Dystocia, or difficulty giving birth, is a relatively rare complication in horses occurring in less than 10% of foalings. [1] Dystocia carries significant risks for both the mare and foal, including damage to internal organs, nerves, and blood supply for the mare, and reduced oxygen availability for the foal.

The main sign of dystocia is a delay of 20 – 30 minutes between the release of chorioallantoic fluid from the mare’s vulva and delivery of the foal. Other signs include failure to see any portion of the foal at the vulvar lips, or abnormal positioning of the foal.

If your broodmare is showing signs of dystocia, contact your veterinarian immediately. Prompt intervention is critical for the well-being of both the mare and the foal.

Diagnosing dystocia requires inspecting the vaginal canal to determine the foal’s position and assess if surgical intervention is needed for its removal.

Most cases of dystocia are treatable on farm by repositioning the foal within the uterus to allow a smooth delivery. In severe cases or when manual repositioning fails, referral to a surgical hospital allows for Caesarean section or controlled delivery under anesthesia.

With appropriate intervention, dystocia can result in the delivery of a healthy foal. Supervision of mares when they are close to delivery is the best method of identifying dystocia early enough to allow successful intervention.

Dystocia in Horses

Dystocia, a term derived from Greek words meaning ‘difficult birth,’ is a medical condition observed in many animals, including horses. In equines, dystocia refers to complications that arise during the delivery of a foal and occurs in approximately 4% of foalings. [1]

Dystocia encompasses a range of complications such as prolonged labor, evident distress in the mare, or delivery that appears to have stalled. Some breeds, such as draft horses, Friesians, and Shetlands, and Miniature horses, may have a higher risk of dystocia. [2][3]

In horses, dystocia is most commonly caused by abnormal positioning or posture of the foal within the mare’s reproductive tract. [1][4] Mares experiencing dystocia require rapid intervention to correct the foal’s position and allow for a smooth delivery.

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Risks

Dystocia is risky for both mares and foals. Once labour begins, uterine contractions continue even if the foal is stuck in the birth canal.

Risks to the Mare

For the mare, this can result in several serious, potentially life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Tearing of the reproductive tract from the foal’s movement
  • Traumatic injury to the intestinal tract or other organs by the foal
  • Retained placenta, resulting in sepsis and laminitis
  • Laceration of the uterine arteries by the foal
  • Paralysis of the hindquarters from nerve damage [4][5]

Mares that survive dystocia often have reduced fertility in future breeding cycles due to damage in their reproductive tract, particularly if the dystocia is prolonged. [4][5]

Risks to the Foal

In foals, dystocia compromises the delivery of oxygen, which can potentially lead to hypoxia, brain damage, or even neonatal death if not promptly addressed.

Once labour begins, the ability of the placenta to provide oxygen to the foal is reduced, necessitating a rapid delivery to allow the foal to take its first breath.

In cases of dystocia, the foal cannot yet breathe on its own, but does not receive adequate oxygen fro