Monday, 8 January 2007

No foals for us but an orphan to raise

After the previous season and due to our personal financial situation, we decided not to breed any mares to foal in the 2005/06 season and we leased Bridie and Bijou's dam out to a local woman who wanted to breed a foal. At this point I would like to mention that if your senses are screaming out 'no!' to you about someone, you should listen to them!

Genna was supposed to be bred to Hamish so I was very surprised to find out that she had in fact been bred to Bridie's sire whilst I was away on holiday with a friend. No worry I thought, Michelle has promised to keep in touch and I will be able to help her through the process as much as she needs me to ... Genna was supposed to come to us to foal but as the time drew closer for her to come here I heard nothing, emails were not replied to and I started to worry. Eventually I offered to collect her and bring her back to our place and foal her, at no charge for my time or grazing, I just wanted her safe and monitored.

On the day I had planned to visit Genna in her lease home I received a frantic call from my neighbour. Michelle who was leasing Genna had called her in a panic to say that the farrier had been out to trim the horses and found Genna, dead in the padoock, with a foal at her side.

I didn't know if the foal was alive or dead! We dropped everything and rushed to the paddock to find my darling mare stone dead and a poor lost foal desperately trying to suckle from her. I went into overdrive and took over. Something in me kicked in and I set about organising everything that needed to be organised for the baby. I pushed Genna's loss to the back of my mind.

To cut what is a very long story, short. Roxy came home with us to be hand raised. I spent three months dedicating my life to this precious foal. There were considerable downs that went alongside the many ups but the experience was amazing.

I had a four part article published in The Organic Equine which details Roxy's story and here is the story as I wrote for the magazine:

The phone cut off and the words swirled around in my head … ‘Mare’, ‘foaled’, ‘dead’. I didn’t know any more than the fact that the farrier had gone to the paddock to trim Genna and had found her dead. But, what about the foal? Was it dead too? In something of a panic (unfortunately I am one for histrionics in high stress situations), I loaded my daughter into the car and, with my husband driving we set off into the unknown. But before we travel any further, I would at this point like to provide you with a little history:

In early 1999 my husband and I moved from Wellington’s suburban sprawl to the rural idyll that is Wairarapa. We were lucky enough to discover a 25 acre slice of paradise ten minutes outside of Masterton in the farming district of Rangitumau. At the time we moved we had three horses. A year after our move, now well settled, I decided that I wanted to realise a life long dream and that was to breed a foal. After looking at a few mares, I eventually purchased a 14-year-old TB mare that had produced 7 TB foals and was being sacked from the racehorse breeding game. She was beautiful and her name was ‘So Gentle’.

Genna went on to produce two beautiful fillies for me over the following years until in her 19th year I came to the decision that I was not going to breed another foal from her myself. It seemed a waste to retire her completely when she was so healthy and produced such lovely foals so I found a local lady who wanted to breed a foal and we came to an arrangement and Genna went to a new home. Sixteen months passed and Genna who had visited a Clydesdale stallion a few months after leaving us, was due to foal in approximately two weeks. I was arranging to collect her from her current home to bring her back to our farm to foal her for the lady who had her when the phone rang ….

During the drive into town it felt as if time stood still. I was numb which I guess was from the shock and frantic thoughts were racing around in my head concerning what I was about to be confronted with. When we arrived at the paddock I saw the shape of my darling Genna lying deathly still on the ground. Lying next to her was the much smaller shape of a foal but, my very worst fears were not realised - SHE was alive and she really needed us! This dear little brown filly with a wonky blaze and hind stocking was fast to her feet when we approached and was trying frantically to suckle from her dam. In my desperation to get to the paddock as soon as I possibly could, I had not even brought a rope let alone a halter or lead (or wallet or mobile phone or shoes for my daughter!!!) but I realised that we needed to get busy and organise for this foal to get colostrum and fast! So, leaving the filly with her owner, we shot off to the vet where we secured three magic litres of frozen colostrum. We also arranged for the vet to come out and attend to the foal and we borrowed a rope from the surgery.

Back at the paddock I was able to fashion a halter from the rope and lead baby from her mother so that she could be buried. We were able to syringe a few hundred millilitres of colostrum into her and the vet stomach tubed her with a further 750ml. It was desperately hot and we were all very worried about dehydration so this was the first hurdle over but it was only the beginning what was going to be a very long and gruelling journey.

The decision was quickly made to bring the precious foal back to our place. We had yards, a stall, and a nice safe paddock and we would be able to provide her with the two hourly feeds necessary for the first few weeks of her life. The vet had given us contact details for a goat farmer in town who would probably be able to supply milk and so we began to get things organised and we brought baby home. It was not until that night that I sat down and realised that I had just gone into autopilot earlier in the day. Genna’s death upset me greatly but it wasn’t until a few days later that it would really hit me and I would grieve deeply for her.

