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Back 40: The birth of a foal

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Story and photos by Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

My eyes opened wide in the haze of an early spring morning. In and out of an anxious sleep, I’d heard the sound of several gallons of water hit the ground. I was out of my sleeping bag in an instant and I gently swung the beam of a flashlight into the run-in stall. My mare stood in the corner, legs straddled and knees bent to lay down, and I knew she was beginning to give birth.

According to the most recent data available, a 2005 study by the American Horse Council Foundation, there are about 9.2 million horses across the nation, directly involving 4.6 million people in a $102 billion industry. Horse enthusiasts can be found in every corner of the U.S.—how many people have heard of the Kentucky Derby? But how many know about how those horses got there?

I experienced 11 months of excitement and anticipation, waiting for that night to unfold. A mare’s gestation averages 320 to 362 days, with most foaling between 330 and 345. Horses are seasonally polyestrous, meaning they naturally cycle from mid-spring to early fall. With nearly a year-long pregnancy, this seasonal fertility is nature’s way of ensuring a baby will be born when the grass is green and the days are long and warm.

Once confirmed pregnant, for the first eight months a mare typically doesn’t require a great deal more attention other than a watchful eye. Riding and exercise can usually continue during the first two trimesters and it isn’t until the last that a mare needs extra feed to support the fetus, which does 60 percent of its growing during those last three months.

As the mare reaches term, the owner may notice subtle changes that indicate impending parturition. The mare’s udder will develop milk and in the days prior to foaling the muscles will relax in her hind quarters. She may also become restless and her profile may change as the foal moves into position for birth. About this time, an owner might begin night watch.

More often than not, a mare will foal during the nighttime hours when it is quiet and calm, and as a result, many horse births are unattended. The majority of the time a birth goes smoothly anyway and human intervention is not needed. Nevertheless, knowing this has never stopped me from doing my best to be there to welcome the new foal, as I have slept under the stars awaiting that moment on more than one occasion.

The typical birth takes around 20 minutes from the time the water breaks to the time the foal is actually delivered. After a brief calm, in those first quiet moments of the foal’s life, mare and foal will stand. The mare will gently nicker and nuzzle and lick her new baby, stimulating blood flow and establishing the bond between mother and babe. The foal is typically on its feet within 30 minutes and will actively seek its mother to nurse.

At the encouragement of his mother, my new foal stood, stumbled, and stood again. With long legs and huge knees, he sprawled out, teeter-tottered, and like a little rocking horse he took his first steps. From a short distance away I watched my mare position herself to help the colt nurse. She continued to nicker, a barely audible sound in the air, meant for the ears of her new little one.

Horse owners vary in their stance on how to care for a foal once it has been delivered. Some begin interacting with the foal right away, acclimating it to the touch of a human. Still others may not contact the baby beyond what is necessary until the time comes for weaning several months down the road.

I suppose my philosophy rests somewhere between these two. I talk to the new baby and I handle it some, but treats and horseplay are not allowed. Giving the young horse time to just be a horse is invaluable, as the new baby learns about the world.

The foal will run for the very first time. It will experience rain. It will taste grasses and smell flowers and hear the birds. The early months spent watching the foal grow, spending brief periods of time in proximity, are fulfilling and exciting. The foal will feel your touch and hear your voice and in time it will come to know you, and you will come to know the foal.

April is the start of foaling time in Montana, so watch for those knobby-kneed critters this spring.

Jessianne Wright is a writer and devoted equestrian. She has raised several horses to maturity, conferring with a number of veterinarians and print resources along the way.

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