Dr. Ashley Craig
Its breeding season in Central Kentucky; that magical time of year when new foals are hitting the ground and the farms are busy with the hustle of breeding horses. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement that hangs in the air. As I start my first breeding season as a veterinarian, I am anticipating many adorable foals with soft noses perfect for kissing, hours in a breeding shed, a strong palpating arm, some sleepless nights, adrenaline rushes and time spent doing what I love most- practicing veterinary medicine.
When I was in undergrad at Georgetown College, I went to work for a breeding farm. As I interviewed for the job, the broodmare manager asked why I wanted to come work there. I gave the standard answer that any younger girl would- “I love the foals”. While this statement still rings true, it doesn’t fully begin to explain what all I love about breeding farms. Foals are wonderful. Watching a healthy, energetic foal bounce around a stall or field can always put a smile on your face. But for me, my admiration, respect and affection is given to the unsung heroes of the breeding industry, the mares. These mares put up with so much and yet, they are often the kindest and most patient beings. Every year, they have a vet palpate, ultrasound, culture, re-ultrasound, and check their reproductive organs on a fairly regular basis. They are sent to the breeding sheds, where in an unfamiliar environment, they meet the future father of their next offspring. They handle the hustle and bustle of the breeding shed with ease before being loaded back onto a trailer and head to their main farm, upon which the cycle of vet checks continues until the mare is declared pregnant. If the mare is “easy” to get in foal, she will produce a foal every year. Being pregnant so frequently is what the mares are made for and what nature intended. If she were out in a herd with a stallion, a similar cycle would happen just minus the human intervention. Through all of this, the mare finds joy in her foal, and patience with the humans (and the foal!).
Recently, during my second rotation through the McGee Medicine Center, I ran across a maiden mare, or a mare that has not had a foal previously, which demonstrated all of the qualities that I love in mares. She had just recently given birth to her first foal but the foal wasn’t doing well. The foal came into the neonatal ICU not able to stand on it’s own and having seizures. The mare followed patiently behind the techs as they carried her foal into the stall. Since some maiden mares can be a little anxious, a technician stood with the mare as the doctors worked to help her foal. The mare stood quietly occasionally nickering softly to her foal. She watched the entire time as the foal was being given the medical attention it needed. As soon as the foal was stabilized, it was propped into sternal position on a tempur-pedic mattress (yes, a memory foam bed) in the stall and covered with blankets to help to keep it warm. The tech slowly loosened her grip on the mare and let her investigate what was going on. The mare walked over gently to the foal and nickered to her new baby. She then proceeded to pull the blanket back so she could touch her baby and make sure he was all right. After investigating the foal, she then went to the IV fluid lines and nosed at them a little. Once she decided she was ok with the process, she stood next to the bed where her foal was laying and kept a watchful eye on him. As it was time to reassess the foal, I walked into the stall apprehensively, not knowing if the mare would be ok with someone handling her foal again. Instead of heading straight to the foal, I paused at momma’s head. I am a firm believer that a horse’s eye can tell you their thoughts and what they are feeling. This young mare had a kind eye with a gentle spirit radiating through her expression. As I started to kneel down to the sick foal, the mare placed her head onto my shoulder. For most horse people, this isn’t always a welcomed feeling especially when you don’t know the horse; having a horse’s mouth near such a vulnerable spot in your body can quickly turn disastrous but luckily, this mare meant me no harm, she just wanted to watch her foal. Over the several days that the mare and foal were in the NICU, the foal grew stronger and my respect for the mare became greater. She was taking to her job like a pro. She understood that the doctors and technicians were only trying to help her foal and at every turn, she demonstrated kindness to the humans and love for her foal. When the pair was finally able to head back to their farm, I shed a small tear of joy. It always great to see a baby able to overcome such sickness and its always wonderful to come across such remarkable new mothers.
With the breeding season ramping up, I look forward to so many wonderful memories that I will be apart of. But most importantly, I look forward to spending time with the unsung hero’s of the breeding industry, the kind mares.