It is at this point that I feel compelled to emphasise to all breeders (and especially would-be breeders) just how imperative it is that you have a contingency plan in place for your worst-case scenario. This whole exercise has taught me many things but most of all, how important it is that you are able to cope when you are left with an orphan foal. It is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination and there are many nights of broken sleep and stress that come with the rather enormous responsibility of raising a motherless foal.

However it is here that I must leave you as I have run out of room. But please check back next month as I will share with you the many highs, lows and challenges of our first few weeks with Roxy the orphan foal.

Roxy and I travelled home in the float together. As soon as we got her home we set about making somewhere safe for her to live so, for her first few nights, our cattle yards would become her home. We erected shade cloth over one corner to provide her with shade from the hot summer sun, made her a lovely deep bed of hay in which she could snuggle down and I dug out a cover for her so she would be kept toasty warm at night. Once I felt happy that she was settled in, I set about doing as much research as I could on orphan foals. This involved hours of pouring through my equine library and, of course, the vast resource of the Internet. With the World Wide Web at my fingertips, I was able to make contact with people all around the world who had raised orphan foals and they were to become an invaluable support network.

My research soon taught me that one of the most important things to do when faced with raising an orphan is to establish firm boundaries from day 1. Cuddles should be kept to a minimum (and yes, that is very hard). As you are effectively taking over the role of mother, you need to be prepared to act towards the foal as her mother would and unfortunately this means growling at her as well as nurturing her! Life for the breeder and the foal is phenomenally difficult without a mare and I for one will never ever take any of my mares for granted ever again! With this in mind, it was within 24 hours of Roxy’s birth that we were on the look out for a foster mare - It became very clear to me after doing the research that, if we could match her up with a foster mum successfully, we would not only be saved hours and hours of work but be giving her the next best thing to her real mother.

On day 7 a potential foster mare was located at a Stud up north of Wanganui. As none of the commercial transporters were able to bring her to us immediately (and time was of the essence), I placed a notice on the NZHorses Internet site notice board asking if anyone could help us. Within minutes I was contacted by a lady that I had known only via emails and notice board posts who offered to hire a float and drive up to the stud to collect the mare for us. She did not ask for any payment, just that any costs incurred be covered. I am still touched that someone who was for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger (but whom I now consider a good friend), would do this. But, just like us, she wanted the very best for Roxy and was only happy to help.

I dearly wish I could end the story here by telling you that Roxy and the foster mare bonded and lived happily together every after but, sadly things did not go so well. The mare (a big rangey TB) arrived minus the skin of her dead foal and unfortunately also about 4/5 days after she had lost the foal. We did everything we were told regarding scenting and introductions (including twitching which I dislike as well as tying up a leg - we have no hobbles here) but she was still determined to try to lash out (amazing what they can do on three legs!). We milked her off a bit and eventually she seemed to kind of settle so we brought the foal around but she managed to kick her with her stifle and the foal was instantly gun shy. Introductions over the fence were also not promising as the mare was pinning her ears back and striking out. It was so upsetting as she was really a lovely kind mare but she was not happy about the foal AT ALL. We tried every hour for about 8 hours but things just went from bad to worse and it became apparent that we were putting ourselves in a not inconsiderable amount of danger, not to mention the stress that we were putting the mare through. In a last ditch attempt, we then tried sedation but this had no effect at all and so upon veterinary advice, we made the tough decision to stop trying. Admitting defeat was hard and I felt like I had failed Roxy but unfortunately there was no more that we could do.

Feeding Roxy was hard work! Foals feed often, especially when they are very small and they drink large volumes and Roxy was no exception. We were incredibly fortunate (thanks to my wonderful vet) to secure the services of a local goat farmer (and horse lover) who was more than happy to provide us with milk for Roxy and we were feeding her every two hours for the first few weeks of her life. By day 3, for my sanity as much as anything else, we stretched the nights out with a three-hour break between midnight and 3am and a further three-hour break between 3am and 6am. The term zombie springs to mind when I think how I felt during those first three weeks! Roxy’s feed volumes were slowly increased but it was not long before we had the first hint of trouble.

Late on day 9 (Friday) Roxy began to lose interest in her feeds. I took her temperature and it was within normal range so rather than call the vet at this early stage I made the decision to start offering less volume but more frequently. This seemed to go OK but by her 10am feed on day 10 (Saturday) she was off her milk again. She fed each time milk was offered but her intake was seriously down and it was horribly hot weather and I began to really worry about dehydration. However, as she was still taking some milk and up on her feet and showing no major signs of illness, only some lethargy (common for foals in the midsummer heat), I decided just to keep monitoring her. I continued to offer her feeds two hourly.

