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Star's Last Gift

By Marni Malet

A weekend starts with heartache but ends with hope as a woman struggles to save the life of an orphaned foal.

"Life isn't always fair." That was the furthest thing from my mind as I stumbled out to the barn that morning. I wasn't awake yet and didn't feel any urgency. I planned to throw some feed to the horses, hit the shower, and slowly coax myself into the three-dimensional world.

When I opened the barn door, I saw Star, my little American Bashkir Curly mare, down and preparing to deliver. My mouth dropped open. Yes, she had started to bag up three weeks ago, but there was no milk dropping--not even any wax. On top of that, she was nine days early. I didn't need a shower to wake up!

I ran to the house to grab my photo and video cameras. When I returned, Star was on her feet, and I could see the foal's hooves protruding under her tail. There also was a mess of blood and tissue that had been expelled ahead of the foal. I was confused. I looked at the mare--she didn't seem to be in any particular distress, so I assumed all was well and let the cameras roll. Once I put the video camera to my eye, my perspective of events changed to black and white and was substantially reduced in size.

The mare went down, and through the camera's viewfinder, I could see the foal's head and shoulders. But there was so much more. Everything came to a standstill. What was going on? I took the camera away from my face, and the reality of the situation suddenly hit me. Star was expelling her intestines along with the foal. I stared in disbelief.

The mare was pushing violently, but the foal was making only slight progress. Within a couple of minutes, the mare quit trying--she was totally spent. The little filly broke through the sack with her front feet but her head remained firmly wrapped. I could see her struggling to breathe and knew I was about to become an active participant in this birth. I pulled the sack from her face and willed her to take a breath. CPR for horses? I was contemplating the procedure when she started to spit and stutter. I pulled her from the mare.

Five minutes must have passed and finally the foal started to struggle, breaking the umbilical cord. The mare was still alert and interested in the foal but did not have the strength to move. She nickered softly to her baby, seemingly unaware that a large portion of her intestines lay between them. I dried the filly with a towel, dipped her navel in antiseptic, and pulled her to the mare's head. I expected that Star would start licking her, but instead she laid her head across the foal, and, using her chin, pulled it close to her chest. She held it there with all the gentleness of an angel.

I took this opportunity to run back to the house and call the veterinarian, Tom Hansen, DVM. I got the answering service and tried to explain to a young switchboard operator the urgency of the matter. She told me she'd page Hansen and I should wait for a call back. I blurted, "I can't wait. Tell him to hurry." I scrambled back to the barn and found that the foal had worked her way around to Star's backside, and the mare had rolled on top of her. Frantic, I sat behind the mare and pushed her shoulders and neck up while I pulled the foal out. Star seemed to understand what I was asking of her and cooperated as best she could.

Suddenly, the mare started thrashing. I felt I ought to keep her down until the veterinarian arrived. I alternated between lying on the mare's neck and trying to keep the foal out of harm's way. It seemed an eternity but I finally heard Hansen's truck pull up. He looked in through the stall bars and before even entering said, "Oh, my God. I can't save her."

He pulled the filly to a far corner of the stall and told me to stay on the mare's neck while he milked as much colostrum as possible from her. I talked to Star, stroking her face and neck. Tom was pleased with the amount of colostrum he was able to get. He was just taking the last of it when she suddenly lunged upward, throwing me off her neck. I bounced off the wall and grabbed her neck again but not before she landed a glancing blow on Tom's cheek with a hind hoof. Tom never lost his hold on the container but the liquid became airborne. Almost half of the precious colostrum went flying across the stall. We tried again, but there was nothing left to milk.

The filly was again working her way toward the mare. Worried for her safety, Tom told me to leave the mare and hold the foal. I saw him prepare the lethal injection and I bit my lip. Star was the bombproof baby-sitter that every family dreams of having, the grandchildren's favorite. I wanted to look away but couldn't. I said a prayer for Star and hugged her little filly tight against my body.

I suppose I was in shock. Tom's voice broke through my tears: "Focus on the foal, Marni. Focus on the foal." I looked down at her, and she blinked back through long curly eyelashes. I clenched my jaw and thought, "It just isn't fair."

When it was over, Tom explained what had happened to Star. A mare's expulsion of her foal is incredibly forceful. If any obstruction occurs¾because the foal is especially large or is in the wrong position¾for even a few minutes, the mare's efforts escalate until something "gives." Usually, the foal squeezes past, but sometimes the tissues fail: The birth canal may tear; the foal's ribs may be broken; or, in the rarest case of cases, the uterus may tear and allow the intestines into the birth canal alongside the foal. Usually, the damage done to the intestines is beyond salvage, and euthanasia is the kindest course.

