Learn from my mistakes
The fragility of the mare & foal
Below I am sharing with you my diary entry from a past heart breaking experience. I really hope that everyone can learn from my mistakes and not repeat them yourselves.
I write today with so much sadness. Last night our graceful gentle mare Ribbleton Weltango lost her 2 day old filly foal. This very sad situation has me deep in thought on appropriate management of the emotions of our horses, with focus on the mare and foal. What I am about to share is deeply personal, however I do feel that my experience may help other mares and foals and therefore it needs to be told.
Let me take you back to the weaning of Ribbleton Weltango's second foal. I had always weaned our foals and usually waited until they were six months old. My methodology changed over the 25 years of breeding and was mostly based on tradition and the need to get the foal to the new owners. I told myself that I weaned the mare and foal in a way that was less stressful than many other people. I did this by allowing them to be over the fence to reduce separation anxiety and I would wait until the mare and foal were relatively independent from each other in the herd with both happy to mingle with different horses and go about their day without the need to constantly watch each other. Following this procedure resulted in most foals being weaned by the time they were 6-7 months of age.
It was time to wean Ribbleton Weltango's filly foal. Why was it time? It was time because I had informed the foals owner that most foals were weaned at this age and the owner had booked her holidays so that she could be with the foal in its new home. I remember back at this time I had a really bad feeling about this weaning. I told the owner that Tango was not ready. I felt that the foal was quite independent but Tango wasn't. I strongly suggested that we needed to wait longer. I was pressured by the owner to go ahead as planned as she had already booked everything. I gave into this pressure. At this point, you may be thinking that the owner should have understood and put the horses welfare first? At the time I also felt like this, however this wasn't the owners fault. This was my problem. I am the breeder, I am the one with the education and understanding of our horses and weaning. I should have insisted and followed through. I should have put the horses welfare first and found a way to keep the owner happy. I was at fault and to this day my heart breaks for the distress that I have caused Tango.
For more than three months following the foals weaning & leaving our property Tango was in depression. Perhaps you will say that I am putting a human condition on an animal. If you are saying that now, I am pretty sure you are going to say it a few more times before finishing this blog. I did say that my experience is deeply personal so I need to share with you how I felt and the only way I can do this is to find a way to describe what I was seeing and feeling.
Tango isolated herself from the herd. She didn't stand with them. She didn't eat with any enthusiasm and allowed any of the other horses to push her from her feed, even those that were under her in the pecking order. Tango called and called for her baby for weeks. Sometimes I would have a youngster online and would be walking to the front paddock for training. Tango would see us and gallop to the fence. She would be panicking and screaming, racing up and down the fence line. The front paddock is where her baby went to for weaning and to leave on the float. When ever she saw a young horse heading in that direction she would panic and become very distressed clearly thinking that this was her baby. She did this for months. Tango had her heart-broken and I was the one who did it.
I decided at that point not to put Tango back in foal for a couple of years. I was overwhelmed by the guilt of what I had done and couldn't face it again, at least for a while.
Two years past and we decided to see if we could get Tango back in foal. She went straight in. This was a good sign that she was ready to have another baby. During this period of time we had the influence of some wonderful owners that asked us not to wean their baby. They wanted the mother to do it. I was very pleased that they were so keen to invest in the welfare of the mother and foal. There was no doubt that this would cost them more in terms of dollars, however they felt that the cost to the mental well-being of the mare and foal was potentially much greater. For me the result of this natural weaning was a turning point in Ribbleton horse management. We will never wean a foal again unless it is a medical situation that gives us no choice. It is wonderful to watch the mare teach the foal independence, responsibility for themselves and very importantly, courage. The effects that this has on the training of our youngsters is invaluable and something that we mere mortals could only hope to provide.
Tango's third baby Ribbleton Rhumba was born just over a year ago. As expected Tango formed a very strong maternal bond with him and was extremely protective. She allowed me into their family, but I could feel that she was watching me out of the corner of her eye at all times. Tango remained very attentive to Rhumba right through to her recent delivery. She always knew where he was, she would often go and collect him from others and bring him back to her. She made sure that he was never participating in high energy games. She did this right up until the last couple of weeks. As you can imagine Rhumba a big strapping boy, but this didn't stop his mum from keeping him safe.
I do feel that her overprotective ways with Rhumba had a lot to do with my actions a few years earlier in weaning her filly. I remember one day I had Rhumba in the halter and was taking him to the front paddock to play around with the platform. The front paddock and one next to it were Tango and Charm's day paddocks. I was just doing some training amongst them. On this particular day, I led Rhumba through the gate to the front paddock. Tango was about 50m from us and when she saw us leaving she screamed and took off after us at a flat-out gallop. She circled around the front of us and pinned her ears at me blocking my path. She thought I was taking him away from her. All those years had past and it was still at the front of her mind. I had broken the bond of trust and at that moment I wondered if I would ever get it back. Anyone who knows Tango, knows what a sweet gentle soul she is. For Tango to behave this way she had to be so desperate. Any mother knows that she would do anything to protect her baby.
Charm and her youngster left Ribbleton to move to their new home. This meant that I had to integrate Tango and Rhumba back into the main herd. It was a very slow process as Tango was so worried about her boy. Over time we managed to do this successfully but each evening Tango reminded me that she didn't trust me. At feed time I would separate Tango and Rhumba so they could relax while eating. After feed time I would return them to the main herd. I could feel anxiety in Tango every night when it was time to go back out. I think she may have felt a lack of control with so many around her. If she could keep her boy all to herself then he was safe. She was never like this with the first two foals. This was definitely a result of my betrayal. How did she tell me each night? As we were leaving the yard, she would press her muzzle on my arm. She touched me with an intensity that I can't even describe. It is beyond words, when she touches me and looks at me like this the feeling goes right through my body. The touch often ends in a little nip. I know exactly what she was saying. I don't know how I know but I know. She is saying to me "don't take my baby".
On Tuesday night Tango had a perfect little baby girl. Unfortunately this little lady wasn't to be with us long. My friend made a beautiful comment to me "she was too perfect for this world". She died last night. We left the foal with Tango so she could mourn. Today Tango is unable to leave the foal. When Tango does walk away, she screams and runs back to her lifeless baby. She stands over her baby keeping her safe. I have told Tango over and over since the birth of Rhumba that I will never take your baby away from you ever again if you are not ready. The really sad thing is that last week, before this baby was born I felt her finally forgive me. She softened, she no longer had these interactions with me. Last night just before her filly foal went into sudden illness, Tango pressed her muzzle against me over and over. I could feel her telling me something. This time I am not sure what she was saying, but it was very gentle and embracing of me. Only two hours later her filly passed.
We are now allowing Tango as much time as she needs with her foal. She will make the choice to leave her baby, not me.
I write my experience in the hope that you will also consider the intensity of which horses feel pleasure, pain, grief and motherhood. If I was to take your child away from you it would be unacceptable. So then, why is it acceptable for us to do it to them. Surely we are able to give them the extra time they need and create the environment that allows for natural weaning. It's our choice and yes we DO have a choice. I hope that my story saves some mares and foals from feeling this loss and grief.