Her temperature went up to 38.5 on the Saturday night but had dropped back to 37.3 on the Sunday morning but now she was scouring. Scours can kill foals and fast so we started her on an electrolyte immediately and I was hugely relieved when she drank a good 600ml of this at 1.30pm on Sunday. I had to leave a message with my vet (who I had called multiple times in the hours before, bless him for all his help) as he was not home but I managed to get hold of the stud groom at one of the local studs and was assured that I was doing everything right. I just felt like I was feeling my way blind! By 4pm on Sunday she had perked up and appeared to be re-hydrating nicely but I was starting to feel physically ill about feeding her, worrying every time that she would not feed or that she would have taken a turn for the worse. For now though, she seemed to be ok.

Roxy’s training had begun in earnest from day one and she had learnt how to lead and have all her feet picked up by the end of her first week. In between feed times I would take her out for walks around the farm and to meet the other horses and we both really enjoyed this time. I even accidentally (on purpose) let her come into the house to watch a little telly with a photograph taken for posterity winning us a couple of 1st prizes in amateur photo competitions. This was great! With the foster mare failure behind us we decided that Roxy should have a paddock companion and my 5-year-old chocolate donkey Portia was to be Roxy’s first friend. Unfortunately when it became apparent that Portia was gaining a little too much weight sharing a paddock with Roxy we moved my 25-year-old retired eventer in to take over babysitting duties. Bados took these duties very seriously and was to be a very tender and protective father to Roxy whilst they were together.

After Roxy’s initial health worries we were to have a largely uninterrupted period of good health until day 16 when things were to again take a turn for the worse. Roxy began to go off her feed in the morning, drinking half of her usual 8am feed. I decided not to worry too much as I had already spent enough time worrying, perhaps if I tried not to let things get to me it would all be ok? But, I got home at 1pm to discover that she had not drunk a drop since her 8am feed. So I promptly did what I do best which was to go into stress overdrive. When I went to check her she was acting strangely and I watched her for a few minutes before catching her. She was on edge, standing in a way that a horse being harassed by a fly would stand. Head up, ears back, tail swishing, nose flicking, feet stamping and then she would suddenly bolt, almost blindly. When I caught her she went ballistic. I then decided to take her temperature. 38.90 (high) and her heart rate was 120 bpm (also high). Both elevated enough to have me making a hurried phone call to my vet.

The first thing I did was to take her somewhere cool and sponge her down as the vet suggested that she could just be suffering from the heat (it was a stifling windless 30 degree plus day). Her heart rate came down at this point and she drank a little milk, nibbled at some hay and drank a little water from her bucket. I was still not happy about her though. Another call to the vet and he suggested waiting another twenty minutes which I did. In the following twenty minutes she urinated no less than five times and then I began to think perhaps a urinary tract infection. I ran this theory past my vet also telling him that she was also looking around at her tail in a very agitated manner. By now he decided it was definitely time to come out for a visit so I went back up to her stall to wait for him worrying desperately that something awful was wrong with her. The vet arrived and set about examining Roxy who was treated for colic and the suspected beginnings of pneumonia! Buscopan and some antibiotics were administered and I was under instructions to watch her carefully so, it was another sleepless night for me! Fortunately come the following day she was much improved however, with her upset tummy followed the inevitable scouring so she was back on the Dexolyte and watered down milk rations as well as antibiotics to beat back those nasty greeblies making her breathing a bit rattly. Was I ever going to be able to relax and stop worrying about this little girl?

On Roxy’s one-month birthday she was looking an absolute picture. She had really started to fill out beautifully but it would turn out that she was not finished testing me. On 4 December she came down with a very high temperature so I was again calling my poor long suffering vet for advice. What now? Again she was lethargic and depressed and it looked like yet another infection had taken hold. Fortunately as I always have antibiotics on hand, I was able to give her a shot that evening and the vet visited her the following day and prescribed a short course of antibiotics. Poor wee Roxy was turning into a pincushion and I was beginning to wonder how much longer this could possibly go on. Fortunately for us all she bounced back quickly and this was to be the last bout of ill health that she would have whilst in our care.

With Roxy’s health being so up and down we had delayed teaching her to bucket feed so she was on the bottle for quite a long time. Finally by about week eight we were able to put her on to the bucket and this meant that feeding times were much simpler and quicker for us all. Roxy was eating really well and growing fast. She was down to 5 feeds a day consisting of the goat’s milk and her orphan foal mix which we gradually substituted with a recognised brand broodmare mix. Finally we felt like we were over the biggest hurdle and on the home straight. Roxy was just about ready to leave us and I had to face the fact that the time that I had been supposed to be mentally preparing for, for 8 weeks was fast approaching.

