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How Long It Takes a Horse to Give Birth- the Foaling Process

Last updated: August 5, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

When my first mare went into labor many years ago, I remember wondering how long it takes horses to give birth. Knowing the length of time a mare should take to deliver her foal is critical because you may need to notify a vet if there are complications.

A horse takes around 15 – 25 minutes to give birth after the water breaks. And between 30 minutes to three hours later, she should expel the placenta. Generally, you should call the vet if a horse takes more than 30 minutes to deliver or more than three hours to expel the placenta.

But how do you recognize the signs of labor? Some people misinterpret signs of labor, so it’s essential to know what’s happening with the horse, recognize the signs of labor, and know when the delivery isn’t going right.

Picture of a mare licking her foal shortly after birth,

How long are horses in labor for?

I am always anxious about how long my horse is actually going to be in labor. I once unexpectedly had a foal delivered in just 10 minutes. However, when calculating the length of time a horse is in labor, there are a few other things that occur both before and after delivery that are included.

How long your horse is in labor is different for each mare. If the delivery goes very smoothly, the labor process can last as little as two hours. However, many mares may take six-seven hours to deliver a healthy foal and placenta.

Equine labor can be divided into three phases. The first phase, phase one, is when the horse experiences contractions in the uterus. These contractions are irregular and may create a lot of discomforts.

If you’ve witnessed a horse suffer from colic, this is similar to how a mare in the first stage of labor acts, and its good indicator that labor has begun. 

Signs of impending labor include any unusual or distressful behavior. The mare may sit up and lie down repeatedly, start sweating along the flanks or neck, urinate irregularly, twitch her tail, or look back at her stomach nervously. This phase usually lasts from one to four hours.

Phase two of labor begins when the horse breaks water, this occurs because the fetal sac ruptures and allantoic fluid comes out. You can distinguish this from urination as a lot of fluid rushes out when the water breaks, and the horse generally lies down or stops moving.

The uterine contractions become more intense at this point. Within 10 minutes, you should see the amniotic sack and the foal’s front feet escaping the belly.

This stage of labor happens quickly and moves relatively fast if everything happens the way it should. At most, the foal should be on the ground in 30 minutes. If not, it’s a dire situation, and you need to contact the vet immediately.

The third phase starts when the foal is delivered and ends when the placenta has come out. The placenta’s expulsion is necessary because you can examine it to get vital information about the mare and foal’s health.

The placenta usually comes out one hour after the foal. Most veterinarians consider the horse to be at risk if the placenta hasn’t come out of the belly three hours after the foal is delivered. If the placenta is retained, it can cause severe problems like equine laminitis and, in some cases, death.

Picture of a Friesian mare with her foal.

What time of day do horses give birth?

I have heard the phrase “the foal chooses the day, but the mare chooses the hour,” but it never made any sense to me until I got deep into researching the foaling time of horses.

An interesting fact I learned about horses is that they have some control over what time they give birth. The capability to influence their delivery time is one of the strangest things I’ve learned about horses. So, is there any typical time that most horses prefer for labor?

Most mares prefer to give birth close to or soon after midnight when it is dark and quiet. I know this has been true with my horses. However, it’s not the case for every birth; some mares may wait till the morning, and others may give birth at any time of the day.

Horses survived thousands of years in the wild because they relied on their instincts. Some believe nighttime deliveries are one such instinct. The theory is that by delivering babies at night, the mare reduces the risk predators will attack them in their vulnerable position.

The cover of darkness cloaks the mother and her foal from predators, giving both a better chance of survival than daytime births, so it’s no surprise that horses still follow their instinct today.

Though it might seem reasonable that horses prefer to give birth at night for safety, there might also be another reason; melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that horses release into their bodies at night.

Among other purposes, melatonin acts as an anti-inflammatory in mammals. Because it’s abundant at night, horses are best equipped to respond to any infection or damage their bodies might suffer during labor at night.

The significance of melatonin is also tied to other things associated with equine pregnancy. Melatonin production helps keep the placenta adheres to the uterus wall, thus increasing the chances of a healthy delivery. Proper amounts of melatonin also help ensure a healthy circadian rhythm of the foal.

Therefore, every pregnant horse should be exposed to natural lighting patterns. If your mare gives birth in a stall at night, you should use a low-intensity red light to generate melatonin instead of a white light source.

Including a good light source, here are six things that horses need in their stall.

Picture of a horse lying down,

Do horses give birth lying down?

People often wonder if horses prefer to give birth lying down or standing up. Perhaps the confusion is because giraffes, the mammals that weirdly resemble horses, always give birth while standing up.

Horses typically give birth lying down on their sides, and the foal exits the womb in a “diving position.” However, I have heard of horses foaling from a standing position; if your horse tries this, you better support the foal with your hands.

One reason horses like to lie down when giving birth is to preserve the umbilical cord after labor. In the belly, the umbilical cord transfers nutrients and oxygen to its baby, and this process often continues even after the foal has been delivered.

Generally, the umbilical cord should not be severed during delivery because it can cause excessive blood loss or infections. When mares deliver foals lying down, the umbilical cord breaks off naturally when the foal begins to move around or stand.

Ideally, the foal stays close to its mother until the blood stops flowing through the umbilical cord. If a horse gives birth standing up, there’s a greater chance that the umbilical cord severs before it should. Or the foal is hurt when it hits the ground.

Picture of a pregnant horse grazing in a field,

Can a horse stop labor?

I’ve heard of a few cases where a horse seems to stop labor deliberately. Apparently, the mare showed signs of labor days before actually delivering the foal. So, is such a thing even plausible or safe for the mare?

A horse can’t stop labor indefinitely, but if they are disturbed during the onset of early labor, it can delay it for several hours or days. However, this practice is not encouraged and might be harmful to the mare or foal’s health.

As we discuss above, mares show sure signs of discomfort during the first phase of labor. They shouldn’t be disturbed in any way during this time. If a mare feels threatened or decides that it might not be the best time and place to deliver the foal, she may attempt to stop the labor temporarily.

You should also keep this fact in mind when riding pregnant a horse.

What is it called when a horse gives birth?

Since we are talking about horses, it’s worth mentioning that the term “foal” is more common than “labor” or “delivery” when referring to the birth of a baby horse.

Similarly, the terms “foaling” or “foaled” replace words like “in labor” or “delivered,” respectively. A pregnant mare is said to be “in foal.” But regardless of what it’s called, the birth of a foal symbolizes a “new beginning.”

Picture of a chesnut baby horse.

Do horses make noises during birth?

Compared to humans, horses seem more comfortable delivering babies. Research suggests that there’s no significant presence of adrenaline or stress hormones when mares foal.

A mare makes strains and grunts but otherwise makes little noise while giving birth. Once the foal is delivered, she typically expresses her affection by nickering softly and licking the foal. Her actions indicate that, unlike a human, delivering a baby for horses is not unpleasant most of the time.

Mares in foal aren’t reliant on other equines, so making distress noises during birth isn’t particularly advantageous. Once the foal is born, the mare doesn’t express strong concern for its safety as many other animals, except occasionally calling it back if it wanders away.

Below is a YouTube video showing an Arabian horse giving birth.

YouTube video


Can you ride your horse if it’s pregnant?

Generally, yes, you can ride a pregnant horse. But remember, horses are individuals, and some tolerate pregnancies much better than others. If you have any questions about whether your pregnant mare is fit to ride, consult your vet.