Our look at 24 hours during foaling season continues in this excerpt from the Eclipse Press book Equine ER by Leslie Guttman. Today, we visit the ICU.
Earlier that evening, a Thoroughbred foal had come in for Dr. Bryan Waldridge after a difficult delivery on the farm that owned her. Although at first the newborn filly had stood well and nursed at home, she had since regressed, unable to do either.
She was a big baby, the largest foal I’d ever seen, with a heavy coat. (Dr. Bonnie Barr once told me that nature’s intelligence always impresses her: Foals born in the colder months always have the thickest hair.) The foal didn’t get enough oxygen during birth and her gastrointestinal tract wasn’t quite mature enough to move the milk through in a normal way. Her body needed a little time to catch up. She was being fed intravenously, and Waldridge was going to try to get her to nurse again. She had also been given plasma to help boost her immune system.
In the ICU Waldridge had just gotten the foal’s bloodwork back from the lab.
Foaling season means long hours for equine veterinarians in the Kentucky Bluegrass.
“It’s all pretty good,” he said, handing the results to Dr. Julie Wolfe, an intern. “Her IgGs are better than 16.” He was referring to the antibodies a foal receives from its mother in her colostrum, the special milk produced within the twenty-four hours following birth. Waldridge meant 1,600 milligrams per deciliter; above 800 is considered good.
“That’s awesome,” Wolfe replied.
Across from Waldridge the foal tried to get up off the bed. (Foals in ICU sleep on mattresses made for people, this one was a Tempur-Pedic.) “There she goes!” the vet said.
But the foal collapsed back on the mattress. “That thing’s gigantic,” said the vet. The foal splayed its legs and then slid off the bed. Waldridge walked over and went into the stall. “C’mon, baby. Gotta get you up.” With a heave, he quickly got her to her feet. The foal tottered over to her mom. Because of her height, she had to bend her head down to try to nurse. She latched on and started to feed. Upright, her legs looked almost as sturdy as an adult horse.
“God, you need a forklift for that thing,” Waldridge said. “She must weigh 130 pounds.” (The average weight of a newborn Thoroughbred foal is 100 to 120 pounds.)
It was Waldridge’s third foaling season at Rood & Riddle. The vet has a Saturday Night Live sense of humor (favorite movie: Blues Brothers) and a relaxed Southern manner that dovetails with a thirsty, scientific mind. He’s published papers with colleagues on everything from stomach cancer in llamas to how to determine at-risk pregnancies in mares. He was the first of his family to leave Kentucky when he went to veterinary school at Auburn and was there for five years as a professor before coming to Rood & Riddle in 2005. [Editor’s note: Equine ER, from which this post is excerpted, was published in 2009; Dr. Waldridge has since left Rood and Riddle.] In the ICU that night I asked Waldridge if he had to prepare himself psychologically for the demands of foaling season. “You just know for five months you can’t do anything,” he said. “I thought I worked hard before.”
The ICU is an enclosed, rectangular room, about 50-by-60 feet, surrounded by stalls. (Two smaller rooms branch off the far end, holding medications, supplies, and the mattresses, pillows, and pads used for the foals, as well as a washer and dryer to launder their bedding.) A long station sits in the middle of the large room; from it, doctors and techs update charts, make phone calls, and consult with each other. One of the first nights I sat at the station, a tech told me about the time a mare delivered a foal that looked like a mythical creature, with two heads and seven legs (it did not live). The rule in ICU is anything can happen.
Waldridge finished checking on his other patients and went home. Twenty-five feet away in the adjacent barn, a mare heavy with life paced in her stall. She was on Foal Watch. She had been pregnant now a full year. Eleven months is considered the standard length of time for equine gestation, although the reality is that can vary depending on the mare. Still, the mare’s owner considered her way overdue and was anxious because of her history of problematic pregnancies the past four years: a Cesarean, a dystocia, a pregnancy where she hemorrhaged and almost died … and another year when she was unable to conceive. (When I later told a friend outside the Bluegrass about this mare, she wanted to know why the farm would put her through another pregnancy. The answer is that for this Bluegrass Thoroughbred farm and any farm that makes its living from breeding horses, broodmare wombs are “miniature economies.”) The mare was Barr’s patient, and the vet was worried about what might happen.
Next: Did the Foal Watch mare have an easy delivery?
Note: If you're coming to Lexington for the World Equestrian Games, author Leslie Guttman will be signing copies of Equine ER at the event. More details to come. If you want to reach Leslie in regard to the book, now in a second printing, email email@example.com. Thanks for reading.