THE STORY - FROM START TO FINISH.
No Bettor Love was due to have her fourth foal on March 26th. I had taken her to the Christmas Farm to foal out, and the Mexican groom there, Nacho, was sure she would not foal until the moon was at least half full on April 2, and more likely when the moon was full on April 9.
"The moon," he said, "she pulla the foal out."
Meanwhile, No Bettor is getting bigger and bigger, and I’m quite alarmed by the obviously huge size of the foal in her uterus. Donny Christmas, who owns the farm tells me, "I had one like that named Soap. She used to have huge foals. The last one was so big it got stuck in the birth canal too long, had brain damage, and we had to put it down."
Thank you, Donny. I’m trying to forget that after 25 years of good luck, in the past three years I’ve lost two foals shortly after birth. They give you time to bond, fall in love, and then they’re gone. This business is not for the faint of heart.
I drive over and check on the mare every day, and for some reason I went twice on Tuesday, March 24. On the second trip, early that afternoon, I give her some carrots and peppermints and as a matter of habit, I lean over to examine her udder. The wax plugs on the teats have popped out, her legs are speckled with wax, and there is milk dripping down her legs. My God, this mare is close to foaling!
I grab my cell and call Donny. He doesn’t answer. I call my husband who always answers his cell. He doesn’t answer. I trot over to Nacho’s little house and politely knock on his door. He comes out, and I tell him about the plugs, the wax, and the milk.
"Nah, she not gonna foal," he says, gesturing at the sky. "No moon . . . maybe two three days. But I make stall." The mare has always lived outdoors with a run-in-shed, and is treated the same way at Donny’s. But when it’s close to foaling time, into a stall she must go. Still, Nacho’s expression suggests I might be a hysterical female. I march back to No Bettor Love’s paddock.
But a little while later Nacho comes over and looks, sees what I see and says, "She not gonna foal until the moon more full." I refrain from saying what he can do with the moon.
That evening, I’m to attend my mystery-writing critique group and I think I can probably check on No Bettor on the way there, and on the way back. I do. On the way there, she is still in the paddock, but she is calm, has eaten her tub of grain and is working on a nice pile of hay and alfalfa. Her stall has been made up by Nacho, and over the clean, knee-deep yellow-straw, a feed tub is fastened in one corner and two freshly filled water buckets hang in the other.
I attend critique, where my buddies have brought cupcakes, cookies and more cupcakes as my birthday is on March 31 and we won’t see each other before then. We have a great time eating cupcakes and pointing out things that could be better in the story one of the gals is presenting. I feel kind of silly, as this gal has been nominated for an Agatha award, and here I am telling her how her work could be improved. But that is how we mystery authors work together and become better writers. My cell phone has, of course, been in my pocket the whole time. Just in case.
My critique group breaks up a little after nine, and I put the pedal to the metal and roll south on the Washington Beltway toward Upper Marlboro. I arrive at Donny’s and find No Bettor Love knee deep in straw, and Donny up on a ladder, fussing with the camera he uses to watch the foaling mares at night. I look at the mare and see milk squirt out of her udder, and to me she seems quite restless.
Donny, an old time horseman, whose father bred Maryland stake’s winners, including Subaru, who won the Black- Eyed Susans on Preakness day, refuses to get ruffled.
"I suppose she could foal tonight," he says, "but tomorrow night would be more likely."
Who am I to question the wisdom of a man who has foaled out at least 500 mares and whose uncle trained the legendary chestnut mare, Gallorette. Gallorette ran back in 1940s, is a member of the Racing Hall of Fame, and among other stellar accomplishments, managed to beat the leading male horse, Stymie. Three times.
Donny gets off his ladder and goes to look for something.
I promptly move the ladder which is blocking the solid-wood sliding-door to the stall. Pushing the door open, I step inside. No Bettor comes to greet me, then starts walking her stall in a circle. Crawling into the safe corner beneath No Bettor’s feed tub, I curl up to wait.
When Donny gets back, he looks through the Iron bars above and says, "You going to sleep in there tonight?"
"I’m not sure," I say. "Thought I’d lie here a while and see what happens."
No Bettor throws her tail up twice and stretches her neck out. She tries to pee two or three times with little success. Then she cocks her head, just like she is listening, and I know she is listening to her foal. I know it, but say nothing. No Bettor paws a few times and lies down.
She groans a little, and Donny says, "I believe this mare might foal tonight."
Duh, yeah. He bustles off to get a tail bandage, and feeling a rush of adrenalin, I curl up tighter in my corner. Even if all goes well with the foaling, the first thirty days of a foal’s life are critical. I have lost two foals in the past three years during these crucial days.
Donny reappears with a purple bandage, and kneels in the straw by No Bettor’s tail and starts wrapping. He’s about halfway through, and No Bettor’s water breaks and gushes all over Donny. With great effort, I refrain from a smart comment.
# # #
Donny gets the tail bandaged, pulls out his cell, and calls Nacho.
"This mare’s getting ready to foal. You better get over here right quick."
Using Donny’s phone, I call my husband, Daniel. "Her water just broke. Donny might need some help pulling this foal out."
