Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Scrappy, Part Three: My First Foal

After we bred Scrappy to an Arabian stallion for her first (and only) foal, I was very eager for that baby to arrive. This was going to be my 4-H mare-and-foal project, and the foal would be mine — the first horse of my own to actually raise and train.

Khamette, two months old. This would be my first foal
to raise and train, as a 4-H mare-and-foal project.

The winter Scrappy was pregnant my family was still living in town during winters. My dad had a hired couple at the ranch looking after the cattle and feeding the cows. I talked my parents into letting me stay with the hired couple while I waited for Scrappy to foal, because I wanted to be there when the baby arrived. On school days I rode Ginger the 4 miles down to the highway to catch the school bus, leaving her in Lester Withington’s corral for the day and riding her back up to the ranch after school.

Ginger was the young mare I rode
4 miles to the highway to catch the school bus.

As Scrappy’s belly got bigger, I kept checking her udder to see if it was filling with milk. Mares can be very unpredictable in their foaling times, sometimes foaling a few weeks ahead of schedule or a few weeks later than their expected due date. I wanted to be ready for the foal whenever it came and be there for the birth.

A couple of weeks before Scrappy was due to foal, I put her in the round corral, separate from the other horses, and started checking on her during the nights. This would be Scrappy’s first foal, and I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I also didn’t want any of the other horses to interfere with the bonding of Mama and baby.

Scrappy was confined in the corral, so I exercised her every afternoon after school, leading or riding her. I also watered her every morning and evening, since there was no water in that corral. We didn’t have much hay left, and most of it was moldy, so I diligently sorted out the best parts of the bales for her. Scrappy was thin, except for her big belly. I bought some grain to add to her diet.

Time went on, and Scrappy got bigger and bigger and her udder fuller and fuller, but still no foal. The hired man had some strange ideas about feeding horses and didn’t think mares needed grain. He thought horses could get by just fine on the “leftover” hay from the cows. I practically had to fight for every flake of good hay I fed Scrappy. He then fed the milk cow’s calf the last of the good hay and left the moldy hay for my mare. I was very worried about her, because moldy hay can be dangerous for horses (making them cough) and could also cause colic or abortion.

Mares usually foal at night, so when Scrappy’s udder got really big, I started getting up every night at 1:00 a.m. to go out and check on her. I had a little bottle of iodine ready for disinfecting the navel stump of the new foal. April 20 (her supposed due date) came and went, and Scrappy still hadn’t foaled. My schoolwork suffered those weeks I stayed at the ranch, because there didn’t seem to be much time for homework. I got up at 5:00 a.m. to feed and water Scrappy and get to the school bus on time and went to bed at 8:00 p.m. to get enough sleep, since I was getting up in the middle of the night to check on her.

The weather was mostly nice, except for some cold spells that made riding to the bus a little more unpleasant. One morning there was 7 inches of new snow, but Ginger and I managed to get down to the Withington ranch on time to catch the bus in spite of the slippery mud under all that snow.

Scrappy went a week past her due date, and the Ravndals (my 4-H leaders) drove up to the ranch to check on her. They gave her an injection of vitamins A and D, since our hay was of such poor quality. The first of May came and went. Scrappy was long overdue. I hadn’t expected it to take this long!

One evening she seemed more restless than usual, and I noticed a whitish ooze on the ends of her teats when I checked her udder. This is called “wax,” and Mrs. Ravndal had told me that most mares “wax” within about 24 hours of foaling. This is the plug working out of the teat, in readiness for milk flow when the foal nurses.

That night I got up and crept quietly downstairs with my flashlight and put my boots on outside. I was always very careful to not wake the hired man and his wife when I got up at night to check on Scrappy. A chill wind was blowing, and a light sprinkling of snow covered the ground. The moonlight made the barnyard bright, and I didn’t need my flashlight. The shadows and snow gave everything an unreal appearance.

I shivered as I walked to the corral. As I approached the larger corral by the cow barn next to Scrappy’s corral, I saw a dark shape. It was Scrappy, standing at the gate, wanting to come out. I still don’t know how she got out of the round corral. She must have somehow unhooked the horseshoe latch, maybe nudging it with her nose, then pushed against the big pole gate into the larger pen.

She whinnied softly as I approached. She hadn’t foaled yet, so I put a rope around her neck and led her back to the round corral. I rubbed her ears for a few moments — something she really liked. She stood by the gate and whinnied as I left and made my way back to the house.

When I went back out to the corral at 5:00 a.m. (on May 5), 3 more inches of fresh snow was on the ground. As I approached the corral, I stopped and stared. Not one, but two dark forms awaited me in the dim light of early dawn. The little foal was wet, cold, and shivering. I could hardly believe my eyes; Scrappy had been so long overdue that it took a moment to acknowledge the miracle in front of me. I hurried into the corral to check Scrappy’s udder to see if the foal — a little bay filly — had nursed.

She had already nursed and seemed fine. Scrappy was a very good mother and jealously protected her baby from me. I had to speak calmly and firmly to her because she didn’t want me to be handling her baby. I ran back to the house to get the bottle of iodine, and when I came back to the corral, Scrappy made a fuss as I tied her up so I could work with the foal. The wet little rascal was quite a handful as I cornered her by the fence next to Scrappy, but I got the navel stump thoroughly dipped into the iodine jar.

The filly was bay, like her sire, with black mane and tail and black legs, and she had a small white star on her forehead. Scrappy fretted and pawed the ground until I turned her loose again. She nickered at her baby and nuzzled her all over to make sure she was okay, then hurried off to the far side of the corral with the baby following right behind her. It was a pretty sight, with the filly lifting her dainty little legs high in the air as she pranced through the snow with her head up and her little tail stuck straight in the air.

My heart lurched with joy to watch them — the black mare doing her smooth singlefoot and the baby trotting along behind. The baby must have inherited her Arabian sire’s gaits as well as coloring. By the time I got back to the house to get ready for school, there was no time to eat breakfast, and I was almost too late to catch the school bus. There was not enough time to catch and saddle Ginger so I just sprinted down the snowy road. My feet flew as I ran and jogged the 3 miles in about 20 minutes. It was a beautiful day with sunshine sparkling on the new-fallen snow, and it was the most wonderful day in the world because I now had a new baby filly!

Read Scrappy, Part One: Our New Horse
Read Scrappy, Part Two: 4-H Fun 

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.

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