A Perfect Delivery, From the Archives

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I glanced out in the waiting area and could see Emma waiting to talk with me. Emma was an attractive young girl with light brown shoulder-length hair that she wore in a ponytail. I think she was still in high school, probably a junior or senior.

Emma had a young mare, Lilly, due to foal most any time now. Emma was doing everything in her power to provide the perfect setting for the delivery. In doing so, she has been talking my leg off. She had been talking with me a couple of times a week for the last month. Most of the time, that was okay, I did a lot of work for her father.

When I stepped out to the front counter, she bounced up.

“My father says I have been bothering you too much and not paying you a fair fee,” she said. “So I want you to make a farm call and check out the birthing facility I have set up. I have moved a bed into the barn, and I will be sleeping there until Lilly foals.”

“You tell your father I am always willing to provide whatever instruction I am capable of to our clients and their families,” I said.

“I know that, and so does he. We just thought maybe you should check over what I have set up, just to make sure I am not missing something. I want this to be perfect.”

“That sounds fine. You can schedule a time with Sandy. It is probably a good thing, we have covered a lot of topics over the last month or so.”

“I have a checklist from those discussions and from reading in Horse and Rider magazines.”

“You know, Emma, a lot of mares will be reluctant to foal if they are being watched,” I said.

“But she is so ready, all the signs are there,” Emma said. “She is leaking milk, and her privates are really swollen and flabby. And her due date is tomorrow. I am taking off school tomorrow, and Thursday, and Friday if she hasn’t foaled by then.”

“They have their own clock, and don’t be surprised if you don’t go to the house for dinner or something and come back to a foal standing in the stall,” I said. “But, you schedule a time, and I can get out there this afternoon and see what you have set up.”

The Pedersen farm was anything but neat. The barn was a large old barn, once painted red, that set a hundred yards behind the house. With all the work on the farm, Mr. Pedersen didn’t have a lot of extra time to worry about mowing the lawn. Emma was the oldest of 5 girls, and I don’t think any of them helped around the barn much unless it was with Emma’s horse.

I drove past the house and parked the truck by the barn. Emma came out of a small attached shed on the house side of the barn. Her younger sister was by her side, Sara was 7 years old, and she was often around when we were working with the cows. Both girls were all smiles, and you could tell that the pending birth was going to be an exciting event for them.

I was literally blown away when Emma and Sara led me into the shed with the horse stall. It was immaculate. There was not a cobweb in the tallest rafter. She had a well-made cot in the corner with a desk and bookcase nearby. Then she had a small refrigerator on a shelf for medication and supplies.

Lilly was in a sizable stall that was bedded entirely with straw. There was a pitchfork by the stall gate and not a trace of soiled straw in the stall.

“Do you think the straw is clean enough?” Emma asked. “I have worried about that, but I don’t know what else there is that I could use.”

“The straw is fine,” I said. “It is far better than most foals get.”

“Emma thinks that it is going to be born tonight,” Sara said. “I want to bring a sleeping bag out here, but Mom won’t let me.”

“Your mother is probably right,” I said, “it is a school night. When mares have their babies, it is usually a pretty fast event. You would probably sleep right through it.”

“I just worry about all the little things,” Emma said. “The magazines talk about all sorts of problems. Things like navel infections I can feel confident that I have under control by dipping the navel with iodine. They talk about foals suffocating in their membranes. Stuff like that where you have to there to help, or you lose a foal.

“You have things just about as perfect as they can be, Emma,” I said. “Those stories like the foal suffocating in the membranes are just stories. Most of those foals were probably stillbirths. Things happen fast when mares foal and most of the foals are not going to allow any membranes to hang around on their heads. Horses have been doing this a long time before people got involved in the process. Being here to watch is okay, but you don’t want to do anything unless there is a problem. And then you should call me first if you can.”

“Okay, I will relax a little,” Emma said. “At least you have made me feel a little less concerned. It is just that I want everything to be perfect with this delivery.”

“And Emma, don’t worry if she doesn’t foal tonight,” I said. “Mares will often hold off their labor if there is too much observation. The big horse ranches usually monitor their mares in labor with remote cameras.”

“Okay, but you know I am going to call you if anything looks unusual.”

With that, I returned to the office, and Emma sort of faded into the background for a time. Wednesday came and went with no call.

By Friday afternoon, I had just about forgotten about Emma and her mare. Then the phone rang.

Sandy answered the phone and quickly handed it to me. There was a very frantic Emma on the other end of the line.

“Dr. Larsen, you have to come quick!” she said. 

Then the phone was silent for a moment before little Sara picked it up.

“Lilly had her baby out in the shit pile,” Sara said. “Emma is pretty upset. Can you come?”

“You tell Emma that I am on my way and that things are going to be alright,” I said.

The entire family was out in the barnyard when I arrived. The mare and the foal were both up and looked like they were doing okay. Emma had a halter and a lead rope on Lilly.

“It is all my fault,” Emma said with tears streaming down her face. “I was cleaning the stall and left the gate ajar. Lilly ran past me and out the gate. She picked the dirtiest place in the barnyard, right on the pile of straw and manure from the last 2 weeks of stall cleaning. She laid down and popped that foal out before I could do anything.”

Lilly was stepping sideways with her hind feet, bothered by the membranes still hanging out of her. About that time, the membranes came out with one big flop, and she stepped away.

I picked up the membranes and spread them out on the ground to show Emma how to check that the entire afterbirth came out.

“In cows, we don’t worry too much about retained membranes these days. As long as the cow is doing okay. But in the horse it is an entirely different story and it is important to check that both off these ends are intact. Otherwise, we need to go in and get the retained pieces.”

“Now, let’s clean this little gal up and take care of her naval and her E-Se injection,” I said. “Then, we can take care of Lilly.”

By the time we were done, and we had Lilly and the foal back in their stall, Emma had calmed down a little. 

“What should I watch for now?” Emma asked.

“You should watch for a normal baby,” I said. “Don’t worry unless there is something to worry about. You have a long way to go in this life, Emma, if this little hiccup today is the worst you have to deal with, you will be a lucky young lady.”

Photo by Helder Sato of Pexels

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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