Question: When is it OK to start riding my mare after foaling?
Answer: My initial response is the same as a human obstetrician’s answer would be to a patient who asks how soon she can run a marathon after having a baby: “It depends.” What was her condition before the pregnancy? Were there any foaling complications? Like the professional human athlete who returns to world-class competition 60 days after having a baby, a fit, healthy mare can bounce back from a pregnancy fairly quickly. And, similar to those human mothers who are bedridden for months after a birth, mares who entered motherhood unfit or unsound may be incapacitated afterward for an extended period of time.
Unlike human mothers’ bodies, which take several months to return to their pre-pregnancy shapes, broodmares’ bodies are fairly resilient. Their abdomens shrink back to normal within a few weeks. Pregnancy-related side effects tend to be more circulatory than musculatory. The huge amount of blood and fluid that a pregnant mare’s body circulates to support her fetus is nothing short of a feat of nature. It sometimes results in edema (fluid accumulation) in the lower legs and belly. This, too, usually resolves within a few weeks of the birth. The rare cases I see of post-foaling complications usually occur in stalled mares. Allowing a mare to move around in the open as nature intended in the days following the birth seems to be the best way to alleviate swelling, help expel fluids and promote healing. A mare that has a normal, complication-free birth (and the large majority of mares do) usually experiences some vaginal bruising, minor tears and abrasions, which heal within about a week. Any more serious foaling complications–bleeding, breeches of the vaginal canal or rectum, ruptured internal organs, etc.–should be treated immediately by a veterinarian who can then advise appropriate follow-up care.
In any case, for the first few weeks after foaling, mares are at higher risk of colic caused by colon torsion (a twist in the colon section of the intestines). During the pregnancy, the growing baby pushes the mare’s intestines out of its way, squeezing them into a small space. Excessive movement after the birth can jostle these cramped intestines back into the huge void left by the baby, potentially twisting them as they fall into the space. This danger is gradually reduced as the mare’s abdomen shrinks back to normal in the weeks following the birth.
From a medical standpoint, there’s no reason why a mare can’t start exercising six to eight weeks after a complication-free foaling. Whether or not she’s ready fitness- and soundness-wise is a different story. In the ideal scenario, your mare should be “fit to foal” (in good physical shape and at an ideal weight) before being bred. This not only makes her pregnancy and foaling easier (just like humans, fitter mares have an easier time carrying and delivering babies), it also gives her a much better foundation for starting back to work. Unfortunately, a large percentage of broodmares in our country are overweight when they’re bred, and still overweight after they foal. These mares take much longer getting back into shape. Many mares become broodmares after their performance careers end due to some sort of injury. If you don’t know your mare’s history prior to her pregnancy, make an effort to research it. Any pre-baby soundness issues should be re-assessed before she goes back to work.
Whatever your mare’s history, I recommend asking your veterinarian to evaluate her physical condition and soundness about five or six weeks after the foaling. If she is overweight, I also recommend consulting your local agricultural extension agent for nutritional guidance. It’s diet time! Once all of these issues have been addressed, you still have one major concern to contend with, the baby! Especially within the first two months of the foal’s life, it will be extremely attached to Mom, and will be frantic–sometimes to the point of risking injury–if she is taken out of sight. The mare, too, can be so distracted with worry about her offspring that riding her may be no fun at all. Allowing the foal to run alongside her while you ride is perfectly fine, so long as you’re in a safe, enclosed area. If you must separate them, try to find a companion to keep the foal company in the mare’s absence. Some geldings and broodmares make very good babysitters, but because the occasional horse can be aggressive with foals, monitor any new introductions carefully. To make the first ride as stress-free as possible, try to prepare the mare and foal for the separation in the weeks leading up to it. Give the baby time to bond with its babysitter and try separating it from the mare for gradually longer and longer periods of time. Another option is to wean the foal early. It’s usually safe to wean foals by the time they are three or four months old or even earlier, if you provide proper nutritional supplementation.
One final consideration to make when you start your mare back into work is if she is nursing the foal, beware of dehydration. Lactating mares require as much as 10 gallons of water per day more than other horses. Adding in water losses from a strenuous workout and hot, summer weather can raise your mare’s overall fluid needs to 20 to 30 gallons per day. So be sure to keep a constant supply of clean water available, as well as a salt block.
By Ben Espy, DVM, DACT
Courtesy of AAEP