Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Brownie, Part One

On our ranch in the Idaho mountains, my husband and I have always raised a few horses. Our cattle work requires good horses. When our children were very young, we wanted to raise a horse for each of them to ride as they grew up. In the spring of 1972, we bred my good half-Arab mare Khamette and Lynn’s quarter horse mare Bambi, to an Arabian stallion we’d leased for that summer, in hopes of producing foals for our kids. We also bred my good Anglo-Arab mare, Nikki (my best cow horse), to raise another good cow horse. Nikki was more high-strung than the other two mares, and we didn’t feel that a foal from her would be quite placid enough for a young child. The other two mares, however, might be perfect to raise some “kid” horses.

Lynn's mare Bambi and my old mare Khamette
were the ones we chose to breed to raise foals for our two children.

Khamette was thirteen years old — a very dependable half-Arabian ranch horse that I’d raised and trained as my first 4-H foal project when I was a teenager. Bambi was a nice quarter horse mare my husband bought as a five-year-old in 1966, the first year we were married. Both mares had wonderful dispositions, and we thought they would raise nice foals that would be perfect for our children. The kids had already been taken on short rides on those two gentle mares.

Our kids had already ridden Bambi and Khamette
when they were very small; those two mares
had good dispositions and patience with children.

But the best-laid plans do not always come to fruition. Nikki had a good colt named Nikkolis. Khamette had a nice filly, named Khamir, destined to become our daughter’s first horse. Bambi didn’t do so well. About a month before she was due to foal, I noticed one day that her udder was a tiny bit larger than usual. I didn’t think she would foal for a while, however, because our other mares in the past had always “bagged up” for several days or even weeks before foaling. Mares are notorious for foaling a few weeks early or late; they are not as predictable as cattle. They usually make some sign that they are about to foal, but not always, as Bambi demonstrated.

In the spring of 1973, Nikki had a nice foal named Nikkolis . . .

. . . and Khamette had a filly named Khamir.

The very next day, when I went outside in the early morning to do my feeding chores, I noticed Bambi wandering around her pen and acting uncomfortable. I looked more closely and saw two tiny feet protruding from her vulva. She was foaling! But the feet were upside down — which meant the foal was coming backward.

I rushed back into the house and told Lynn, and we quickly went into action. I caught the mare and held her, with obstetrical chains ready, as Lynn carefully felt inside her. A backward delivery generally needs assistance; otherwise the foal is not born quickly enough to survive. Its head is still inside the mare when the umbilical cord pinches off during the birth.

What Lynn discovered was much more serious than just the backward presentation. The foal’s front legs were also coming into the birth canal, which meant the foal was doubled up, with all four feet trying to come out at once. It could never be born in this position. He tried to push the foal back into the uterus where there was more room to straighten it out but could not.

I ran to call the vet. Our regular vet was busy with another case and sent his young assistant to our ranch. The young vet had never dealt with a situation like this, and he could not straighten the foal. It was dead by that time, and the vet opted to do a fetotomy — cutting it up so he could bring the pieces out through the birth canal. He finally got that accomplished, then discovered that Bambi had a rip in her uterus. This is very serious but can sometimes be corrected; one of our local vets had recently saved a mare with this condition, sewing the torn membrane back together. The young vet was not willing to try this difficult procedure, however, and since the mare had no other chance to survive, he put her to sleep. Thus in one tragic morning we lost not only our dream for young Michael’s first horse but also lost Lynn’s good mare.

Later that year, however, we were able to acquire a substitute horse for our son. We met a young couple, new to our valley, living on a small acreage the other side of town and raising Appaloosa horses. They had a young daughter about Michael’s age and often came out to the ranch to visit. That fall we had a big yearling steer we planned to butcher, and since this young family needed some meat, we decided to give them half of this beef. They offered to make us a trade — half a beef for a yearling colt.

The colt they wanted to give us was from their registered Appaloosa herd, but he had no “color.” He was just plain brown, with no spots, and therefore wasn’t worth much as an Appaloosa. If he’d been a filly, they might have kept him as a broodmare, in hopes of producing foals with spots, but in their eyes he would be worthless as a gelding.

So we went to their place to take a look at the colt, and though he was very plain looking and skinny (with big feet and a big head), he seemed very gentle. He was in a grazed-down pasture with some other horses and was very placid, letting us catch and pet him. We decided he might make a good first horse for our son and made the trade. We couldn’t afford to buy a horse, so trading half a beef for a young horse seemed like a logical solution. Our son named him Brownie.

We brought Brownie home to the ranch, and he lived in a pen by our old barn, where we could feed him separately from the other horses, so he would be sure to get enough food. We gelded him and dewormed him. After the deworming and adequate feed, he quickly gained weight and attitude! We discovered that he was not as “gentle” as we thought; he was just so run down from being wormy and malnourished that he didn’t have the strength or desire to show his sassy, independent nature. After a few months at our place, he was a totally different horse. Even after we gelded him, he continued to “blossom” in spunk and spirit and stubborn independence, and his true colors began to show.

Literally. When he shed his winter coat the next spring at the beginning of his two-year-old year, he was no longer solid dull brown but had flecks of white in his coat. Over the next few years, he sported more and more white hairs. He never had a spectacular Appaloosa “blanket” with spots, but he developed an interesting mottling of white hairs on parts of his body and finally showed his Appaloosa heritage.

By the time he grew up and our kids were riding him,
Brownie had more white hairs in his coat than brown . . .

I started riding him a little that summer of his two-year-old year, wanting to train him as thoroughly as possible and have him dependable and trustworthy for our young son to ride. Brownie was hardheaded but smart, and by the time he was three years old, I was able to ride him out on the range to check cattle.

. . . and some white showed through,
even in his long winter coat.

I started riding Brownie when he was two years old
and gave him thorough training when he was three.

He was a small horse and the perfect size for our kids.
Here, Michael sits on him bareback as he grazes in our backyard.

He became a good ranch horse and carried our kids many miles.
Here, Andrea is riding him up the ridge from our house,
to go ride range and check cattle.

He never grew very big, which made him a perfect horse for the kids when they started riding him later, and he wasn’t built like a typical modern Appaloosa (highly influenced by quarter horse breeding, with large muscles, wide chest, and small feet). Brownie was more like the old Indian horses — rather plain and homely, with a narrow chest and body and big feet. Like the old-style Indian ponies, however, he was also surefooted and had a lot of endurance. He became a good ranch horse and carried both of our kids many, many miles. He was good at chasing cows in rugged terrain and never tripped or fell down. Our kids have good memories of many wild rides and heroic cow chases on Brownie, but that’s another chapter [to be continued].

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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