Sunday, May. 26, 2024

Foal Watch: The Fast Track To A Nervous Breakdown

Every first-time breeder must learn the same valuable lesson: a watched mare never foals.

Forecast: Batten down the hatches [tonight]. A strong storm system across the Southeast may produce damaging wind with gusts over 60 mph and thunderstorms, as well as one-inch hail, isolated tornadoes and lightning.” (Actual forecast from WBIR news in Knoxville, Tenn. for the night of April 2, 2009.)

“I’ve been conned,” I kept thinking the closer the clock got to 3 a.m.



Every first-time breeder must learn the same valuable lesson: a watched mare never foals.

Forecast: Batten down the hatches [tonight]. A strong storm system across the Southeast may produce damaging wind with gusts over 60 mph and thunderstorms, as well as one-inch hail, isolated tornadoes and lightning.” (Actual forecast from WBIR news in Knoxville, Tenn. for the night of April 2, 2009.)

“I’ve been conned,” I kept thinking the closer the clock got to 3 a.m.

I was lying in the gooseneck part of the dressing room in my trailer atop three layers of foam egg crates. My armor against the cold was a down comforter, an electric blanket set on “high” and my horse’s wool dress sheet. Even fully dressed, I was still cold.

My cat and dog were somewhere in the layers as a storm rocked the trailer back and forth. I couldn’t sleep because the rain sounded like cannon fire on the uninsulated aluminum roof just above my head.

“Just how did I agree to this?” I grumbled. “I was suckered, that’s how.”

My new mare, Libby, was due to foal in three days, so I was on foal watch. My house is too far from the run-in shed where I set up the foaling stall, so I was camping in the trailer to be closer for those every-two-hour checks to see just how many sets of legs were in the stall.

This was the first time that I ever had a mare of my own foal. No one is more surprised by that fact than I. And no, it’s not that I didn’t know she was pregnant—I actually paid for the vet and stud fee to the Trakehner stallion Hennessey to make sure she was. What I mean is that I always swore that I would never put myself through all the effort, money and aggravation of foaling.

I was tricked. This was not my fault.

Last year the vet advised me out of the blue that I may never be able to breed one of my lesson mares, who had a long medical history. I had never considered breeding that little lesson horse or any of my horses before, and driving home from the clinic I was now disappointed. It was a classic tale of wanting something simply because you’re told you can’t have it.

The vet had to be in on this con. It was her fault that I was feeling like I was missing an opportunity.

I realize now that it was on this drive home that I was most vulnerable. A friend of mine who was going through a divorce called me while I was still driving. She asked if I wanted a broodmare of hers, an Anglo-Trakehner mare by Schonfeld E. She couldn’t afford so many horses and needed to reduce her herd.

She went on and on about the pros of breeding—lots of money from selling the foal or being able to train my next horse the perfect way. Little rainbows were bouncing around the phone as she talked. So I agreed on the spot to take the mare, Libby, and breed her. What was I thinking?

Somehow my friend must have bugged the vet clinic and my truck to know just when to go in for the kill. What did I ever do to her to deserve this torture in the trailer at 3 a.m.?

Three’s Company

This first night on foal watch, my dog, Katie, and my cat, Vinnie, wanted to join me in the trailer. I figured it would be warmer with the extra bodies. What I didn’t count on was all the hair.

Katie, a white mutt with black ears, was splayed out next to me chasing bunnies in her sleep. The cat, Vinnie, an almost identical twin with a white coat and black ears, was curled up purring on top of the wool dress sheet. I was petting both of them counting down until the next scheduled check on Libby.

Thunder began rumbling outside. Giving up on sleep, I got up to go outside again to check on the mare. Katie and Vinnie both woke up and laid down at the edge of the bed with their heads over their paws, studying me as I tried to get dressed for the storm. They looked so cute side by side; my sleep deprived mind imagined what they would say to me if they could talk:


Katie: So you have to go out again?
Vinnie: You do realize that you’ll get wet out there, right?
Katie: Do you need to see the vet?
Vinnie: You put on the wrong coat. Get the waterproof one.
Katie: I find that a good belly full of grass helps lots of ailments.
Vinnie: You put the wrong boot on the wrong foot.
Katie: Come closer so I can feel your nose.
Vinnie: It’s LEFT on LEFT. Honestly woman, how do you drive?
Katie: It’s not normal to have to tinkle so many times in a night—did you eat out of the garbage can?
Vinnie: Now your hat is on backwards. Sigh. If only cats had thumbs, we could overthrow the idiots like you and rule the world!

As I opened the door to the wind and the rain I glanced back at them.

Katie: Be sure to cover it up when you are done!
Vinnie: Hey, Genius, if you don’t find your way back in 10 minutes I’ll take the dog hostage to begin my world domination. I’ll trade the drooler here for a helicopter, a cool million in cash and a case of tuna. Albacore will do.

I slammed the door shut, shaking the voices from my head. I wondered just how much sleep deprivation it would take to drive one into a nervous breakdown.