Daniel says he’ll be right over, but I’m pretty sure he won’t get here in time. No Bettor Love gets up with a groan. Tremendous changes have taken place in such a short period. Her hindquarters near her tail bone have softened, the muscles almost flaccid. Her vulva is gaping wide, and . . . .
"Donny, there’s the bubble!"
A white membrane that covers the foal has separated from No Bettor’s placenta. It has pushed out about six inches out from the vulva. The mare groans, circles twice, and folds herself gently onto the floor.
We rush over to No Bettor, and Donny grasps the membrane. I can see two sets of hooves and ankles through the thick film.
"Those are awfully big hooves," Donny says and slides one hand inside the mare a wee bit.
"Is there a nose?" I ask. Please, God, let there be a nose.
"I think I’ve got a nose," he says.
I almost do a little fist pump of relief. The baby should come out like a diver, front legs stretched out, nose tucked down just above the ankles. It should surge up and over – then dive down from – the mare’s pelvic girdle. Your worst nightmare is a breach birth, where the foal vainly tries to come out backwards with all the legs pointing the wrong way. In this situation, with a large foal, you’re lucky if you can save the mare. The foal’s chances are slim to none. Unless your're in a hospital setting, you cannot perform a C-section on a mare and expect her to live.
We both grab the ridiculously slippery front ankles and pull a little as the mare contracts.
"Look at the size of that muzzle!" Donny’s face is tight with apprehension.
We both work to peel the membrane away from the foal’s nostrils. The mare contracts and I have a little horse head almost in my lap.
"He’s breathing," I whisper. He has a beautiful white blaze, and I’m sure he’s colt. Nacho hurries into the stall, and I slide over to make room.
The hard work is ahead. The mare must push the foal’s large shoulders/withers/girth section through the birth canal. If the foal’s in there too long, he will die.
Donny and Nacho each grasp the foal’s ankles using both hands. The mare contracts and they pull in unison.
The foal is not sliding out. Both men’s faces are grim and tight with effort and the fear they might not get him out.
Donny says, "The mare’s stopped pushing."
I look at No Bettor and she’s clearly exhausted. She groans and I call to her quietly, "Come on mommy, you can do it."
After a short breather, she starts pushing again, and Donny and Nacho’s faces reflect the tremendous physical strain they are under. I see the colt’s chest, the front of his withers.
"No Bettor Love," I call like I did when she’d come down the turf stretch on the lead in Virginia. Only, this time, I’m not screaming with excitement. My voice sounds more like a prayer.
The mare gives one last massive contraction, and the foal gushes out. With his narrow hindquarters stretched out behind, the last part of his dive over his mother’s pelvis is a quick slide home.
Everyone is panting. Donny and Nacho slump to the floor for a moment. The mare is breathing hard and lies still a few seconds before she raises her head and cranes her neck to look back at her foal.
Daniel arrives and appears mesmerized as he stares at the foal, the membrane that is still covering his hind legs, and the traces of blood that have splashed everywhere. The colt kicks, shoving himself away from mother’s hindquarters, tearing off more of the white membrane as he struggles toward the inevitable break with the umbilical cord.
No Bettor groans and sits up to look at her baby, but she’s too exhausted to rise. There is no rush. She has a while before the baby will find his sea legs and clamber up from the floor.
But he tries, thrusting his front legs out before him, raising his front end a foot off the floor before he loses balance and sinks down. He looks around at everyone and whinnies.
I grin. It’s a manly little whinny; he has to be a colt. Using clean towels, Daniel and I rub the colt dry, stimulating his circulation and introducing him to the touch of human hands.
The next time he tries to rise, he scoots forward far enough to break the umbilical cord. Donny brings a plastic cup filled with the antiseptic, Novalson. Easing down next to the foal, Donny attempts to roll him over to expose the umbilicus – a veritable highway for bacteria to enter the blood stream of the foal. But the colt’s having none of it, his incredibly long hind legs kicking wildly like flying hockey sticks.
"He’s a colt," Donny says, nodding. "And a strong son of a gun."
Nacho moves in and gets a grip on the colt, and Donny immerses the umbilical stump into the cup of Novalson, letting the blue antiseptic splash over the entire area. I breathe a sigh of relief. On more milestone passed.
Thrusting her front legs out, No Bettor Love rocks forward, groans and getting her back legs beneath her, rises up. The colt struggles to get up, too, the nursing instinct strong. A few more attempts, and suddenly, he’s up! Once he gets his sea legs and starts walking, he begins investigating various parts of the mare, not sure what he’s looking for, but certain it’s there. Somewhere.
Donny, never one to stay up all night watching a foal play hit-or-miss, moves in and with Nacho’s help, directs the searching little horse-lips to the right spot. The magic of a foal getting his first milk -- sucking, gurgling, his whole body trembling in eagerness, his tail almost wagging. No Better has her nose on the colt’s rump now, pushing him in closer, licking him, encouraging him to get his fill.
It's all basic, but to me, it’s a miracle. As I watch, the muscles in the colt’s throat roll the life giving colostrum filled with antibodies into his system. As always, here is where I let go and cry.
We have done all we can do.
I thank God, The Force, Mother Nature, and anyone else who's up there. I go home, light a candle, and pray the little guy makes it through the crucial thirty days ahead.
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