It was coming up to 10 weeks after the fateful day of Roxy’s birth and it was now hard to believe that the helpless, wobbly little orphan that we had trailered home supported in my arms was the very same horse as the feisty filly that was now very much a part of our family. Roxy had certainly tested us and whilst the lows saw me pretty close to despair, the highs more than made up for it. She was now a healthy, happy and extremely well adjusted and getting larger than life by the day little horse!

With Roxy’s health worries behind us we were able to get her drinking from the bucket, which freed up a lot of time to spend doing other things. She was already very good at picking up her feet and so she had her first hoof trim, which she accepted like a well-seasoned and very grown up horse. Her walks were extended and she would be walked around the paddocks most days to chat with the other horses and generally familiarise herself with life outside her small paddock. It was very important to constant remind Roxy of boundaries as she considered me her mum and thus would occasionally throw her weight around and, well, act like a young horse! This is ok when your mum is 600kg but not so when your mum is a human! Roxy learned fast and apart from the odd minor hiccup, we seemed to have her education well under control.

Finally the day that I had been dreading dawned and I got up with a real sense of emptiness in my heart. I knew all along that Roxy was not mine but she was the last tangible piece that I had of my darling mare Genna and had become such a huge part of my life over the previous weeks that I was not sure how I was going to manage without her. Deep down I knew I would be fine and I had told myself over and over that she would be fine and that I must not cry or show her that I was upset as I didn’t want to upset her too.

I spent some extra time with her that morning allowing myself to take the time to cuddle her, something that I had carefully avoided doing in the previous months so as not to spoil her. She was so naughty, it was as if she knew something was up and was trying to convince me that I hadn’t done a good enough job and would need to keep her a little longer to iron out the wrinkles. I took lots of photographs although for some unknown reason the camera lense was awfully blurry …

With the float hooked up and Roxy’s ‘family’ walking up the driveway towards us, I did what I had hoped and prayed that I would not do, I cried. Bawled like a baby in fact. Most embarrassing! I didn’t want to delay, I needed to get this over with so as not to upset Rox or prolong the agony any longer. I have never been good at goodbyes and am sure I have horrified a number of people who have bought horses off me over the years as I have sobbed all over them. I’m not really sure what to do about this but as I guess it is just an integral part of what makes me, me, there is probably nothing that can be done. Most people seem pretty good about it and I have certainly had my fair share of hugs from near strangers for this very reason over the years.

We hadn’t taught Roxy to load on a float however she did know about pressure and release and, with a little assistance from the helpers on hand, Roxy was gently encouraged to load into the float which she did with very little fuss or bother. Suddenly she looked so small again and the composure that I had managed to regain whilst concentrating on getting her happily loaded into the float, disappeared! I had a few final moments alone where I fed her some carrots and had a mother daughter chat about staying away from wire fences and bad boys and always being a good and respectful girl. I told her I hoped that she would keep in touch but would understand if she had adventures that made this impossible but that I would always remember and love her with all of my heart. And with that, I stepped out of the float and watched her leave me … probably forever.

At this point I want to thank all those people who were there for me whilst I was caring for Roxy. My wonderful vet John McLaren from Animal Hospital in Masterton who was only ever a phone call away and who really made me feel like I had everything under control even when I am not so sure I did! My darling husband who was with me every step of the way and who took some of the 3am feeds for me when I was just too exhausted to drag myself out of bed. My two Swiss houseguests who were fantastic support workers and who took over a number of Roxy’s feeds when I was at work and who love Roxy every bit as much as I do. All the people who emailed me and phoned me with advice and support, you are too many to name but I thank you all for putting up with me and my stressful moments. And finally to my darling and beautiful Genna for producing a gorgeous strong filly foal before crossing the rainbow bridge. I am sure Roxy would never have made it if she hadn’t been endowed with a good dose of Genna’s incredible fighting spirit. RIP 'So Gentle' my beloved old girl, till we meet again.

At three months Michelle took Roxy back. Without a word of thanks. I was stunned! Soon after she put her on the market without even giving me the option to purchase her. I could not afford to anyway but could not understand why she was not offered to me.


PS I am delighted to let you all know that after I contacted a friend of mine about Roxy's plight (she really needed a new home!), she is now living very happily with some wonderful people up north and is very much loved and cared for. She has learned to break into the feed shed and help herself to items and can frequently be seen gambolling about her paddock with random 'toys' in her mouth. Quite the character by all accounts.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story, it had me in tears. You sure did a wonderful job with Roxy!