What to Expect When Your (Horse is) Expecting

When I was a much younger person, I read all the James Heriott, the “All Creatures Great and Small” series. The books were non-fiction, true accounts of Herriott’s experiences as a veterinarian in Yorkshire in the early 20th century. His adventures slogging through mud, birthing foals and calves, sewing up sheep, dealing with an eccentric Lhasa Apso owner  and eating bacon consisting of nothing but fat (odd memory, I know) fascinated me and made me want to be a vet for whole days after I read each book.

But in the years that I was around horses (not that many) I never had anything to do with a birth.  That’s not to say that there weren’t any – in fact, my very first pony, Daisy May (my Grandpa named her) was born out of Molly Brown (who I actually remember being a bay, but I could be wrong) on our farm. I missed the whole thing, but remember seeing the afterbirth and the pony when she was brand new, all knock-kneed like a giraffe and pretty curious about things in general.  I think that Molly Brown was a quiet and steady mother, and I never felt like I was going to be trampled, although I was sort of cautious around horses then. I was never as horse-crazy as my sister who had all the Misty books, and “My Friend Flicka,” and “Black Beauty” (a personal favorite that I have on my bookshelf even today). She also had horse figurine collection. Morgan and Tennessee Walking Horses fascinated me, and I actually had a patch on my jean jacket that featured a Tennessee Walker. Later, I learned how those horses are taught their distinctive gate and reconsidered bugging my dad for one. I held out great hope for a Morgan, but ended up with a Pony of America, but more about that later.

The point here is that I never was present for a foal’s birth, even though there were a couple that took place on our farm.  Being on a brood mare agistment facility was going to change all that, I was sure, even though none of the fat ladies (as my host called them) was due until mid-August. I decided I was going to stay until at least one mare foaled, even if I had to contend with the feeling that I was always doing something wrong.

A funny thing about Thoroughbred’s birthdays.  All northern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on January 1st. All southern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on August 1st. This is regardless of their actual birthday, and is done to standardize age.

Consequently, the breeding season in Australia is scheduled so that mares are foaling as soon after Aug 1 as they can. Most are born in September as that generally takes care of any poor planning or mares not holding for the full term. As a result, August 1 is considered every Thoroughbred’s birthday, and those greetings are posted in the newspaper. The policy relates to being able to measure age accurately and tell if a yearling is really a yearling. In general, the foaling season in Australia is between August 1 and the end of October. A horse’s pregnancy is about 11 months, so you do the math about how soon mares go to stud again. In some cases, mares are bred weeks after. Talk about being barefoot and pregnant.

Breeding horses is a whole other thing to me. I had no idea about the procedures and vetting necessary to get a mare to delivery and get a healthy foal out of the deal. Sometimes, you just can’t. M. has had her losses along the way. Mares can get protective of their baby and accidently trample it when a vet or owner is trying to get to the foal. Some are breech, just like people, and don’t survive the delivery. Some die for no apparent reason shortly afterward.

(By the way, if you’re queasy about medical procedures, stop reading right now.)

And mares are submitted to any number of indignities along the way. A Caslick procedure is when a mare’s vulva is sewn together. This is done because sometimes fecal matter will get into the vagina and cause infection, which can cause either temporary or permanent infertility. The procedure, formally known as “Caslick’s repair” (since it was developed by a vet of the same name) is done for mares who have foaled a lot and have maybe stretched – or sometimes for mares that are large in the first place and suck air into the vagina when they trot or gallop, a thing known as “wind sucking.” Of course, once a small edge of the vulva has been cut away and sewn up, it heals over completely, which is good while they’re pregnant. But at some point the thing must be undone, otherwise the mare could foal and tear, which is not good. Sort of like getting an episiotomy for women. I’ve heard cases for and against each way. But with brood mares, that’s how it’s done.

Undoing the Caslick is a bit bloody. This is not a matter of taking out stitches, which I thought at first. Since the tissue is incised before its sewn, its completely healed over and must be cut. So undoing is sort of a misnomer, or an imprecise way of explaining what’s done. In reality, the vulva are cut apart again to open the vagina. It heals quickly, I guess, but there’s blood. The vet literally takes a scalpel and runs it down the vulva and separates them again. Of course, they look nothing like vulva anymore. It’s just tissue. It’s a little bit creepy and made me want to cross my legs.

(If you stopped up there, you can start here.)

