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For several years, we used an idea that I got from another breeder in testing the mare’s milk to predict foaling time. I cannot remember who the person is to give them credit, but I remember that they had used this method for decades with excellent success. Usually, a mare will foal within 48 hours of getting colostrum. So, the idea is to know when there is colostrum to get a better idea the mare’s foaling timetable.
[Colostrum: milk secreted just prior to parturition (mare giving birth) and for a few days afterwards, characterized by high protein and antibody content.]
Please note that when testing the milk you must keep in mind all of the other factors that let you know when your mare is close to foaling, such as the waxing over of the nipple, sunken croup, restlessness, irritability, etc.
The Mare's Milk
A pregnant mare’s milk prior to foaling will consist of three different variables: Taste, Color and Consistency.
Taste will range from bland (no taste), salty, and sweet. The Color will be from a dark yellow to a skim milk white, and the Consistency will fluctuate from thin and runny like milk to sticky and tacky. A mare's milk will bounce around and fluctuate between all of these ranges from hour to hour and day to day.
Colostrum is sticky. It is very tacky and very sweet and has a white color. You may get every combination of Taste, Color and Consistency in what seems to be a random order. We have found that most of the time when a mare is at the end of her gestation, the milk can go in any order with colostrum being the end result. The changes in the mare's milk may happen in a matter of hours or days, or over several weeks.
The most common sequence and combination for the pregnant mare's milk transition in our experience has been:
Milking The Mare
Make sure that the mare is comfortable with you handling her udder. Some mares get more sensitive in the udder the closer they are to foaling so always use common sense and extreme caution. It helps to plan ahead and gently handle the mare's udder, to desensitize her before attempting to milk her. The training for handling the mare's udder is obviously critical to safe and successful milking. The process also helps prepare the mare for a foal suckling.
Milking a mare would be similar to milking a cow. If you do not have that experience (as I hadn’t) I’ll try to explain the process. Grasp above the nipple between the pads of your index finger and your thumb. You then gently squeeze and roll your fingers down toward the nipple. This is not a pinching process. Imagine that you are trapping some milk above the nipple, then motioning it down toward the nipple. The movement will often tug the nipple down slightly, similar to a suckling foal. You should be able to get between a few drops to a steady stream of milk, but all you need is a few drops of milk that you catch with your other hand..
This is something that will take practice, but remember that the mare's udder is sensitive so minimal pressure should be applied as necessary to accomplish the task. You will find that some mares are more difficult to milk, but persistence is the key.
Testing The Milk
When you go to test the mare’s milk, you only need a few drops. A black or white surface is most reliable for determining color. After you collect the milk, wipe any droplets off of the mare’s nipple. It will harden in time and you might mistake it for wax. With these few drops you can look at the color of the milk, check consistency, and taste the milk with the tip of your tongue.
You can roll the taste around (I’ve heard that the tongue’s salty receptors in more to the rear of your tongue) and get a good feel for the taste and then spit it out. (I’m not sure that the raw milk is sanitary to swallow.) You can rinse your mouth with water if the thought of the milk residue in your mouth is unpleasant to you.
To check the consistency, take your other hand's index finger and dip it in the milk. Press your thumb to the milk on your index finger to see if it is tacky or stringy (leaves a string between the two fingers when you pull them apart.)
Colostrum is a milky color, very sweet and very sticky and stringy. (Not necessarily thick. I’ve had some mares have a gel type milk that is very thick, but it is not colostrum.) The first time that you taste colostrum, you will notice the sweetness and it will stand out in your mind. The mare will probably foal within 48 hours from the time she produces the colostrum.
Remember that not every mare has a full-to-bursting udder before foaling. I start testing the milk as soon as I can express any fluid. We try to check the mare’s milk at least 2 times a day; then more frequently as the changes in the milk and other signs indicate the mare is getting closer. I make notes on every test to try to detect patterns.
We have foaled about 5 mares a year. Since we have started using this method, we have predicted every foaling. I’ve found that once there is colostrum, a mare usually foals within 24 hours. If we find colostrum at the evening feed milk check, we usually have a foal by morning. I’ve only had one mare change from colostrum for a few hours back to bland. She foaled about 36 hours from the first change to colostrum.
I was told that some mares will get their colostrum and foal within an hour…and, of course, there are those mares who never get colostrum and milk. In these cases - as with every pregnant mare - all of the factors to predict a mare’s foaling should be taken into consideration. Testing the mare's milk simply makes it easier to predict timing for foaling since it is a fairly reliable method..
Subsequent Note: We no longer milk the mares. Milking is reported to cause discomfort. and possibly contractions. Instead we observe the mare more closely to monitor visible obvious and subtle physical changes, including changes in her behavior.