Community Prevents Mare from Rejecting Her Foal
By Betty Baxter
I staggered up to the house at 5:30 in the morning, kicking myself for being stupid. How could I have been so cocky as to breed horses for 20 years and not learn how to milk a mare properly? If the newborn colt didn’t get colostrum soon, I’d be rushing for the first ferry to get him and his mother to a vet clinic in the valley. But how was I going to load him into a trailer with Lucky, when she was terrified of him? My eyelids kept closing as I set the alarm for 7am and fell onto the bed, nursing the slim hope that when I woke I could find some local help. Ninety-five percent of foals are born safely, standing and nursing from their dams within an hour. But when things go wrong, complications get very serious very quickly, and often either the mare or foal can perish.
Last evening, everything had looked good.
Talia, a university student keen to become a vet, had been sleeping in the aisle of my barn most nights for the last two weeks. She had seen one colt born safely just four nights earlier. Now with this second mare ready we laughed about how little sleep she was getting, and I marveled at her dedication to be present for this next birth. I watched as she pulled her blankets from the loft and unrolled them on a tarp beside the stall, so she’d be close enough to hear sounds of the mare’s early labour. I was leaving to go to bed myself when she called out “Lucky’s down — it might be starting.”
I ran back, feeling anxious as this was Lucky’s first foal and at 15 she could experience some trouble.
Once a horse’s water breaks, the birth can be over within minutes. By the time I stepped back into the barn, two little hooves and a nose were already making their entrance into the world. Moments later the foal was out, lying quietly as his coat dried and his elastic limbs began to firm up. Beside him the mare lay resting, then she groaned, got up, and passed a heavy mass of afterbirth.
Everything was going well. As is normal, the little colt struggled to get up and find his balance several times until he was finally on his feet. He wobbled across the stall to search for his dam’s udder. But Lucky was clearly frightened and trembled in the corner, wild-eyed and kicking when he came near. What was this dark, living thing suddenly in the stall with her?
Knowing it might take a couple of hours for the foal to find his way and successfully nurse, we waited. To be healthy, all foals need to nurse within the first six to twelve hours of life to receive quality colostrum, the first milk loaded with the mare’s antibodies which provide protection from viruses and bacteria. After 12 hours colostrum absorption begins to decline, and after 24 hours the foal’s small intestine can no longer absorb antibodies.
The kindness and generosity of a horse-loving community helped Close Call get a good start in life. Photo: Andrea Pratt
I held the mare and stroked her while Talia guided the colt to the udder, but when he got close he struggled to find the nipple. Hour after hour we tried, but the mare was afraid, trembling and moving away, and the colt couldn’t latch on. Lucky’s milk bag became harder and more painful as the hours passed.
Our stress and increasing exhaustion sucked the air out of the quiet barn. The other horses were absolutely silent. The window of time for the foal to get antibodies from the colostrum was closing rapidly. I managed to milk half a cup of the lifesaving liquid from her bag and syringe it into his mouth, but knew it was nowhere near enough.
By dawn we were out of ideas, discouraged and exhausted. That’s when Talia headed home, promising to return in the afternoon, and I trudged to the house. Although early to disturb other horse owners, I sent texts for help: Does anyone have frozen colostrum? I’ve got a baby who hasn’t been able to drink for ten hours — need colostrum and support.
In a rural setting, hours from veterinary help, there is no joy like the sight of three pickups roaring into the driveway in quick succession within an hour of a call for help. Five people spilled out, having changed their plans in a heartbeat to help an animal in distress. Even before the doors slammed, we began calling to each other:
Anyone bring a sedative injection?
Yup, and a spare halter in case we break one.
I’ve got a whole kit of first aid supplies.
Here’s a bag of colostrum from my freezer but it’s five years old. Did you milk her?
I’ve tried several times but only got half a cup.
Oh, we’ll get more than that. I’ve had 40 foals at my farm and five of my mares have rejected like this.
Human activity filled the quiet barn. Randy, a stocky man with a quiet manner, came into the stall with me. We put a halter on Lucky, gave her an injection of sedative, and Randy stood at her head with a good grip on the lead rope. I held the jug while Pam got under the mare and began punching the udder and pulling vigorously on each teat in turn. Soon we had a litre of milk. Someone filled a bottle and attached a nipple. The little colt was happily slurping from the bottle 11 hours after he was born. A cautious hope lifted me. The colostrum was in him, but he would need to be fed at least every four hours if he couldn’t drink from his mother.
