by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
New foals are always an exciting addition to the farm. Long legs that never stray very far from their mother. The mares enjoy their maternity leave until the foals are ready to tag along with a mom in harness.
But sometimes things don’t carry out quite as planned. For all the things we spend a life learning, it is only pouring water into a cup that is getting bigger. Tomorrow is a new day with a new situation to be met with the little I know and the hope for grace for what I don’t. The only true failure is one nothing was learned from. Spots of light come from what is redeemed.
Among our horses we had an older horse named Sarah who developed arthritis prematurely in one ankle. She had a slightly deformed ankle from having had navel ill as a foal, or so I was told. Navel ill is a bacterial infection that can cause bone deformation and/or premature arthritis. She had a very active life, but as she began to age, her ankle began to cause her too much trouble to continue doing field work. She became a brood mare, mothering a couple excellent foals.
After a few years open, despite exposure, we thought Sarah’s foaling days were over. She continued to spend her retirement in the pasture. We didn’t know she was bred until she dropped a foal one day in early summer. She had begun to decline which made it more startling for her to turn up with such a handsome foal.
Considering her condition, we moved Sarah to a large roomy stall even though it was during the balm of summer. Here we could help her with her foal, a colt named Isaac. She could get grain and high quality hay, and she wouldn’t have to walk far on her bad leg to the water in the corner of the stall.
Despite all the extra care, Sarah’s condition continued to decline. It was finally determined she had bone cancer and she had to be put down. We’d hoped she would at least live long enough to wean her foal who was barely three months old. We usually wean our foals around 5-6 months old. But Sarah was in poor shape and wasn’t producing enough milk to sustain the foal as it was. So she was helped into the sleep from which one does not wake.
With what was best for Sarah now done, we had the foal to worry about. Isaac was nowhere near ready to wean and badly underweight already. He flat refused to take Foal Lac, a milk replacer for foals. He did eat some hay and grain which likely was what was keeping him alive. He was a sorry looking little horse now and we wondered, should we put him down too? Is he old enough to make it?
A day or two went by and I laid awake thinking about him at night. About the sad little foal that walked around and around the barn all day long looking for his mother. Then I hit on an idea and went to talk to our neighbor Ammon Weeks the next day.
Ammon has a small (for her breed) Belgium horse named Gertie. Gertie doesn’t know she is small, she’ll shoulder into her work right along with the larger Belgians she is harnessed with. At this time she was taking a hiatus from heavy work as she was raising a foal herself. Sophie was a couple months older than Isaac and ready to wean any time.
Talking it over with Ammon, I asked what he thought of trying to graft Isaac onto Gertie. Ammon was willing to wean Sophie and give it a try but skeptical that it would work. Horses have a bad reputation for not being open to adoption, especially if it wasn’t their idea. Worse than that, they can seriously injure a foal very quickly. It takes an exceptional horse and lots of work.
So Gertie came to live in the box stall. I left Isaac loose in the barn and once he realized what his new relationship with Gertie meant, he would hover near her stall at all times. I did not have them penned together for his safety’s sake.
Several times a day I put his halter on, clipped a lead rope to it, led him outside the barn out of sight and tied him there. Then I put a bridle on Gertie and tied her short over a generous amount of grain. I am not an advocate of feeding a horse in a bridle, but in this case I needed the blinders.
Ammon’s wife Abby came over the first few feedings to help. One person would stand by Gertie’s head to ensure she couldn’t look back and see the foal wasn’t hers. The other person would lead the foal in to nurse. It didn’t take the hungry little fellow very long to figure out what his part was.
The idea was to let Gertie think it was her foal but not let her see him. Isaac was jet black whereas Sophie was more fawn colored. Despite our effort I’m pretty sure Gertie knew something fishy was going on. The furtherance of the idea was that after a week or two of drinking her milk he would take on her smell and have greater chance at being accepted. This is similar to grafting a calf onto a cow.
After a week or so we no longer guarded her head and she would look back at him. She wasn’t happy about the arrangement but at least she wasn’t kicking him. After a couple weeks of this Gertie was tied out on a long lead in my yard with the foal running loose. This way Isaac could retreat to safety if Gertie became aggressive.
Please note, not all horses can be tied out on a long lead. In fact, most probably can’t. They have to be trained for it. My sister-in-law lost her favorite horse by tying it out on a long lead without prior training. The rope wrapped around the horse’s legs and when she panicked she fell over and broke her hip. Do not attempt this with a horse without training. Gertie was trained for it previously.
In my yard, Gertie was still not crazy about her adoptive status. Gertie at times would bite at him but she never kicked which would have been much more alarming. I would go out several times a day and stand by Gertie to make sure she behaved while the foal nursed. Isaac would see me coming and understand what it meant and meet me at the mare.
Over time Gertie and Isaac came to a mutual understanding and I no longer needed to chaperone. One day I saw her knicker to him and knew they had bonded, so I turned them out to pasture together. After six long weeks, and more work than I’ll admit, Gertie had accepted the foal.
Isaac became happy and healthy, he filled out and grew a beautiful coat. He became very tame with all the attention he had. Considering the sad, scrawny foal he once was, it was definitely worth it all. His black coat is a bright spot of redemption in our pasture.