One life lost, another saved

Now we had to focus on the foal. Tom immediately inserted a nasogastric tube and funneled the colostrum to the baby. Then, as gently as he could, he outlined my three options: Find a nurse mare, raise the filly by hand, or put her down. I bristled. Putting her down was not an option. He seemed relieved.

He detailed the pros and cons of hand-raising versus using a nurse mare. He strongly recommended the nurse mare. The foal would have to be fed every two hours, round the clock, until she learned to drink from the nipple on a bucket. Plus, he said, orphans who are raised by hand can become real problems, because they identify too closely with people.

Tom knew of a Thoroughbred breeder who had nurse mares available. He called and made arrangements. The mare was 85 miles away, and all I had for transportation was my little Ford Escort. It was Friday, and all the neighbors were at work. My mind was spinning. The foal was sucking on my chin. I had to come up with something quickly.

Suddenly, I remembered a woman who lived about a mile away. I only knew Judy casually but I was pretty sure she didn't have an outside job. She and her husband, Gary, are horsepeople. I called twice while Tom stayed with the foal. Her line was busy, so I jumped in the car and flew down to her place. She answered the door and looked me up and down with horror¾only then did I realize I was covered with blood. As soon as I started to explain the situation, I broke into tears. Gary appeared from down the hallway, looking concerned. Heaven only knows what they must have been thinking. I finally got my story out, and they said they'd prepare the back of their pickup and be there in five minutes.

Back at the barn, Tom had moved the filly into a clean stall and was examining her. Relieved to hear that I had arranged transportation, he started to pack up his gear. I made a quick trip to the house to put on clean clothes.

Gary and Judy pulled in. I jumped into the back of the pickup and found that they had laid cardboard in the bottom and had placed stacks of blankets around the sides. The canopy was tall enough so I wasn't too cramped. Gary handed the foal up to me. She was exhausted and seemed content to lay with her head in my lap. We were off.

It didn't take long before the filly grew restless. She wanted up and she wanted up now! She wanted to eat and she wanted to eat now! The wrestling match began. She grew stronger every minute¾or was I just getting weaker? Either way, I had my hands full. She tried to suck on my hand, and I moved it. She got my jacket, and I moved it. She went for my neck¾my chin¾anything she could reach. She was shivering, so I put a wool blanket over her, leaving only her head exposed. I looked up at one point and saw a trucker swerving all over the road, trying to figure out what in the world I had with me!

After two very long hours, we pulled into Blue Ribbon Thoroughbred Farm in Buckley, Washington. Every fiber of my body ached. I handed the filly down to Gary and then tried to unfold my own legs. The filly and I both stood on wobbly legs and assessed our new surroundings.

Debbie Pabst greeted us and explained the "grafting process." She had a mare whose foal had just been weaned. The mare would be placed behind a "gate" within the stall. The foal could safely reach in to nurse without the risk of being kicked or bitten. The filly would have the run of the rest of the stall. The mare and foal would stay together around the clock. Once the mare accepted the foal, the gate would be removed. Sounded simple.

Unfortunately, the mare's bag wasn't full. Debbie chose to wait a couple of hours before the first feeding. The filly was now 5 hours old and still didn't have anything in its stomach except for the colostrum that we had tubed into her. Knowing this, Debbie put 10 ounces of colostrum into a baby bottle and hand-fed her. Now all we could do was wait for the mare's bag to fill.

I didn't want to leave until I saw the foal stand and nurse but I didn't feel I should ask Gary and Judy to wait another two hours. By this time it was noon. Debbie suggested we go into town and have some lunch. I looked down at my clothes and realized that these were now almost as dirty as the first set I had been wearing. I hadn't showered, my hair was sticking out every which way, and I wore no makeup. Well, this was farm country. I hoped the local citizens would be forgiving.

We had a nice lunch at a local restaurant. I felt bad when I realized that I had such charming neighbors all these years and never took the time to get to know them. An hour and a half passed and we headed back to Blue Ribbon.

Debbie told us that the mare was ready. She was in the gate and had been given a mild sedative. We took the filly in and held our breaths. She was still unsteady on her feet but it didn't take her long to find the milk. She nursed vigorously¾and who could blame her? She was now 7 hours old and nursing for the first time. The mare kicked at the wall a couple of times but everything seemed to go well. With a bellyful of warm milk, the filly curled up on the fresh straw for a long nap.

We went to the house to work out the terms of the agreement and sign a contract. There would be a "grafting" fee, lease of the mare, and any veterinary bills. As soon as Debbie was confident that the mare and foal had grafted, which would probably take two days, I could take them home. Things were looking up.