Over a decade earlier I’d had a mare die from a complicated infection three weeks after foaling. The vet who had come from the valley had given the orphan foal a litre of goat’s milk, and this man who was holding Lucky now had gone to every grocery store within an hour’s drive to buy the entire supply of goat’s milk available. The mere dozen bottles had lasted only two days while we waited for the huge pail of expensive powdered supplement to arrive by bus. Raising that orphan had required weeks of bottle-feeding six times a day and had been a full-time job. I didn’t think I could do it again.
By now Lucky was quiet and her colt was resting on the clean straw. We hung about the barn aisle visiting while we waited for him to get hungry again. Then we held her and steered him toward the nipple. She would let him approach now as her bag was softer and she was not in such pain, but the colt still couldn’t attach. He couldn’t understand that her milk bag was his source of food, so he nuzzled blindly against her legs front and back, and bumped awkwardly into her big belly. We tried a dozen times, nervously joking what a miracle it was that these big animals survive at all. We milked another litre from the mare and waited. By now it was 10am. I was bleary with exhaustion, but I knew these good people needed to get on with their days.
They began to pack up when one said, “Well, you’ve got enough for a couple more feedings. Hopefully he’ll find that nipple himself before you’re out.”
I was squatting against the stall wall with my head in my hands and imagining myself standing at midnight in pajamas and gumboots, bottle-feeding this foal. Exhaustion and panic spoke.
“Could we try one more time?” I asked. “He hasn’t drunk in about 20 minutes.”
Two people came back into the stall. One held the mare and we steered the ungainly little colt toward the udder. The same result again and again, he could smell it, touch it, but couldn’t latch on to drink. I was kneeling beside him, ready to give up when his bottom lip went around the nipple and he began to suck. He tried one nipple and then the other, slurping noisily as milk foam covered his chin.
“He’s got it, he’s got it!”
Cheers and hugs all around. Grinning, I eased out of the stall and started to thank everyone. We peered back into the stall, smiling and reveling in the success of our morning project.
Related: Should You Breed Your Mare?
Lucky and her foal, Close Call. Photo: Andrea Pratt
“Well, now you can just freeze that colostrum, and the next time this happens to any of us, we’ll know you have some available.”
I didn’t even know who spoke, but I felt washed in the kindness and generosity of the people in my community. These were folks I’d known for over a decade and had chatted with at horse events but had never spent personal time with. Now together we had been a force in saving a life. I knew this collection of humans — love of horses their only link — would respond time and time again to help animals and the people who own them. We went on with our lives but were joined now by the trust those few hours together had created.
It was two weeks before a veterinarian came to the farm to check on how the colt was doing. On the phone he had explained that we would need to take a blood sample and that the gamma globulins for a youngster’s immune system must be between 400 and 1200 for healthy growth, or else he would need a transfusion.
When the vet arrived, he approached the foal with long, steady strides, quiet and controlled, as I chattered behind him about the mare’s earlier rejection. When we reached the baby, the mare looked up but was not alarmed. She’d been nursing for two weeks and trusted the colt to stay near. But he was curious and walked straight to us.
The vet bent and caressed the little one. His practiced hands quickly stroked the foal’s body. He didn’t respond to my question about whether I should hold the foal, but simply lifted him and lay him on his side. The colt’s long legs thrashed a moment, but human legs quickly contained him as the vet sat on the ground with the colt under his thighs. One blue-jeaned limb was across the neck as he caressed the colt’s head; his other leg rested on the belly so only the colt’s hind legs could move freely. The vet pulled a fresh syringe from behind his right ear and removed the cover from the needle with his teeth. Then, having warned me to stay out of the kicking range of the thrashing hind legs, with his other hand he took an alcohol swab from his breast pocket and again used his teeth to rip it open. A quick swipe on the skin over the big vein in the colt’s thigh and the needle was in and blood drawn. The colt lay quiet for a moment until the vet pivoted and swung his legs off the body. Free, the little guy jumped up and ran to the mare for a drink.
I chuckled. “Well, that was easy!”
“I could only do it for a few more days. After that he’d be too big and strong. You said he’s had a bit of diarrhea. Keep an eye on that. The blood sample will go to the lab, and I’ll call you as soon as I hear.”
A few days later I came into the house from the barn just as the phone rang. It was the vet, calling with the result of the colt’s blood test.
“What did it come in at?”
“Do I need to bring him in for a transfusion?”
“Well, it’s low, but did his manure firm up?”
“Seems fine. No problem after a few doses of Pepto.”
“You’re okay then. Sounds like his immune system is starting to do its job. I forgot to ask his name for my records. What did you call him?”
Related: Collecting Colostrum for your Foal
Main Photo: Andrea Pratt