Inside the Foaling Barn: A Five-Day Diary

Considering foaling season is in full swing, and the fact our editorial intern Kelsey Riley is delivering babies at a Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farm several nights a week in addition to her day job, I thought it only natural to ask her to write a guest blog about her experiences.

Some must-knows about Kelsey are that she’s funny, she bakes delicious cookies and cupcakes, she’s a great writer, and she’s from a town near Toronto, Canada, so she also has a really great accent. So without further delay, here are some of Kelsey’s behind-the-scenes diary entries from the foaling barn:

Prologue

In my four years working in broodmare barns, I’ve learned a thing or two about mare and foal care and equine reproduction. But, more specifically to this blog post, I’ve also learned a lot about the behavior and psyche of the foaling attendant.

The most important thing to know about this job is that, for those who are serious, it is not a job but rather a lifestyle. You may get to leave the barn at 5 p.m., but you may have to come back at 2 a.m. Horses don’t take holidays or long weekends, and that includes Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. That is why to do this job and to do it well, it must be your true love.

As an on-call foaling attendant, there are a few habits I have picked up, and many of these are unanimous among my colleagues. When there are mares ready to pop, you are often afraid to go grocery shopping, for fear of having to abandon your cart in the middle of the store when your cell rings. This leads to quick, simple meals that you eat as fast as you can in case you don’t get to finish.

The same principle applies to showers. They are taken quickly, with the phone within hearing range. Before going to bed, you will lay your foaling clothes out on the floor, or if paranoia is at a high, you will wear your foaling clothes to bed (more on this topic later). And all of this before you even get the call. The following is my personal diary of five days on call for foaling at a major Kentucky Thoroughbred farm. Enjoy.

Tuesday, Feb. 23:

6:00 pm: Called out for a much-welcome early evening foaling. Perhaps this would mean we could get a good night’s sleep. We arrived at the foaling barn to find the mare in question restless and pawing the straw. About 20 minutes later, she was cooled down and happily munching her dinner with the foal still in the oven. Dejected, we picked up some take away and returned home to reassume our all-night vigil.

Wednesday, Feb. 24:

4:30 am: I’ve found that when it comes to foaling season, deep sleep is a thing of the past. So I was already partially awake when I was roused from my bed for the first call of the morning. Like a firefighter waiting to be called to the scene of an emergency, the foaling attendant will have their clothes strategically set out alongside their bed so as to be able to climb into them in the most time efficient manner (that is if they haven’t worn them to bed, the ultimate efficient practice). We arrived at the barn at 4:45 to the sound of the mare breaking water. Already donned in matching blue coveralls, the three foaling attendants added surgical sleeves doubled with latex gloves to our wardrobe. To an outsider, our appearance may have suggested that we were about to embark on a frightening escapade, but for the foaling attendant it’s all in the nature of the job. This foaling proved to be very non-frightening, and less than 10 minutes later a gangly bay colt was on the ground.

6:25 am: Just as we were wrapping up our duties with this new arrival, we were met with the pleasant sight of another restless mom-to-be. After taking a few minutes to carefully scope out the stall, the bay mare eventually found her comfort zone to deliver a strapping filly. By the time 7 a.m. arrived, I had helped towel-dry the newborn and introduce her to her mother, and was on my way to my day job.

3:30 pm: I arrive home from work, take a shower, and settle down on the couch with my phone at my side, waiting for the next call.

Thursday, Feb. 25:

5:00 am: I awake with a start, apparently to nothing. The mares have decided to give us a night off.

Friday, Feb. 26:

9:00 pm: Anyone who has ever slept knows the obnoxious feeling of being jerked awake just as you’re at the crossroads between consciousness and blissful dreaming. This is just what happened Friday night, less than 20 minutes after I had taken to bed early in anticipation of a busy night in the barn (I may have forgotten to mention that when dealing with heavily pregnant mares, a night life beyond the barn is a luxury of the past). So, as per routine, I slid into my foaling clothes and headed out the door.

This outing would prove to be our first close double of the week. After assisting with the successful delivery of another gangly bay colt, we looked in on the new mother’s neighbor just in time to get gloved up and into the next stall. The barn mate had broken water. And…    

9:45 pm: Our second filly of the week was on the ground: a small-statured chestnut with a white face and stockings.

10:30 pm: Return home, return to bed.

11:51 pm: Oops, scratch that. Back to the barn we go. As per usual we arrived just as our next mother was prepared to push; However, this one decided to make things a little unusual with her decision to give birth while standing. A minor curveball for five foaling attendants who had to strategically arrange themselves to extract and catch the new arrival (not really easy considering these foals can weigh upwards of 150 pounds and are at this time rather wet and slippery). Yours truly was elected to catch the hindquarters of the foal, and with that the last great wave of fluids that came with him. In an effort to keep this blog “clean," let’s just say I was forced to leave behind my entire outer layer of clothing, and the rest is yours to imagine.

