Wednesday, April 11, 2012

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

As a child I always wanted to raise a foal and train it myself. When I was 14 years old, in eighth grade, my parents let me breed one of our ranch mares — a black mare named Scrappy — to my 4-H leaders’ Arabian stallion, El Khamis. The foal would be my 4-H project the following year.

Scrappy was due to foal about April 20 that spring of 1959. My family was still living in town during the winters and had a hired man and his wife staying at the ranch taking care of the cattle. Since I wanted to be present at the birth of my first foal, my parents let me stay with the hired couple at the ranch when Scrappy got near to foaling.

On school mornings I rode one of the other horses (Ginger) 3 miles down to the highway, to catch the school bus. The rancher who lived there let me leave Ginger in his corral, and I’d ride her back to the ranch after school.

The morning Scrappy foaled (May 5) I was so excited, telling my friends at school about the new filly. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ranch and see my baby. I phoned my parents and my 4-H leaders (Jerry and Velma Ravndal) to give them the wonderful news. I named the baby Khamette, after her sire El Khamis. It was pronounced like comet, except with the accent on the second syllable.

Baby Khamette and her mother in our orchard pasture

By late afternoon the new snow had melted and the grass was greener. The whole countryside had a brighter look as I rode the bus home, partly because I was so happy.

My 4-H leaders drove up to our ranch see the new foal, and my parents came shortly after, also eager to see the filly. She was beautiful! But one alarming note sent a stab of worry into my heart. Her long slim legs looked different from the way they had looked that morning. All four pasterns and fetlock joints were puffy and swollen. On her hind legs the swelling was nearly up to her hocks. The Ravndals told me this was a sign of infection, a condition commonly called navel ill or joint ill, which is actually a septicemia.

The unusual thing was that it had appeared so quickly; usually bacteria enter at the raw, moist navel stump soon after birth, then travel through the bloodstream. The infection may settle into the joints and/or internal organs. It usually takes a day or two for the legs to swell. This foal was born with infection already circulating through her system. The Ravndals drove back to town to talk to the local veterinarian, and my dad went to town to buy a big bottle of penicillin so we could start treating the filly.

The probable explanation was that Scrappy had a low-grade uterine infection and the filly picked it up shortly before or during birth. My dad had tried to raise a foal from Scrappy a couple of years earlier; he sent her to a ranch near Challis, Idaho, to be bred. That rancher was of the “old school,” thinking a maiden mare (that had never been bred) needed to be “opened up” to remove constricting tissues in the vagina, and he may have used unsanitary tools to do this. Scrappy did not settle to that breeding.

We found out later that Scrappy did, indeed, have a reproductive tract infection. We were very lucky that she became pregnant when bred to El Khamis and that she was able to carry the foal to term. This was her only foal. In later years we tried again to breed her, with no luck.

Our challenge at the moment, however, was to save this filly from possible crippling with joint infection. We gave her a large dose of penicillin (10 cc) the first evening, and 5 cc daily thereafter, for a week. The swelling in her legs diminished and was gone by the end of the week.

Scrappy and her baby lived in a pen by the barnyard while we were treating the foal. After we were sure that Khamette’s joint infection was cleared up, we put the mare and foal in the Cheney Creek pasture with the other horses because we were out of hay. That’s where they roamed until school was out and I had more time to train the filly.

When I turned them out, the other horses came galloping down to inspect the baby. She was very curious about them and sniffed noses with Ginger — making funny little chewing motions with her mouth.

I’d seen other foals do this “chewing” when meeting or greeting adult horses, when I'd watched the mares and foals in Ravndals’ pasture, and I asked why they did that. Jerry Ravndal said he wasn’t sure, but maybe it’s their way of telling the big horses, “I’m just little. Please don’t hurt me!”

Nell and Nosey also came trotting up to sniff Khamette. But Scrappy didn’t want them getting close to her baby. She put her ears back and ran at the other mares with her mouth wide open to bite them, then whirled around and lashed out with her hind feet. Ginger and Nell quickly got the message and ran off. Even Nosey and Old Possum (who ordinarily bossed Scrappy around) backed up a little and decided that this aggressively protective mama was nothing to mess with.

After that, Scrappy and her baby were accepted as part of the herd. Scrappy always tried to keep Khamette close by her side as they grazed. She stayed between the filly and the other horses, gently herding her away if any of them came too close.

As Khamette grew older and bolder, however, she wanted to see what the other horses were doing, and she’d sneak away from Mama and sniff noses with the others or have a playful romp with Ginger. At first Scrappy was worried every time Khamette wanted to gallop around, but she soon realized she didn’t need constant protection. Scrappy and Khamette spent a happy 3 weeks with the herd up Cheney Creek, and the filly learned about climbing hills, jumping gullies and logs, and finding the best trails through the thick brush and trees along the creek.

[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.

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