I haven’t written about breeding your backyard mare — or bred my own — because it’s usually a bad idea. We were raised on “The Black Stallion” books — but don’t believe them.
I’ve only seen one foal being born and it was magical. It was late at night and John and I were talking with the mare’s owners when all of a sudden the mare grunted and there he was, wet and silvery in the barn’s dim light, lying in the straw. The first few minutes when he struggled to stand up on those impossibly long legs — as if he wasn’t quite sure they belonged to him or not — took my breath away. “Yes,” we whispered in unison as the foal staggered under his dam and finally located the source of his first meal. In the days that followed, I looked in at the two of them. He was full of himself, always on the go, although he hid behind her if strangers showed up. When he nursed too vigorously, or nipped her, or reared to strike at her, she let fly with her heels or bit him hard enough to hurt. In other words, she taught him manners. As he grew, he was handled by humans and taught to lead and to stand quietly while his feet were trimmed. After he was weaned and had grown into a good-thinking adolescent, he was ready to begin formal training. And none of those lessons involved feeding him treats.
That’s the usual progression — an easy birth, your mare and her foal alive and thriving. But complications do happen. The question is, do you, as a backyard owner, know enough to handle them? Normally a foal is born forelegs first. But sometimes there’s a breech presentation, when the fetus’s hind legs are tucked under his body, and the mare struggles in vain to deliver him. To judge from the questions on Google, most mare owners wouldn’t know what to do. A lot of other things can go wrong — the mare spontaneously aborts, or delivers a dead foal, or a so-called “dummy foal.” Or the foal looks healthy but cannot pass his first bowel movement. You better have your phone handy and your veterinarian’s emergency number on speed dial.
Sometimes a mare rejects her foal. Can you coerce her to stand still long enough for the foal to figure out how to nurse? If the mare feels strongly about nursing, she may insult her foal when he tries to approach her. Are you prepared to physically prevent the foal from reaching his dam — which is harder than it sounds — until your vet arrives? What if your beloved mare flatly rejects her foal? Or dies after giving birth? How do you feed this baby? Your vet will suggest a milk replacement, and tell you how often you need to feed him and how to keep him warm and care for him. But what if you work fulltime? Forget the job and mortgage your house, because bottle-raising this baby will cost you a small fortune when you finish paying your vet bills.
Professionals at large barns have an edge here. When my husband was faced with a similar situation, another mare on the property had foaled less than a week earlier, and he introduced her to the orphan. The mare nursed him along with his own foal—and that was pretty magical too.
It’s also smart to involve a professional trainer so you know how to teach your foal manners.
A woman once invited me to come see her three-year-old mare. She had raised the mare from a baby — I don’t know the circumstance. I did know — immediately — that she had given this mare a lot of treats but no training. Because the mare had never been reprimanded, she had no manners and was convinced that humans existed for her convenience. As we approached her paddock, she rushed to the fence, flattened her ears, bared her teeth, and struck the fence with a front leg. The owner fed her a carrot, which placed the mare until she had swallowed it. This woman meant well, but she had inadvertently raised a horse that she would probably never ride, because no trainer would go near her. She was too dangerous.
Sorry, Walter Farley. When it comes to raising a backyard foal, love isn’t enough.
Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be reached via email at [email protected]