Saturday, Feb. 27:

5:00 am: Wake up, time for another day’s work. Upon arriving at the barn, I check on the previous night’s three arrivals, then head off to record vet work for the morning. The combination of busy stallion books and the desire for early foals equals a hair-raising few months called breeding season. The only way to stifle the insanity is to send the mares to the shed at their exact optimum time for conception, and as a result, each mare is checked on an almost daily basis when her breeding time is near.

4:30 pm: We arrive home from work, scarf down whatever food is in sight, and hit the couch to start the first of our rented movies. Yes, plural. With two restless mares at the barn, we’re sensing another long night is ahead.

8:10 pm: Hearing the phone ring while you’re still awake is always appreciated. Unfortunately, the mare decided to play her own version of hide and seek with the night watchman, and we arrived seconds too late for this foaling. Taking a stroll down the barn, however, I realized it wouldn’t be long before we got a second chance.

8:45 pm: After quickly wheeling our box of foaling supplies to the other end of the barn, we gloved up once again to deliver our final foal of the week: a healthy, happy bay filly.

Epilogue
Here we are, five days and seven foals later. While being on call for foaling can be stressful and tiring, this is far overridden by the rewards involved. There is no feeling like watching the foal transform from a wet, helpless heap in the straw to a leggy, wobbling creature charging around the stall, nursing and bonding with its mother. Within a few days it will find its rebellious side, and we may have more than we can handle. In this job, you learn to appreciate the little things that make a life come together: the foals first breath, his first successful steps, his first meal, and a healthy mare all contribute to a great victory in a business where devastation can come on just as quick as good fortune. Each successful foaling resulting in a healthy mare and foal is a resounding win, and as I watch our latest little filly friend explore the boundaries of the stall, I can’t help but wonder what she may become someday. And with that thought in mind, I begin to look forward to my next week on call. 

43 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Frank J.

Wow, that was a pretty cool read!! I'm glad to get some insight on foaling, thank you!! I guess you couldn't say what barn you were at?

03 Mar 2010 12:57 PM
cah

The wearing of a 'foaling outfit' to cat-nap in is a must in my book lol:)  I am watching two of my own mares at this time and trying to get clothes on in record time usually ends up with myself in a heap on the floor!  I have foaled out mares each season for the last 22 years and it never gets old.  There is always a moment of intrepidation as the foal is presenting itself and, being the proud owner of a dystocia survivor, if everything goes normally there is very little that compares to this event.  I work for an equine hospital and know all to well how badly it can go.  My filly, the dystocia survivor, is almost two years old and thinks she owns the farm.  I am hoping she will take that heart, grit and determination to the track sometime next year.  Great diary and I wish everybody a healthy foaling season!!

03 Mar 2010 1:16 PM
Zookeeper

Informative and funny! For those of us who have never seen (much less assisted in) a foaling, this small diary gives us an idea of how dedicated the "horse people" are. Thank you for a snapshot of the activities surrounding the birth of an equine athlete. Great read! Great pictures also! I'm loving this blog more and more.

03 Mar 2010 1:55 PM
txhorsefan

Thank you, Kelsey, for sharing your foaling diary with us.  It sounds very exciting and exhausting, but I'm sure the rewards as you said, are bountiful.

03 Mar 2010 1:58 PM
AGS

What a fun blog to read. I remember those days so many years ago deliving countless foals. Now, as I sit here during a break in a very boring, very much un-needed deposition called by opposing counsel, I recall those fond days delivering beautiful foals. I joke with my corporate colleagues that I'm a horse mid-wife. They look at me with odd expressions. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kelsey. No matter whether you are in the barn or the boardroom, there is always stuff on your boots and sleepless nights. Keep up the writing.

03 Mar 2010 2:27 PM
el

Kelsey--I loved reading your diary.  I have a mare that is 2 months away from foaling.  I remember what it was like 3 years ago when she had her last filly.  I stayed awake for 3 nights waiting for the baby.  Luckily I'm in FL and not on a large TB breeding farm, so we planned to let her foal outside in the open.  As soon as I fell asleep on the 4th night, she had the baby.  She picked the manure pile.  I hope she finds a better spot this time.  It's a long 2 months to go.

03 Mar 2010 3:42 PM
Somethingroyal

Thank you for sharing your diary and the photos. I felt as if I were right there with my sleeves roled up ready to assist.

03 Mar 2010 4:12 PM
GAGSTAG

Great job Kelsey, Great insight on little talked about part of the horse racing Industry. One thing though, If a foal happens to become a super Horse, you'll wish you saved those outer clothes for E Bay!!

03 Mar 2010 4:26 PM
Rachel

el, that's hysterical.

