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Raising an Orphan Foal
The Traumatic story of Little Orphan Maddie
WRITTEN BY: Margie Wolson   [Sept. 1, 2000]

At the beginning of 1999 we decided to breed our mare, Hello Lillet, a beautiful gray thoroughbred. We sent her to a stallion a few hours away and, when she was pronounced in foal, we went to the stud farm and trailered her back home. Now came the long wait. Horses carry their foals for approximately eleven months. With Wings we only had to wait a few months as Lil was already very far along in her pregnancy when she was given to us. Waiting for our new baby seemed to take an eternity. We had a very dry summer. The farmer we usually get our year's supply of hay from wasn't able to get a second cutting. Our pasture grass dried up and our pond began to shrink. We got a supply of alfalfa hay for Lil to have after she foaled but weren't able to get as much grass hay as we needed. Our pasture is fescue grass and we knew that pregnant horses shouldn't graze on that type as it can cause problems with the developing foal. One month before her due date we confined Lil to a small turn out and, a few weeks later, began to live in the RV waiting for the baby's arrival.

The RV is truly a home away from home, complete with a big window that looked out over Lil's turnout. My father had built it himself and, as children, my sisters and I had many memories of family trips as far back as bringing our Chincoteague pony home in an earlier version. When my father passed away the RV was given to us. It has comfortable beds, refrigerator, hot and cold running water, stove, etc. A mobile equine baby watch vehicle!

Friday, May 5, 2000

Finally the long months of waiting drew to an end. Lil's anticipated due date was May 9th and she went into labor on May 5th. Once again, Mark, John and I were there when she foaled a wonderful filly at 4:00 a.m. This time the birth was not so easy.

Maddie and Mom
Maddie, bonding with her Mother, Lillette.

Lil had lain down with her rump against the back wall of her stall and there wasn't enough space for the foal to come all of the way out. We called the vet and she talked us through the birth. "Take hold of the mare's hind legs and pull her around" the vet said. Mark and John complied, not an easy task while Lil was in labor. When the foal was almost free of Lil's body except for the hind legs, the foal began violently thrusting trying to get free. I gently took hold of the foals' stifle and hock and, on the next flurry of kicking, pulled the tiny hooves free of Lil's body. After about twenty minutes the foal began attempting to stand up. Every failed try made the filly angry.

Maddie laying in the straw
Newborn Maddie, laying in the straw.

I said to my husband, "Look at her, she is very mad, she doesn't like this at all". Each effort ended in frustration until she finally got her legs to cooperate and stood up. Once up the filly stood for an hour and nursed for the first time before collapsing into the straw. As her coat dried we began to see that her adult color was going to be gray. Her coat at birth was dark bay with many white hairs sprinkled throughout making her look like a strawberry. The only marking she had was a white crescent on her face that looked like the edge of an eclipse.

Maddie with her Mother
Maddie with her Mother, Lillette.
This labor was more difficult for Lil, she was very tired afterwards and the vet who examined her and the filly later that day said that Lil was bruised from the ordeal but otherwise all right. We were left with an oral painkiller and instructed to administer it to Lil over the next few days. The foal was given a clean bill of health. I made Lil a hot bran mash and left mother and daughter alone to rest.

This baby was very different in personality from her older brother, Wings. She did not want to have anything to do with people. In fact, she seemed to think that humans were horses, too, just lower in the herd hierarchy than her and her dam, completely beneath her notice. We had already picked out a name for her, Proof Set, but began calling her Maddie because she was Mad at the World! Wearing a halter made her angry. Pesky flies made her angry. Grooming made her angry. Her mother walking away made her angry. She stomped her tiny feet and wrung her little fuzz of a tail in a fury. We were enthralled.

Wednesday, May 10, 2000

I still remained living in the RV and had gotten into the habit of going to the barn after work to check on my horses, then going home for a quick shower and change and returning to the barn to feed and spend the night. On Wednesday, May 10th, I arrived at the barn around 3:00 p.m. I brushed the horses and played with Maddie. I applied fly spray to Lil and gave her a carrot while noticing that Lil had dirt on her rump. I remember noting to myself that Lil had lain down at some point during the day. While cleaning her stall I saw that she had not finished her breakfast but didn't think much about that. Although it was very unusual I wasn't too concerned at that point as I had just offered her a carrot which she happily ate.

Maddie with Lillette, and Margie Wolson
Maddie with Mom (Lillette), and Margie Wolson (owner).
It had been unusually hot out for early May the week that Maddie was born, and the flies were out in force. That Wednesday was a little cooler and I decided to stay at the barn instead of going home. I turned on the air conditioning in the RV and sat inside to watch Lil and Maddie through the window. My sister called me on the portable telephone and, while I talked to her I noticed Lil lie down again. I mentioned it to my sister and she said, "Is that bad?" "It's not normal", I replied.