After walking though the rain, I looked into the little window of the run-in shed. I saw only four legs. Libby was staring off into the night, calmly watching the lightning. She was the exact opposite of a mare in labor. I watched her for a minute, then trudged back to the tin can I was camping in.

With each subsequent, fruitless foal check, Katie looked more and more concerned. She finally started trying to press her nose to my face every time I came back to the trailer.

“The dog thinks I’m dying,” I realized. “Just whose fault was this again? I need to write a protest.”

No Signs Of Labor

After six nights in the trailer enduring cold, rain and every-two-hour-checks, there still wasn’t a foal. I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I wondered if you could induce a mare like people. I called my vet, Dr. Becky Lillard, but she advised against it.

I learned that it’s the fetus that starts labor, not the mare deciding that it’s been cooking in the oven long enough. When the foal has developed along far enough to survive on its own, it will secrete the hormone that induces the mare into labor. If the mare is induced before the foal is ready, regardless of the due date, problems with an underdeveloped foal could occur.

I sighed. The vet suggested that if I was that worried I could bring her to her clinic so they could watch her.

I replied, “Look, if the mare doesn’t foal soon, my dog is going to call 911 and my cat will have figured out how to build a bomb!”

There was just silence on the line.

I hedged nervously, “I’m just so tired, Becky! It’s purely selfish to want to induce her.” She just laughed at me.

Trying to find any signs of imminent labor, I would look at Libby’s udder several times a day. I was hoping to see the udder enlarge every day with “waxing” or dried milk visible. Nope—no matter how many times I looked, that udder never changed size and never leaked any milk. I realized how sad it is when you know a mare’s rack better than your own.

The first few nights I would enter Libby’s stall cooing, “Hey, Mama. Are you ready yet?”

Ten days past her due date, the weather had turned to driving sleet. I stormed into the stall threatening, “Look you stubborn wench, if you don’t blow this whale of a baby out tonight, I’m going to load you into the trailer to drive you up and down the fields. I’ll bounce this wide load right out of you!”

The threat didn’t work. She just passed the night away with perfect calm.


At 12 days past Libby’s due date, my neighbor offered to tie her to a tree and fire off a 12-gauge shotgun in the air to “squirt that baby right outta her!” I politely declined, but later I thought, “Hmm…”

Looking for any help, I Googled websites for inducing women. “Old Wives Tales in Inducing Labor” gave the most popular advice as drinking castor oil and going bowling. I was trying to figure out how to slip her a castor oil mickey and what size rental shoes she would need when Vinnie hopped into my lap. Vinnie was not helping by walking back and forth purring on the keyboard.

I jumped when I glanced at the screen and saw his paws had typed “wlrd dom.” I swear he purred louder. I decided then and there to never let him sit in my lap again while I surfed the Internet. I wondered if I should keep the number for the Department of Homeland Security close by.

Then I decided that I really needed to get some sleep.

At 18 days overdue, I looked for a larger halter for the foal since it was obviously going to be born the size of a large pony and already broke to ride.

Out Of Patience

At 21 days overdue, (which meant I had been “sleeping” in the trailer for 25 nights in a row) I scheduled an appointment to bring Libby to the vet the next day. I told Dr. Becky it was just to make me feel better—an “owner check” so to speak. I was beginning to fear that I was the victim of a cruel joke, that the mare was just fat and not knocked-up after all.

As I cleaned the stall that night I described to Libby a new “Willy Wonka Juicer” that Dr. Becky had installed in her stocks. An elaborate description of pistons, hydraulics, motors and crazed Oompa Loompas was relayed to the mare in shocking detail as a warning of what she would endure the next day if there was no foal before dawn.

That same night at 11:30 I happened to check her udder, and lo and behold, there was a tiny drop of milk! I nearly jumped for joy. I decided to start reading my sixth book instead of going right to sleep, and after 30 minutes I heard what sounded like a water bucket being used in a soccer game. I put my book down and started grumbling.

“What is that mare doing now?”

It turns out that she was finally in labor. Hallelujah! So, at 12:50 a.m. on April 23, my vigil of sleeping in the horse trailer had ended. It turns out that April 23 is Shakespeare’s birthday, so I named the colt Hamlet.

I admit I did check Libby’s tail to see if there was smoke coming out with the well-done colt. He had been in there for so long that the tips of his ears were smushed in!

Everything went perfectly. Libby was a great mom, and Hamlet did everything he was supposed to do. He stood, nursed, pooped and peed within the first two hours.

That night I finally went to my own bed at about 4 a.m. I slept in the star position, relishing the level, warm bed that was gloriously free of cat, dog and horse hair.

Life slowly returned to normal at my farm. The cat reverted back into the purring powder puff whose only concern is catching bugs and naps. The dog lost her perpetually worried face when she looked at me. As for me, I would love to say that I fully recovered from my sleep-deprived nervous breakdown. However, I re-bred Libby the next week on her foal heat.

I think I’ll keep Homeland Security’s number on speed dial for next spring just in case.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Foal Watch: The Fast Track To A Nervous Breakdown” ran in the January 15, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.




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