Yesterday I was enjoying the sunshine and the milder temperatures when I drove by a horse farm and saw a foal running circles around its mother. And I felt a pang. It wasn’t that long ago that I routinely spent this time of the year sleeping during the day and sitting in a freezing cold barn all night waiting for foals to be born. And while the job has its downsides, seeing that foal reminded me of the positives.
Foaling/Night Watch is not the easiest of jobs. Starting in January you spend most of your time just trying to stay warm and stay awake. I know some people in this job who sit in a heated room and snooze, getting up periodically to check on the mares and see if anything’s happening. I was always too paranoid to fall into that routine. My responsibility was to the mares, to make sure I didn’t miss anything that would put them or the foal in harm’s way. Because of this I spent most of my time sitting on a chair outside of the stall of the mare who looked closest to foaling. It was the best way to listen for any different sounds and keep an eye on things.It taught me what the mare’s routine was and how she behaved, and when things changed I knew to pay closer attention.
Of course, there’s only so much time that can be spent playing with foals, grooming mares and cleaning the barn. You need to turn the lights down low and let the mares sleep. That’s when the flashlight came out so I could read for a bit. And reading only lasted until I felt my eyes wanting to close. What I wouldn’t have given for an iPhone back then! But I always found ways to entertain myself.
But when the action began it was all hands on deck! The moment a mare looked close to foaling there were phone calls to be to the farm manager and equipment to prep. Every mare acts differently when foaling – some get very worked up, like the one who was jumping so high she was kicking the top of the stall bars; others are very quiet, eating one moment and dropping the foal the next without breaking a sweat. The jobs teaches you to be prepared for anything.
Assuming everything goes well, which it does 95% of the time, you soon have the most precious bundle of joy laying in the straw waiting to be toweled off.
This is the part of the job I enjoyed the most. First and foremost I was always relieved the mares were okay. I didn’t own them but they were my charges, my girls, and I worried about them all the time, even away from the job. Once I knew my girls were okay I was thrilled to have a new baby to care for. Every foal became my kid. I was now in charge of making sure they got the all-important first nursing in, making sure they stood up, helping where needed and backing off when they figured it out. I kept copious notes so I knew if a foal had been standing too long and needed assistance laying down, and whether they were nursing frequently enough. You become the first line of defense for these amazing creatures and I was determined not to let them down.
While I may in the future have mares of my own to foal, my days doing foal watch from January to June are over. I don’t work on a farm anymore and I have few opportunities to visit with foals but I will never forget the many seasons I spent sitting in the barn, waiting for 20 or so mares to foal. If something goes wrong it’s absolute heartache but when it goes right there is no higher rush. When you open a stall to have a week-old foal nicker and walk over for a visit you know you are part of something special. I miss that feeling. I’ve watched some of my babies go on to win big races and I remember when they took their first wobbly steps around the stall. The memories never go away.