"She doesn't seen quite right, I think I will call the vet just to be safe". The veterinarian's office said that they had a vet that would be out in about an hour or so and told me to take Lil's temperature and to give her a dose of the Banamine which they had left with me after she foaled. Lil again lay down but wasn't acting as if she were colicking. I gave her the medicine and walked her around for a bit and she settled down to graze and acted normally.

The vet arrived within an hour and saw that Lil was acting a little uncomfortable. While checking her vital signs (respiration slightly up, pulse slightly elevated, gums light pink) Lil became worse. The vet gave an additional dose of banamine by injection and explained to me what was most likely happening to Lil while we waited for the shot to take effect: torsion of the uterus, which can occur as the reproductive organs shrink back to their normal size and position. Because a horse's body cavity is so very large the uterus can get twisted just like a strangulated gut in some cases of colic.

Lil got worse. She would only stand still for Maddie to nurse. The vet gave her another injection, Rompun this time, with no visible relief. Now she was actively trying to lay down and roll. Her gums went white. The vet advised me to locate a trailer and to get Lil to Morven Park for surgery. I called Tim, the son of our Andalusian raising friend, who said that he would have someone bring his trailer over as soon as it could be hooked up. I told the vet that a trailer was on the way and she radioed ahead to the Equine Center at Morven Park to let them know we were coming.

Maddie with Mom (Lillette)
Maddie with her mother (Lillette), learning about the great outdoors.

As the vet and I went back to the stall where the assistant was holding Lil the weather turned bad and it began to thunderstorm and hail. When we got to the stall Lil was violently thrashing and frothing from the mouth. I grabbed Maddie and took her out of the stall to keep her from getting hurt.

The vet and assistant could not keep Lil on her feet and it became obvious that Lil was not going to be able to get in the trailer, much less make the hour and a half trip to Leesburg. The vet asked for permission to euthanize Lil and made sure that I knew what was happening. I said "I know, do it, tell me what to do for this baby". The vet, assistant and I were completely soaked, the rain came down so hard that water ran over the threshold and flooded the stall. The ground was white with hailstones.

Maddie learning to graze
Maddie learning to graze.
We had struggled futilely to save Lil for 45 minutes and, at five days old, little Maddie was an orphan. I called my sister, Pat, who lives near by and she and my mother came over immediately.

The man arrived with the trailer and was devastated at hearing the news. I told him that Lil would not have lived even if we had tried to transport her hours before. He offered any assistance we might need and I asked for a tractor to remove Lil's body from the stall. Tim came the next morning and moved her, being careful not to let me see what he had to do to get the body out.

I had already fed Wings and Taffy, our old pony, and let them out of their stalls into a paddock attached to the main part of our barn. With all of the commotion going on, they became agitated and began to run back and forth, neighing. Taffy had had a foal of her own, years before, and had taken unusual notice when Maddie was born. Wings was too much for the old pony and Pat did her best to separate them. Pat finally got Taffy into the barn and locked Wings out.


The vet gave my sister and me instructions for bottle feeding Maddie - every two hours until she was 10 days old and told us to get a bottle of Karo syrup to give her in case she didn't take to the bottle and became weak. They helped us to get her into a different stall. We tried to introduce Maddie to Taffy; we hoped that Taffy might take to the foal and mother her so she would not be alone, but the pony struck at her. Maddie was frantic, calling in her tiny shrill voice for her mother.

With the vet's assistance we tried to get Maddie to suckle from the bottle. The vet said that their service had a "nurse" pony available if I wanted to borrow her. The pony was not lactating but would act as a mother to the filly. I was distraught and couldn't think of anything but this terrible disaster. Pat managed to get a couple of swallows of formula into Maddie. My husband, Mark, arrived and went into the stall with Maddie and she quieted down a little.

Maddie bonding with Mark Wolson
Maddie bonding with Mark Wolson.

The vet left us enough powdered formula to last until the next after noon when we could purchase a supply of our own. Finally Mark lay down in the stall, Maddie, exhausted, curled up next to him. The two of them spent the night that way. The next morning we tried to get Maddie to nurse from the bottle. The vet had supplied us with an artificial nipple designed for lambs. Each time Maddie's lips touched the nipple, she instinctively raised her head to what to her was the normal nursing position.