Sleeping in barn clothes is the only way to wait for the babies...I was happy when they stood and nursed..then I could finally relax.

03 Mar 2010 4:53 PM
nmclean

Great blog.  Enjoyed reading each entry.

03 Mar 2010 5:07 PM
mz

Kelsey: Milton? Oshawa? Newmarket? Brampton? King City?  

Anyways, seems like you're having fun watching the babies coming into the world.  Hope you're not having too many problems understanding those Kentucky guys with their weird pronounciations.

(whaddayamean "accent"? Is this because we know how to pronounce the name of Louis XIV's palace?  "vare-sa-ee", not "ver-salls")

03 Mar 2010 5:27 PM
Ange

My mare lost her foal in October, a colt, I was so looking forward to the late night in the barn waiting for the wee one. Alas, now I need to breed here again and wait some more, hopefully the next one will arrive healthy, happy and a champion! Thanks for the pics, nothing like seeing the wee-babes.

03 Mar 2010 6:21 PM
amy

your blog brings back so many memories of doing exactly what you are lucky to be able to do now. keep up the great work and the great blogs

03 Mar 2010 6:32 PM
DK - Midway

Kelsey, welcome to a career of a rewarding life. I have been a broodmare or farm manager for 30 years now and foaling is still a rush, even after 1000+ foals. The good and the bad, it is worth the sleepless nights and the family not understanding the time consuming career from Jan - June. Congrads.. it is still early this season.

03 Mar 2010 6:34 PM
Elaine K

What a luxury to have a "night

watchman" staying up all night so

that you are ONLY awakened when

the mare is really foaling.  When

I am foal watching my mares, I am

the nightwatch, the foaling atten-

dent and the one who cleans up

afterward, checks the placenta,

attends to getting the foal

nursing, checks breathing rate etc. and then starts

all over again with no sleep to

begin morning chores.  Never actually sleeping watching the TV

monitor all night and setting the

alarm for every 10 minutes in case

I dare sleep always ready in foaling clothes every night over a period of 2 to 3 months or more sometimes with no breaks in between. I could only dream of a

night watch person who would let

me know when I should attend to

the actual foaling.  Sigh!

You have to love it.

03 Mar 2010 7:07 PM
christy tate

thanks for the eyeopener. of course any job with horses is alot of work , so that's why people have to love it or don't do it.

03 Mar 2010 7:49 PM
Nick

That's a nice look at someone who is on call for the foaling barn.  What about the people who spend 12 hours a night in the barn and get the full on foaling experience?  Battling racoons, bottle feeding, standing outside a stall for hours in the cold waiting for that mare to break water.  This story is a good start....but not the whole story

03 Mar 2010 7:50 PM
Mary Glynn

Well Done ! I enjoyed reading this so much we have had babies but our mares always seemed to out fox us and have have the foals with out us ! Not by our choice. I have always wished that someone would pick a foal and follow it from birth to track that would make a story! Would really like to read somemore of your writings Thanks!

03 Mar 2010 8:54 PM
zenyattaisqueen

Fantastic read! Thanks for sharing this. You must be so proud of your work. Those are fast little miracles you're delivering. Future equine superstars. Worth the sleeplessness, I'd say!

03 Mar 2010 9:21 PM
bmr

It was so great to read your blog.  I miss this work so much and you couldn't have said it better:  It is a lifestyle.  People always looked at me strange when I did all of the above (including sleeping in the clothing!) The only other thing I remember telling people is that you have December and January to sleep. Thanks for the reminder of the pleasant part of spring!

03 Mar 2010 9:55 PM
Chris K

Thank you Kelsey for sharing.  You are so dedicated.  I work on the Mother-Baby unit in a busy hosp. and babies come whenever they want.  They do not take holidays or weekends off.  Our obstetricians and us nurses are there 24 hrs a day to give these moms and their babies a wonderful birthing experience.  I do alot of teaching to the new moms.  Teaching them how to breastfeed and take care of themselves and thier new baby.  It's a lot of work but very rewarding.

03 Mar 2010 10:14 PM
ebr

As a full-time foaling person, I can appreciate your story! I'm fortunate that during foaling season I have a regular schedule (from 8 to 12 hour shifts) and don't have any problem sleeping during the day-but I've been the on-call person,too, and used to sleep in my long-johns so I just had to throw the sweats over them as I ran to the barn...

04 Mar 2010 5:41 AM
Bellwether

GOTTA LOVE THE KING!!!...ty...

04 Mar 2010 6:39 AM
KateW

wonderful story and you told it so well!!!

04 Mar 2010 8:18 AM
Cassidy

Loved your diary:)  Precious pics too, thank you for a brief insight into your week.  Congrats to the new mommas!

