Saturday, February 9, 2013

Water Hazards and other Foaling Perils

Any small breeder who foals his or her mares at home knows the stress associated with the whole process. First, checking your mare daily for signs of heat, calling the veterinarian out to the farm to perform palpations, ultrasounds and cultures to make sure the mare is healthy and ready for breeding. Then choosing among the multitude of lovely stallions available (I do admit I love looking at the stud books, though it makes me feel a little "pimpy") and, in the case of live cover, setting up a date for the mare to be bred with the chosen stud and hauling her to and from her appointment (makes me feel even more "pimpy!"). Next, waiting the requisite 14 days for an ultrasound to confirm pregnancy, if you’re lucky. If not, the process begins again.

An anxious 11 months, 5 days follows as you watch the mare carefully throughout her pregnancy, pulling her off any pasture that may contain fescue for the last 4 months thereof, increasing the protein level in her feed for the last trimester. As the mare expands dramatically, you have to start maneuvering her more carefully through stall doors and other spots that were never tight before. My stall door openings are 4’ wide – normally plenty of space, but I have to make sure my heavily pregnant mares exit and enter through the center to avoid getting bumped.

Then the final stretch – seemingly endless days and nights of little or no sleep as you make constant checks on the mare as foaling becomes imminent. The false alarms as the mare lies down, examines her sides and starts groaning, only to get right back up and start eating. Some mares can be pretty dramatic in expressing their displeasure at their large burden; I have one mare that makes a big show of waddling, groaning and examining her belly in disgust for the last months of her pregnancy. Maybe it’s just paranoia, but I think she gives me the “evil eye,” knowing that I’m responsible for her discomfort.

In 2006, we had two foalings at Equutopia and both were adventures. Figure was the first mare to foal, showing signs around 10 pm on April 13, causing me to call my backup out of bed; I always feel better having extra hands available during the foaling process in case the mare or foal needs assistance. I also had a student, Jenny, that made me promise to call when the foals were getting ready to emerge into their new world. On that particular evening, I had house guests, who also eagerly hustled down to the barn to observe the proceedings.

Beamer getting checked out by his mom, Figure.

Thus the birth or Beamer was well attended. My guests were all briefed on the importance of remaining silent and out of the way. One young lady crouched down in the adjoining stall to peer through the thin ventilation slats in the stall wall. Alas, she soon regretted this vantage point – Figure’s water broke and sprayed through the slats, showering her hapless victim! Luckily, she was a horsewoman. Her male friend, however, made an immediate, hasty exit from the scene. Beamer arrived shortly thereafter with no complications and the guests departed, leaving me and Bobbie, my friend and constant assistant, to make sure Beamer stood and nursed within the generally recommended 2 hour time period. 

First kiss from mommy.

About an hour went by, and the little colt made several attempts to stand on his uncooperative, wobbly legs, lurching around the stall as he tried to master mobility. With some assistance, he got the hang of standing, balanced precariously on his four absurdly long legs, but still seemed to have trouble nursing. Beamer was able to locate the fountain, but was having trouble with the operational aspect. I started getting nervous that he wouldn’t ingest the all-important colostrum, the mare’s initial milk, rich with the antibodies he would need for immunity from disease in his first few months of life.

Posing with Auntie Bobbie.

It was then that I discovered that the bottles I’d purchased, just in case a situation like this came up where I needed to hand-milk a mare and bottle feed her foal, were not foal-size. The nipples were way too small. I ended up leaving Bobbie to watch momma and her baby and raced to Wal-Mart to get a larger one. By this time, it was past midnight. Thank goodness for 24 hour stores! By the time I got back, of course, all was well and Beamer was nursing with gusto. We’d already dipped his navel with iodine and decided to leave the pair so that all of us could get a little rest.

Beamer's yearling mug shot.

I missed the birth of Celera. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, April 18. I had just run out to my vet's office for something, and I got a frantic call from my student, Shelley, who had arrived at Equutopia for a lesson to find a gangly chestnut colt wandering up and down the barn aisle. I have half doors on all my stalls and, though I’d carefully blocked the lower opening with a piece of plywood, the colt had managed to break down the barrier and liberate himself. I arrived shortly after the call (luckily I was almost home anyway) and we teamed up to wrestle the colt back into the stall with his mother, Violet. Poor Celera had bumped his nose, either during his birth which, judging from the location of the placenta, happened right near one of the stall walls, or during his subsequent escape. He was having a lot of trouble nursing, so I called my vet’s office and Dr. Tena Boyd came out immediately. 

Baby Celera, a few days old.

After a careful examination, Tena determined that the swelling wasn’t serious and would soon dissipate. However, until it did so, Celera would be unable to nurse. He essentially couldn’t “feel” his mother’s udder because of the swelling. The bottle I’d purchased on my midnight run a few days ago was to come in handy. I had to milk Violet and bottle feed Celera every hour for the rest of the day and all through the night. Finally, the next morning, the swelling subsided and Celera was able to feed himself. Tena returned to check his immunity level (a simple blood test performed on the spot 12 to 24 hours post-birth) and pronounced him healthy.

Baby Celera, so cute and curious!

Weeks of sleep deprivation had taken their toll, but I was thrilled to have two big, healthy colts. The kids showered the foals and their mothers with attention, providing the all-important initial desensitizing and imprinting with humans that makes foals much easier to handle when they become 1000 lb horses. They learned to wear a halter, be led in and out, and submit to grooming and fussing. We certainly had a few exciting moments, especially in the process of teaching the colts to lead. It is crucial that a handler not pull on these babies’ necks when they’re young – they are fragile and susceptible to strains and worse. Therefore, though they wear halters and lead ropes, the actual “leading” is accomplished by walking next to the foal, one hand on his rump, the other on his chest on one of the shoulder bones, essentially guiding the foal. The foal, of course, resists and often bucks, kicks and lurches, resulting in all sorts of colorful bruises for the handler. They are surprisingly strong and athletic!

Celera's yearling mug shot, with Auntie Robyn.
I have been fortunate that all four of the foals born at Equutopia thus far have been fairly healthy. I no longer do any breeding, I am already at capacity and feel that there are too many unwanted horses around already (not that my babies would contribute to that situation, I plan on keeping them until their last days). Yes, the whole breeding and foaling process is stressful and has, no doubt, contributed to my wrinkles (my mom and more than one friend have presented me with gifts of wrinkle cream and skin care products!), but there are few things as satisfying to the horse lover as being a part of the whole process and watching a helpless little foal grow strong, play and develop their unique personalities and characteristics on their way to becoming an athlete, companion and partner.

Posing with Auntie Robyn again.


  1. Oh my gosh, they were so cute when they were little! Hard to believe they were EVER that little! Good thing Beamer is still cute ;)

    1. LOL Kayla, I tell him that on a regular basis, usually when he's just done something very, very naughty!

  2. I am new to your blog. Looking forward to reading of your adventures.