Aaron, bottle-feeding Maddie
Aaron, bottle-feeding Maddie, the week after Lil died.
The vet had warned us of this and suggested that we hold the bottle under an arm so that Maddie would have the feeling of her mother's body above her head. Mark finally hit on a way that worked by placing his foot on the side of the stall and holding the bottle under his leg. He put a small amount of the Karo syrup on the nipple and Maddie latched on to it. She pushed her face into his thigh while she nursed and felt secure.

The Surrogate Mother

That afternoon our vet's office brought us a beautiful Welsh cob mare that had already been a surrogate mother for 6 other foals. Her name was Thumper and she bonded with Maddie instantly. Thumper got off of the trailer, heard Maddie cry, and immediately set about caring for the filly. She did not want any other horse even looking at her baby. Little Maddie was no longer alone.

The arrival of Thumper was a blessing but Maddie still needed to be fed. Until she was 10 days old she got a bottle every 2 hours. Everyone in my family helped out. Mark and I spelled each other through the night so that each of us got some sleep. I would feed at 1:00 a.m., Mark at 3:00, I fed at 7:00 am and would leave for work. Mark at 9:00, then my sister would feed at 11:00 a.m. and at 1:00 p.m. I returned from work for the 3:00 feeding and on throughout the day. We were all relieved when the amount that Maddie was fed got increased and her schedule changed to every 3 then every 6 hours.

Maddie with Thumper
Maddie with Surrogate Mother, Thumper.

She had already been investigating her mother's food and now began to nibble on grass, hay and grain. Even my niece and nephew helped out, holding the bottle, grain bucket and introducing Maddie to the water tub. Thumper showed her which grasses were tastiest, taught her how to escape from flies and, most importantly, to get along in a group of horses, things a normal foal learns from it's dam.

Happy Endings

We handled Maddie from the day that she was born so the arrival of the farrier for her first hoof trimming was not a traumatic experience. She led nicely for him to evaluate her movement. She behaved well until the last hoof. When she found that she couldn't pull free she stopped struggling and nipped me on my thigh. After a scolding, she bit her lead rope instead. Truly a very Maddie little girl!

Maddie jumping and playing

Not everything was distressing. Maddie's growth rate was normal and she was thriving on the formula. Thumper, the surrogate mother, even developed a small quantity of milk and happily allowed Maddie to nurse. This was quite a sight as Maddie soon grew taller than her "mom". She learned quite a lot from her Thumper mom in those first months, where the tenderest grass grew, which trees had the best shade and, best of all, to walk into the pond and roll in the water on hot days!

When Thumper first came, she and Maddie shared a box stall. We would go into the barn, late at night, and find the two of them nestled together in the bedding.

As the amount of pelletized formula and grain that Maddie ate was increased we began to put her and Thumper into side by side box stalls for the night so the baby was reassured that Thumper was near and could eat at her leisure.

Aaron, showing Maddie how fun the water tub can be
Aaron, showing Maddie how fun the water tub can be.
When Maddie was 8 weeks old she was being fed 2 liters of bottled formula at each feeding. We tried to get her to drink from a larger "calf" bottle which could be hung on the fence but Maddie let us know in no uncertain terms that this was one change that she was not willing to make! As the amount of pellets and grain became larger, we gave her less formula until at 11 weeks old we weaned her from the bottle entirely. Finally we could sleep through the night.

Maddie At 2-Months

At the age of two months Maddie began to shed her baby coat. She was a beautiful dark gray underneath but looked like a moth eaten rug while shedding. She itched all over and went to great lengths to scratch, even straddling a large round bale of hay to scratch her belly. She had her hooves trimmed for the second time. We were able to enjoy watching her play as if she were a normal foal, racing around her paddock, kicking and leaping into the air, only to race off again.

Tragic though it was to lose Lil, we were very lucky in so many ways. Maddie had gotten the colostrum that comes in the mother's first milk. This is critical in a young baby as the mother passes on to the foal immunization from many of the diseases that could otherwise afflict a new baby.

Maddie shedding her baby coat
Maddie shedding her baby coat.

Maddie took to the bottle very quickly, maybe in part because she was only five days old when she lost her mother. Our veterinary service had a nurse or surrogate available, a critical thing to a developing foal. The local feed store special ordered large amounts of powdered and pelletized formula for us. Having a friend, Sharon, who allowed us to use her trailer more than she did, helped. It was a big help owning a RV so we could actually live at the barn. My sister, Pat, and her family assisted us in every way possible. My sister Sherry, with her love and knowledge, created an Internet web site for Maddie so we could share her development with friends and family all over.