With the paperwork in order, we headed home. That time I joined Judy and Gary in the cab of the truck and really enjoyed getting to know more about them. We swapped lots of horse stories but no one wanted to mention the dead mare waiting for me at home. I tried to push it out of my mind.

It was 4:30 p.m. when I walked in the house. It had been 10 hours since the birth. I called the only rendering plant that was in the phone book, but the driver had finished for the day and wouldn't be making any pickups over the weekend. He'd pick the mare's body up on Monday. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I tried to explain the mess that I had out in that stall but the dispatcher was unmoved by my story. I suppose she'd heard them all. I was placed on the list for Monday.

In the meantime, I had a happier chore to do: choose a name for the new filly. Months back I had told the grandchildren that I thought I'd name the foal "Wind Star." I thought that was perfect since the mare's name is Star. Tait, my 7-year-old grandson, piped up with "Shooting Star." My granddaughter, Coral, seconded the motion for Shooting Star. A final decision had never been made. Now, in light of all that had happened, I decided to go with the name Shooting Star. Her registered name would be "BearPaw's Shooting Star," and her barn name would be "Shooter." Exhausted, I fell into bed.

So far, so good

Saturday was opening day at Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn, Washington, and my grandson and I have a standing date. We've never missed an opening day. He was relieved to hear that I still wanted to go. Once at the track, however, I could not get my mind off of Shooter. After the fifth race I decided to run over to Blue Ribbon, which was only a half-hour drive from the track.

Upon our arrival, we found three people in the stall playing with the filly. The mare was still in the gate and the filly had just finished nursing. This was the first time I really stood back and studied Shooter's color and conformation. I had bred a pinto to a bay and was hoping for a pinto. Well, I'm not sure what I got. She's sorrel with a very broad white blaze and four white feet. Looks like a white tummy, and then there's a lot of roaning on her hindquarters. Who knows¾I learned a long time ago that the foal coat can be a real teaser. Conformation? Perfect, of course! Satisfied that all was going well, we headed back to catch the last two races.

Sunday morning Debbie called me. She opened with, "We have a problem but I think we have a solution." There went my stomach again. She went on to say that the mare just wasn't working out. She still won't accept the foal and they can't keep her in the gate much longer. However, one of their Thoroughbred mares had foaled last night and lost her foal. She keeps nickering to Shooter and Shooter answers. Did I want to give it a try? "Good grief, yes! Go for it!" I fought the strong urge to drive back down to Blue Ribbon. Nothing had been done on my ranch since Thursday night. I had to stay home and tend to business, and I knew Shooter was in good hands.

At lunchtime I checked for messages. Debbie had called to let me know that the bonding with the new mare was immediate. They had rubbed the placenta on Shooter and introduced her to "Knight's Fantasy." There was never any question in Fantasy's mind that Shooter belonged to her. I let out a big sigh. Well, that hurdle had been crossed. Later there was a second message. The veterinarian had been out and given the filly an IV. As soon as they let her up, the filly ran back over and started nursing again. She was doing great.

Monday morning the renderer came. I went out to pay him and help with the mare. A sweet old guy, he said, "Would this be easier for you if you waited in the house?" I whispered, "Yes," and squinted back a tear. I retreated to the house but could still hear the whining of the winch. It made me shiver. Soon the truck was gone. There was only the stall for me to clean up. It was over.

I needed a change of scenery and I wondered how Shooter was doing. I jumped in the car and headed for Blue ribbon, where I found her turned out in the round pen with her new mommy. The two of them watched me approach and Shooter ran to hide behind her mom. Mom was snaking her head at me, warning me that this was her baby. I couldn't have been more thrilled. I started snapping pictures and they soon grew bored with me. Fantasy went back to eating her hay while Shooter nursed. More pictures. Shooter sprawled out for a nap. More pictures. I ran out of film so I just sat on the ground and enjoyed her presence.

I thought back about everything that had happened during the past 72 hours and marveled at the number of people who had been involved in saving this little filly, every one of them jumping in and giving 120 percent. We all have reason to be proud of our efforts. BearPaw's Shooting Star is beautiful, strong, and healthy.

From Equus, April 2001 Issue 282

 

 

Tamea C. Denault

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Tamea C. Denault is the founder of Dreamswept Farm and coach of the MountainWind Vaulters in Kettle Falls, WA. She is a certified CHA multi-discipline riding instructor. While earning her degree in psychology and education at Mt. Holyoke College, she also learned vaulting and has continued vaulting and coaching ever since. More...