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Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;

Birth of a Foal

Lessons Learned in Delivering One’s First Foal

By Heidi Schellenger


April 2008 Issue


     It is amazing how you can prepare for something for eleven months and still find yourself in panic-induced paralysis when it finally happens.

     I had carefully researched stallions for a year, paid for countless vet exams, watched the entire artificial insemination process, read several books on broodmare care, and worried and waited my way through eleven months.

     So why would I be READY when my mare exhibited something that looked like pine pitch on her udder? Despite all my preparation, I was nervous when faced with the real deal.

     Not only have I never had children myself, but I had never even seen anything born — unless you count baby chicks (but “hatching” is different than “birthing,” isn’t it?).

     So when my mare deliberately chose a path that would take her off by herself instead of hanging out with the other horses, and I checked her udder as I had every day for a month and saw milk dripping, I felt like only my shirt was keeping my chest from exploding as I lead her into the stall.

     I fed her some grain and watched her water break, but I was still completely shocked when she lay down and all of a sudden a little black hoof encased in a light blue sack appeared under her tail.

     In fact, my exact words were, “We’re having a baby!” which I repeated several times in an increasingly higher pitch.

     It was a brilliant sunny morning at about 9:00 a.m. when I had first noticed the pine pitch-looking stuff and it had sent me into a frenzy of self-condemning insecurity. I had read the signs of pregnancy in dozens of books and yet still couldn’t remember whether the waxing meant a baby coming in two hours or two weeks. As I sped towards the house to re-read and gather more supplies, the thought passed through my mind that she may have just rubbed over one of the small pine trees in her paddock, and I might be completely overreacting.

     Nope. My textbooks all agreed that the waxing up substance is amber colored and sticky — just like pine pitch. What they didn’t agree on was what the waxing signified.

     Of the three books I propped open to the breeding chapter, “The Complete Book of Horse Care” said, “waxing up occurred two to four days before foaling”; Rick Parker’s “Equine Science” textbook stated that waxed teats “…occur two weeks to just hours before foaling”; and the “Horse Owner’s Veterinary Handbook” inferred that waxing occurs the day before foaling.

     No wonder I hadn’t been able to remember the waxing up time frame!


     I threw the books in a bag and stuffed in towels, iodine, a shoelace (the books said I needed it) and scissors, and returned at top speed to the barn.

     The mare and her companions were nowhere to be seen. I ran down the hill with nothing but my cell phone. When I found her, she was still off by herself. She stood still as I approached and when I bent over to see if the pine pitch was still there I was shocked to see that all of her valuable colostrum was dripping right out of her. On this my books did agree — she was very close. I ran all the way back up to the barn to get a halter, breathlessly dialing friends and canceling all of my appointments for that day.

     I’ve heard countless athletes and performers say that they are nervous before the event starts, but once they are on stage the nervousness goes away and they are able to focus on the task at hand.

     For me, it works out opposite. I had been nervous before the event, yes; but now, with the mare in her stall and pacing around pawing a little bit, I felt my irritable bowel syndrome kick in with a vengeance.

     The stall was 12 x 36, and my first cause of panic was that she would be going down with her butt pressed up against the wall. From there I had a continuous “movie screen” playing in my head of things that can go wrong!

     I put a call in to the vet just to see if he was going to be around if I needed him. Nope—one of the downsides of living in ranch country is that when you need the vet, he is almost always out doing something to a cow. He would be back later in the afternoon so I should call then if there is an emergency.

     It was now 11:00 a.m., and my movie screen switched to pictures of myself frantically untangling baby legs within the mare.

     All three books divide labor into three stages. “The Complete Book of Horse Care” stated that the water may break either when the mare is standing or after she has lain down. If the water breaks while she is standing, the outpouring of liquid might be mistaken for urine except that it is slightly darker.

     Just as I finished reading that informative paragraph, Star spread her back legs slightly and a copious amount of brown water spilled out from under her tail onto my nice clean straw.

     The “Horse Owners Veterinary Handbook” stated authoritatively in the first paragraph in the “Second Stage of Labor” that, “After the water breaks, the forelegs should appear within 15 minutes.” My cell phone said 11:10 a.m.

     Under “Stage 2” in “Equine Science,” it said, “This stage usually lasts no more than 30 minutes. Little can be done to slow labor or make corrections if problems arise at this point.” I decided to put “Equine Science” aside. I could develop all the nightmare scenarios I needed with no help from them.

     Star paced around the stall, pawed for a few minutes, then lay down (thankfully, with plenty of room between her butt and the wall). I called my husband Jim and told him that we were having a baby. He was pretty excited about that—especially before he figured out I was talking about the horse.

