By Richard Zwirn
Today we lost a foal at birth. When we saw the mare lying in the paddock, we rushed out and found the foal upside down, halfway out of the canal, not breathing.
After a year of uncompromised prenatal care, he was perfect. Good size, strong bone, healthy coat. But his eyes were unresponsive and his tongue muddied from hanging out of his mouth onto the ground. His body was limp and heavy.
This colt was supposed to have grown up on our farm, frolic with our other baby, make it to the races, and even be a standout among his peers. I was to be his trusted handler. Heck, even if he weren’t a stakes-caliber performer like his sire and dam, we still would have been awfully proud of him and followed every step of what should have been a promising racing career.
During the dizzying moments of this most unpleasant discovery, my wife was practical and philosophical. My daughter cried, yet offered affection and support. My scared 11-year-old son, wanting to help, carefully observed while seemingly waiting for it to "spring back" to life. I just wanted to replay the whole day over again.
The initial stages of grieving—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness—sped through my mind in a blur. I tried reminding myself how fortunate we are: healthy kids, roof over our heads, food on the table, good friends. Still, it wasn’t easy, this feeling of loss, the waste of a lovely, full-term foal.
People who have heard of our misfortune have tried to console. "It happens all the time." "You’ve got to just move on." "Don’t let it get you down." "It’s just a horse."
I feel heartbroken. I feel some guilt. I feel drained. Numb. Oddly, I don’t feel hungry nor have I any interest in reviewing today’s racing results on the computer. I will put away the iodine, enema, towels, and foal halter until next year. I am dreading future conversations that require the need to recount the episode even one more time.
Lord, if only this ordeal didn’t include the part in which this sweet mare dutifully licked her dead offspring for hours, cried and screamed as we dragged the corpse away, tirelessly ran the fence line in desperation, and disconcertingly looked on at the other mare and foal in a neighboring paddock. Her motherhood instincts were intact, but nature dealt a cruel blow. She now stands motionless, confused, and spent.
Of course, our situation pales in comparison to the daily suffering of untold others throughout the world in places like Africa, the Middle East, and many areas of our own country. There is no comparison. However, these noble horses that populate our farms and help occupy our lives do somehow work their way into our hearts and are responsible for a variety of very real emotions. Put simply, we genuinely do care about them.
This is, undoubtedly, an experience most Thoroughbred breeders encounter at some point in time. We are not the first, nor the last, who will experience this unfairness. But I write this all down not only as a cathartic measure, but also to urge horsemen everywhere to understand that it is OK to grieve for our beloved equine friends; to mourn their loss and work through the pain and hurt; and to become emotionally attached. These occasions can ultimately lead us to greater appreciation of all the good things we, indeed, do have as well as a healthier perspective of overall "meaningfulness." To understand that life is precious. In addition, difficult times like this can allow for us to express true compassion and empathy toward each other as well, creating a fortified kinship (industry).
We assume the foal must have gotten stuck at some point and suffocated during the last few precarious seconds because of a lack of oxygen. Why were we not right there to help? Did we arrive, literally, only a couple of minutes too late? Would it have mattered?
I’m going to remember the emblazoned face of that newborn colt for as long as possible, and come to accept that this is part of farm life and the natural order. There will be renewed hope for future offspring next birthing season. For now though, I still feel sad. I think I’ll fix another bran mash, go outside and, under the vast, starlit skies, whisper in our mare’s ear just how sorry I am.
Richard Zwirn is a small-scale breeder in New York.