There is a certain amount of a dispassionate response around here. I have to remember that this is animal husbandry. Horse breeding is a business. We had horses for pleasure  and showed them a bit, my brother and sister more than I. But this behavior of treating a living thing like a commodity was disturbing. Owning and breeding horses cannot be viewed romantically.

As the mares got closer to due dates, M. and I got out the monitor. This is a device much like a nursery monitor, only there’s a box that is attached to the horse’s halter (Sorry. Head collar.) that sends a signal if it is placed in a horizontal position.  If the mare lies down, presumably to give birth, the receiver monitor inside sounds with a tone that is impossible to sleep through, although M. told me that sometimes she ends up sleeping out in the living room where the receiver sits.  We tested each one by me walking to the far end of the paddock while M. used very confusing hand signals to indicate when I should turn the little box to a horizontal position and whether the monitor had sounded inside.  After much waving of arms and gnashing of teeth, she was satisfied that all but one worked, and we then attached them to the head collars and were on our way.

The only problem with this system is that sometimes horses lay down to go to sleep. Or roll around on the ground to scratch an itch, or just because they feel like it. Or rub their chins against the fence. So sometimes the monitor sounds and nothing is up. The procedure then is to turn the thing off, count to ten, and turn it on again. If starts beeping again, go out and check.

Finally, the evening came when the monitor went off and it was the real thing. Happily, it wasn’t 3 a.m., either, but the quite human hour of 6:30 p.m. M. went out to check, and shouted that the mare was in labor, so I went out to help. Watch, really. Once I was out there, M. raced back in to get her kit which consists of antiseptic spray (for the umbilical cord) and other stuff for birth-y events.

This is the part that makes all the other indignities and struggles worth it. And yes, just like in the “All Creatures” books, there are two tiny hooves and a little nose that can be seen through the sack and come out first. This little one had a white nose. While the mare strained, M. held on to the little one’s legs to keep it from slipping back in. And after a big push, there was a foal.

In the grand scale of things, it’s amazing that humans are still around at all. Despite the claim of greater intelligence (a fact which is debatable considering the current state of the world, but that’s another entry) humans take a long time to do things that animals do within minutes of being born. Once the foal had poked its nose out, it was immediately trying to figure out just how those long appendages worked. Mum was nickering at her baby (a girl – a filly) to get up and nurse. We stayed out there to make sure the foal was up, nursing, and had a poo. Of course, mum had to be attended to, as well, and moved to another paddock next door.

During the labor and birth there was another mare in the paddock trying to steal the foal. M. told me that the mare had lost her baby last year.  She didn’t understand that she would have her own in just a few weeks, poor thing. My job was to keep that one away from the mum and bub that were moving, however slowly, toward the gate and their private room.

Consider the fact that M. is doing this alone. A typical day during foaling season might look like this:

Midnight: monitor goes off. Get out of bed, get dressed, go out the paddock. False alarm.

1 a.m. – Monitor goes off again. Mare is now in labor.

2 a.m. – A foal is born, is up within half an hour, nursing, etc. Everything has gone right.

4 a.m. – After getting the umbilical cord cut, the after birth delivered, cleaning up the foal, making sure its nursing and that mum has accepted it and has had her drenching or injection of whatever she needs, you can walk in for a cup of tea because, since it’s late Winter/early Spring, you’re freezing your ass off and your hands are numb.

5 a.m. – Warmed up again, you clean up a bit and crawl into bed for a couple hours of sleep.

7 a.m. – Time to check on the mare and foal.

8 a.m. – It’s time to feed the whiny dogs, the squawking chickens, and pawing horses.

9:30 a.m – Time for breakfast.

10 a.m. – Start the work of the day, which might include a visit from the vet to undo Caslicks, or a delivery of another pregnant mare, or a visit from the equine dentist, or cleaning up a cut or hoof abscess or all of the above.

1 p.m. – Lunch.

2 p.m.  – After lunch, catch an hour or two of sleep.

4:30 p.m. – The monitor goes off. You turn it off for 10 seconds. It goes off again.

4:40 p.m. – You walk out to the paddock to check if there’s really a delivery in progress. There’s not. One of the mares is rolling.

And so on. And foaling season lasts for a couple months. And you are one person who has a part-time hired hand. And depend upon people who are either WWOOF-ers or HelpEx-ers and might know horses or might not and if they don’t they might not stay very long after they learn just enough to be helpful.

But she says it’s a good life.

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