     I brought the camera, the iodine, a bucket of water, a couple of towels and the other two textbooks into the stall with me. When I looked at Star again, I could see little black legs and a nose emerging.

     That’s when I began repeating myself mindlessly. Realizing that it was my duty to be a calm and reassuring presence, I put down the iodine, cell phone and textbook I was juggling, stroked Star, and tried to take a few deep breaths. I was so excited that I had complete tunnel vision — I could only see what I directly aimed my head at.

     I did manage to snap a couple of pictures as the hooves slipped out a little further, which was wonderful, because looking at them now I can remember it all clearly. Without the photos, my panic and excitement may have erased the whole thing in my mind. The cell phone said 11:25 a.m., and it was obvious that Star had either been reading the books as closely as I had or that instinct was at work here.

     I noticed the light blue bag around the baby’s nose hadn’t broken and I paged through several of the books looking for instructions on that occurrence. I didn’t find anything and realized it would be really stupid to let the baby suffocate while I looked for the correct method of breaking the sac. I poured iodine all over my hands and ripped it open. The head inside was wet, black and perfectly formed.

     Grinning uncontrollably, I went back to my books. One said that the shoulders should emerge within 40 minutes after the tip of the nose. Star appeared to be alternately straining and resting, just like she knew what she had to do without me reading it to her.

     Sure enough, well within the 40-minute mark, the baby was fully delivered except for her back feet. Her little black head was up and she was looking around animatedly. I was jubilant. Since the book said that it might take an hour for the back feet to slip out, I knew I had a little wait before the umbilical cord would break or I would have to break it.

     I took the opportunity to call Jim again. “We have a baby!” I told him.

     “We do?” he answered in the same wondrous tone. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

     I couldn’t tell because the back legs weren’t out yet. Looking at the baby with pride, I realized Star’s hocks were lying on the baby’s front feet. Panicked again, I hung up before answering his question. Pulling and pushing on poor Star’s back legs, and assisted by the thick layer of now quite filthy straw underneath both of them, I moved the baby’s front legs. She was fine and almost seemed to be smiling at my hysterics.

     I sat there in the straw stunned, with euphoria bubbling through me. Star had done everything right. She had done it all by the book except one thing — ninety percent of mares have their babies between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. Star had been considerate enough to give me plenty of warning signs, and then have her baby in broad daylight.

     The book said that the umbilical cord would probably break when the mare got up, but in our case it was the baby’s movements that broke the cord. I did my best to dip the little stump in iodine, and then realized it was time to imprint.

     Imprinting is a process of establishing humans as dominant after the birth of a horse. Of course you want the foal to attach to and bond with its mother, but if the foal’s first perceptions are also of a human who can hold it down, touch it everywhere on its body, stick their fingers in its ears and eyes, then life’s later lessons (leading, trailering, saddling, riding, etc.) are not such a big deal.

     Although I had never before imprinted a foal, I had read Dr. Robert M. Miller’s book on the subject cover to cover. So I held the baby down and did the steps one by one. You have to repeat each motion (sticking your finger in the baby’s ear, stroking the nose, tapping the hoofs) between 50 and 100 times. Dr. Miller states in his book that you cannot over stimulate, but you can under stimulate. In other words, if you don’t repeat the motion until the baby is completely relaxed, than you risk teaching the little thing that all they have to do is wiggle and fight and they will get away from anything that is bothering them.

     You have to stop periodically to let the mare and baby sniff and lick each other. I stopped often and they would touch noses — Star didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get up. She seemed to be telling me that she had done her part and was prepared to let me take over for a few minutes.

     Dr. Miller says the first session should last about an hour. I held out for about 40 minutes, still worrying, especially about the large quantity of Star’s milk that was dripping on the ground. The baby was strong and did her best to struggle upwards several times. Finally, I gave in and let the baby stand.

     I left the stall and sat on a bale of straw outside watching the two. Delighted as I was, I continued to find new things to worry about. The baby couldn’t find her mother’s teats. Would she get milk? Would the mare step on her? I spent the night there, balanced on two bales of straw under a screen tent that my husband had bought, knowing I wouldn’t be willing to come home once the baby was born. Every hour, the sound of the baby and Star moving around on the straw as she got in position to nurse awakened me.

     The moonlight shone in through the top half of the Dutch doors, and I listened to the healthy sounds of baby sucking. After the baby had drunk her fill, Star would stand quietly until she lay down again, and then stand gazing out the window, touching her nose to the baby’s flanks, then raising her head, silver mane silhouetted in the moonlight.

     The next morning the vet came to check out the baby. We both sat in plastic chairs outside the stall watching the baby nurse. My feelings of incompetence and inexperience were abated slightly when I saw how he also marveled at the baby.

     “Isn’t Mother Nature amazing?” he asked.


Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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