Maddie at 9 weeks
Maddie, at 9 weeks old.
Would I breed a mare again? A question that can't be answered right now, the trauma is still too close. I had thought that I was prepared for any eventuality but found that I was very wrong. We have Wings and now Maddie to raise and that will keep us busy for a long time. This fall Maddie will be sent to our friend's farm to be weaned with the Andalusian foals, just like her big brother, Wings, did. She will become a yearling on January 1st, like thousands of Thoroughbred foals. She will experience her first snowfall and learn to stand with her back to the winter wind. Saddle, bridle and bit will be introduced and I am quite certain that many of these experiences will once again make her very, very Maddie!

For anyone who wants to find out how this all develops, you can watch as Maddie continues to grow. Her web address is http://www.clutter.com/maddie/index.html.

March 2001 Update:

Maddie is going to be quite gray when she sheds soon. I had her in yesterday afternoon to put on her turnout sheet (the weather report was correct, it is now POURING!). Rather than put it on her in her stall I thought to have a short cross tie session. WOO HOO! The sheet is a good thing, the cross ties are vicious, filly killing monster devices!

Maddie's Trailer Lessons
Maddie, Pockets and Aunt Pat take a ride in the trailer. November 2000.

I led her up the aisle and turned her, snapping the off side tie to her halter. Eyes rolling. Still holding her lead, I reached for the near side tie and back, up and forward she went, landing right where she started with her tail flapping madly. I stroked her and clipped the other tie to the halter and then gave her a baby carrot. Crunch, slobber, spit, with the tail going like a windmill. Eyes popping, I brushed her and talked calmly to her. She flinched from each stroke of the brush. (This is the brush that she loves when the blanket comes OFF!) I picked up her sheet, let her sniff it and gently placed it on her back. She is good for the sheet.

Maddie is growing like a weed so, after I fastened the chest straps, I lengthened the surcingles and fastened them. By now she is standing very still and I am concentrating on lengthening the hind leg straps with my back to her head, standing at her near hind. I kept up a soft conversation, telling her how good she was and the this wasn't so bad, etc., not noticing that her tail is now still.

Boy was I surprised when she tipped right over sideways and almost fell down! I put my shoulder into her hip and propped her up and she sprang back! I got her back solid on her feet and she dropped a completely unchewed carrot out of her mouth. I think that she was so scared that she held her breath and passed out! Sheesh. I finished fastening her sheet on her, unclipped the cross ties and led her back to her stall. She was very eager to get safely inside and away from the terrifying cross ties.

Maddie on the Crossties
Maddie, mad at the cross ties

At least she doesn't approach the ties trembling or having a fit. It is the indignity of being tied that she seems to object to and really isn't pitching a real bad fit. I am concerned that the situation frightens her so. She has been in them 4 times now and never more than 10 minutes at a time with me right next to her (I am not about to walk away from her to even fetch something, I have all I am going to use right there) Nothing bad has ever happened TO her while in the ties, either, she is just a baby and a TB at that!

Helpful Links and Other Information

Highly Recommended Foaling Books: (click on a book for more information)

Complete Book of Foaling     Blessed are the Broodmares     Blessed are the Foals     Complete Foaling Manual

Great websites for foaling kits, raising orphans and foaling in general:

www.CyberFoal.com | www.YourHorsesHealth.com | Life with an orphan foal
Foaling Kit Article | Fighting Foaling Frenzy & Surviving Foaling Season
Excerpt from "Complete Foaling Manual" | Foaling Notebook | Breeder's Guide

The Local Purina Dealer - Our local Purina dealer that goes out of it's way for me every time I have a crisis, they special ordered foal-lac powder and pellets for our baby.

Tamarack Stables Rivers Edge - Lois Majewski was a rock on the telephone when Lil died. She said "You bring me that baby right now!" and when I calmed down and decided to take care of Maddie myself, Lois gave me much needed support and advice.

Livestock Library - (University of Oklahoma) This site is chock full of excellent links and articles, I got loads of information from it. Check out the Breeding & Reproduction articles.

One thing that only a couple sites mention is to have a supply of Foal-Lac powdered formula (or a different brand) on hand. I will never leave that out of a foaling kit again. The powdered formula doesn't go bad for about a year and is well worth having on hand, along with 2-3 lamb nipples and a liter bottle or two (make sure in advance that the nipples fit the mouth of the bottle, those big mouth ones don't work). You can keep the bottle and nipples in a large freezer zip-loc bag.

I also recommend putting a brief checklist of foaling instructions INCLUDING THE VET's NUMBER in a report cover or laminated sheet (you know how dirty paper lists get in a barn situation) in the foaling kit.

Have arrangements made in advance for a truck and trailer to be ready especially if you don't have one of your own and know where the closest equine hospital is. In an emergency situation the vet CAN NOT get to your barn quickly enough to do much good. You have to be prepared to calmly do what the vet tells you over the phone.

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