The Foal Is Coming! (Or Is It?)

No matter how well prepared you are, false alarms seem to go with the territory the first time you participate in a “foal watch.”

Credit: Photo by Jennifer Paulson A happy, healthy foal is the goal of every mare owner. Getting there, however, is tricky.

I was sure I was ready. I’d watched the video a dozen times. I’d read the books. I’d bought the foaling kit at the vet supply store. 

Now Jana, the barn manager, and I were on preliminary foal watch. It was clear my Arabian mare, Qahtahna, was getting close. Her udder had begun waxing, and the shape of her bulging midsection had changed as the foal moved into position for birth. The mare also had begun pawing at her belly with a hind foot, breaking into a sweat that dried quickly in the late-spring heat.

One evening, after a weekend of watching her, Jana thought it likely that Qahtahna would deliver that night. We set up my bed of hay bales and brought the mare inside to her stall. I settled in quietly to wait, hoping she wouldn’t even notice I was there.

A 1,000-pound horse can object strenuously when she doesn’t want to be kept in. I lay there, trying to read with my penlight and ignoring the mare’s frantic pacing. When she finally lay down, however, I put my book down. Was this it? 

It’s a Go!
Motionless, I listened to her labored breathing for a few more moments, not even daring to peek through the bars of the stall. Then I called the house and stage-whispered into the phone. “She’s down! I think it’s time!”

 Jana arrived shortly, sleepy and calm. She peered into the stall with her flashlight. As if on cue, Qahtahna rose to her feet. She looked at us, ears pricked. Nothing happening here, her innocent brown eyes seemed to be saying.

“I don’t think she’s ready yet,” Jana observed, stifling a yawn. “You’ll know when you see the white sac. Then it’s irreversible.”

Of course. I knew that.

“I think I’ll go back up to the house,” Jana muttered.

“I’ll, um, let you know when something…um, definitive…happens,” I replied, embarrassed at having sent up a false alarm. 

I was alert for a while, listening for the slightest sound, but Qahtahna was now calm. At length, I dozed off…and didn’t awaken until sunrise. There stood my mare, looking at me sweetly, no baby in sight.

I clipped a line to her halter and opened the stall door. As soon as I turned her out in the paddock, Qahtahna took a happy little skip, then trotted away, shaking her mane. I headed home to make up for the hours of lost sleep.

The phone awakened me early in the evening.

“She’s sweating and pacing and pawing at her belly,” Jana said. “She’s getting close.”

I was nonplussed. “She’s been doing that for days.”

“Well, I think you’d better plan on another night in the barn,” Jana said firmly.

When I got there, Qahtahna was in her stall. In the gathering darkness, I pulled on my sweats and tried to get into a position where I could rest comfortably without disturbing her.

Her pacing began again, more frantic this time. She banged against the wooden wall that separated her from me, snorting and stomping. A low-watt bulb hung from the stall’s ceiling. With a toss of her head, Qahtahna bumped the light and the darkness was sudden and complete.

I heard her lie down, then recognized what Jana had told me would be the unmistakable shoosh of her water breaking. I peeked through the bars with my flashlight, but Qahtahna ignored me, totally preoccupied with the task at hand.

Then I saw it: the white sac.

One More Time
I punched numbers into the phone. 

“There’s a baby coming! For sure this time—I can see the sac!”

In moments Jana was there, opening the stall door and murmuring reassurances to the mare. She squatted at the mare’s business end and we both stared. A tiny hoof was now visible inside the gauzy sac, with another close behind. 

Another grunt from the mare and the foal’s front legs slithered out, followed by a nose. Jana grabbed the legs and pulled carefully. One more push from Qahtahna, and the foal’s dark body emerged in its entirety.

Jana ripped the sac away from the baby’s nostrils and gently rubbed its head, stimulating it to breathe. She stripped the sac away from the rest of the limp body. 

“It’s a filly.”

Qahtahna looked curiously over her shoulder, then carefully stood. She nuzzled the baby, who struggled to her feet. 

Within moments I watched, tears filling my eyes, as the newborn foal nursed for the first time.

Yes, I thought to myself. This time it’s real. 

Karen McCleery lives in Golden, Colorado, near two of her grown children and her three grandchildren. She keeps busy with freelance writing and fundraising for nonprofit organizations; currently she gets her “horse fix” by volunteering at a local equine rescue organization.

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