to ovulation as possible can also be of benefit. On the other hand, repeated breeding during an estrous cycle (average 21 days) may increase opportunity for endometritis in some mares.”

Above all else, staying in regular communication with your veterinarian is one of the best forms of protection one can afford their mares.

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