Foal Watch Diary

By: Alyssa Murphree, April 5, 2017

As a student in the Horse Breeding Management course, one of our assignments is to attend a foaling at the Breeding Center. The mare I signed up to watch for was Marie, who was my care horse sophomore year in Stable Management. Marie’s due date was March 26th, and as the more days passed since that date, the more eager I was to get the notice for her foal watch.

This past Saturday, April 1st at around 5 p.m., myself and the classmates in my group got a text from the barn manager telling us that foal watch for Marie was on for that night! Since this could potentially be an all-night affair, I spent the next few hours completing what I had to get done for the night and gathering what I needed to bring with me. I packed a bag with a blanket, pillow, a phone charger, a notebook and pen to take notes, some trail mix, and a water bottle. By 8:20 p.m., I was on my way down to the Breeding Center.

8:20 p.m.: I am in my car and heading down to the Breeding Center. Although Nicole, the barn manager, said to come sometime between 8:30 and 9:00, I make sure to arrive a little bit early. There is a limited supply of cots in the lab of the Breeding Center and I want to make sure I get one before they’re picked over.

8:30 p.m.: I arrive at the Breeding Center and “set up camp” in the lab. More group members from my class and Breeding Center staff who will be helping with the foaling trickle in and we eventually have a small village set up in the lab, which becomes a maze of cots.

9:00 p.m.: From this point on, we simply wait. TVs are set up in the lab that are hooked up to cameras which are set up in the foaling stalls. While we came to watch Marie, another mare, Hannah, also occupied a foaling stall. Her due date was much earlier than Marie’s and she was expected to foal any night as well. While some previous foal watch groups from our class were unlucky and spent the night at the Breeding Center without the mare foaling, we were more optimistic given our doubled chance.

10:00 p.m.: It is clear that continually watching the TV screens won’t make the mares give birth any sooner, so instead we break out some snacks. The entire scenario becomes a slumber party in some sort of way. Myself and the friends in my group break into conversation and we can hear the Breeding Center staff chatting on the other side of the island in the middle of the lab.

11:00 p.m.: By this point, I’ve devoured half a bag of trail mix. Things are beginning to settle down around the lab. Some people start to drift off into sleep while most are scrolling through their phones. Unfortunately for me, I ran out of high speed data the day before and with the poor reception my phone receives at the barn, I am at most able to browse through Reddit for a while.

12:00 a.m.: The lights are turned out, but the room remains illuminated by the TV screens which at this point, are just showing two mares chilling in the corner of their stalls. Once in a while, a mare will walk around and we (the ones who are awake) watch intently, hoping for something to happen. While my Breeding Center accommodations are quite comfortable, I am still way too alert to even think about trying to catch a quick nap. Instead, I lay awake watching the mares on screen with Spotify playing in the background. Sufjan Stevens, Julien Baker, Car Seat Headrest, and Vampire Weekend become my best friends for the next hour in the “Foal Watch Survival Playlist” I have curated.

1:00 a.m.: The screen on the left showing Hannah in her stall is quite active. While Marie is resting and occasionally munching on hay, Hannah has been walking in circles around her stall for quite some time. I keep my eyes on her and keep my fingers crossed for something to happen soon. Her pacing becomes faster and more frequent.

1:12 a.m.: I see Hannah’s water break on screen. I quickly sit up and look around me. Everybody else has dozed off and has me wondering if anybody else actually saw that or if it was just me. On the other side of the island however, I hear the shuffling of blankets and boots being pulled on. Eventually the lights are flipped on, and everybody is aware of what’s happening. The foaling staff heads out to the stall to begin assisting with the birth. Because it is Hannah’s first time foaling at DelVal, the students in the Horse Breeding Management class are instructed to stay in the lab and watch from the TV. Often if a mare is nervous about her surroundings, she will have a more difficult time foaling and it was best to avoid this by not having additional people watching her through the stall bars.

1:15 a.m.: As we huddle around the TV, we see two little hooves starting to appear out of Hannah. The baby is on the way! We watch on the edge of our seats, as excited as people would be about a big sports game. Hannah began the foaling process lying down, but at this point, she stands up and walks around the stall before laying back down again. Typically, the mare stays down the entire time, but Hannah was a bit anxious. We later learn that while this has no negative affect on the birth itself, it does make it a little more uncomfortable for the mare. She settles down rather quickly though, and is soon laying down and ready to keep pushing out her baby.

1:23 a.m.: Hannah’s foal is finally born! She has a little filly named “Keene” following this year’s Breeding Center naming theme of classic authors. Now we wait for the foal to stand up and eventually begin nursing.

1:52 a.m.: With a little bit of assistance in stabilizing those long and lanky newborn legs, Keene is finally up and standing for a prolonged period of time. She is definitely a leggy one, so we are patient as we watch her find her footing.

2:11 a.m.: Keene makes her way over to mom and begins to nurse!

2:15 a.m.: A foaling staff member brings the placenta into the lab and lays it out on the floor. It is important to examine the placenta after the foal is born to check for any abnormalities that may affect the health of the mare and/or foal. The students take notes as details about the placenta are explained to us. Nothing quite like a mini-lecture about the placenta from Dr. Young at 2:30 in the morning, right?

2:50 a.m.: The students go out into the barn to get their first look at Keene in person. A chorus of giggling and “awww” erupts every time she whinnies or tries to maneuver her wobbly legs back over to mama Hannah. We take pictures and post Snapchat updates in delight.

3:00 a.m.: We are thrilled to finally say we have completed a successful foal watch. Although we could stay watching adorable little Keene for much longer, we are exhausted and ready to go back to our own beds. We head back into the lab to pack up our things and fold up our cots.

Mom Hannah and baby Keene shortly after her birth

Even though I may not have an interest in pursuing horse breeding as a career, I still found my foal watch experience to be impactful in terms of educational value. I learned so much about the details of the foaling process and more than I ever thought I would need to know about the placenta, which was surprisingly more interesting than gross. Hopefully my firsthand account can provide future Horse Breeding Management students with information on what to expect during a foal watch, as well as an appreciation for the effort that leads to those cute little foals laying around in the Breeding Center pastures this time of year.

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