04 Mar 2010 8:23 AM
Lupe Aranda

Wow, awesome! Thank you for sharing your story, your love for your work is very inspiring!  Keep it up!  You remind me of all those great and silent heroes who made the champion race horses who they became, "the grooms", specially Secretariats!

A horse lover in Texas

04 Mar 2010 9:30 AM
Kelsey Riley

Thanks so much to everyone for your feedback. It certainly is a very special job, and it really comes to fruition seeing the horses you foaled on the track two years later. The night watch people who know exactly when to call on us are probably some of the most underappreciated people in the business- I have also worked that side of it, and I cannot say enough about the things those people do for us and the horses.

mz: I am from King City, Ontario. I spent four years there working for Mr. Gus Schickedanz. A wonderful place to live, and a great racing and breeding program in Ontario.

Best of luck to everyone with your 2010 foals.

04 Mar 2010 10:29 AM
Carole Hemingway

This is by far one of the sweetest things I've ever read and the photos are precious.  Thank you!

04 Mar 2010 11:01 AM
Lou in TX

Kelsey, I found your diary fascinating. Can u tell me how long the mare and their foals stay in their stall before going out? I think that would be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Thanks for the pictures, you both are so cute.  Would love to hear some of your stories about the foals. Maybe next time. Thanks for sharing.

04 Mar 2010 11:23 AM
AEK

I finally just gave up, moved the wireless video moniter to the aisle. Bought a cot and 10 below wilderness sleeping bag and watch mom right outside her stall. Fully dressed, snug and warm. The dog has a bed underneath the cot and as soon as the mare acts funny. The dog starts whining and I glance at the video. The dog loves the foals and it's his duty to guard them from birth. Plants himself in front of the stall and stays with them in the field too. The mares figure this out right away and the dog is more than tolerated. Even if I fall asleep the dog doesn't miss a trick and hassles me until I wake up. It's best to keep a stash of dog cookies and power bars in a bag tied to the cot too. Hot tea in a thermos and you're set. Make sure the dog becomes a part of the herd social order like a goat and the mares do not view the dog as a predator. When the mares and fillies lay down in the field the dog is out there curled up with them as an early alert system. I didn't teach the dog, he took it upon himself. Has some Border collie somewhere probably.

04 Mar 2010 12:19 PM
Donna

WOW, Kelsey as a huge racing fan, this wonderful account of behind the scenes foaling and the wonderful folks like yourself really give me a true appreciation for all of you in the horse industry. How incredible that you see these beautiful horses being born.  You may help deliver a future champion!  how cool is that.  I admire and respect your dedication!!    

04 Mar 2010 12:22 PM
marktoothaker

It never gets old the rush is a thing of beauty. Last foaling season I missed the days of running a farm and decided to nightwatch and foal my own two mares in Ky. It was awesome, now if those two can find their way to the winners circle in a couple of years. Great Blog, loved it.

04 Mar 2010 1:58 PM
GinnieJ

Kelsey, those mares and their foals are/were in good company with you as their attendant.  You obviously love your work and it shows.

Thank you for sharing such an interesting blog .... and with pictures!  Loved it and look forward to more in the near future.

Rest well.  

04 Mar 2010 2:55 PM
aspradling

Great insight Kelsey!

05 Mar 2010 9:23 AM
Hank

Great blog, Kelsey. There's a powerful foaling story called "The Foaling Man" by Edward Falco (a terrific writer who was once a foaling man). You can read the story online at the Virginia Quarterly www.vqronline.org/.../falco-foaling-man

05 Mar 2010 5:42 PM
Margaret

I want another week of diary entries.  This is wonderful.  I think you should write a book about your experiences!

Quick thoughts on that one.  Tape recorder and tape your thoughts as you go along.  Later someone else can help you transcribe them.  And obviously a lot of this would happen in summer and fall.

05 Mar 2010 5:55 PM
Zia

Great blog and love the pics!

It brought back my memories of

foal watch. I don't think that

anything can match it for pure

tired and still feeling on top

of the world. Thanks!

05 Mar 2010 7:13 PM
Lynne

Thanks for sharing your wonderful job with all of us. I loved the sweet pictures of the babies.

05 Mar 2010 10:46 PM
Dawn

Thank you for posting this and those adorable photos!

07 Mar 2010 9:44 PM
sweet terchi

Wow Kelsey, you brought back some memories!!! As all my friends know, the only babies I coo and cuddle over have 4 feet and are covered in fur! Equine and canine babies are where it's at! This experience will yield awesome memories. Thanks for sharing!!

05 Apr 2010 12:58 PM
alydar

Hi Kesley, many thanks for the blog,To see a mare delivered her foal is like to be at the center of the universe where the life born. I think the quality of the mare to producing champion racehorses is the ability to give birth at certain time and the attendant must pay attention to the moment when the navel cord is break off. If you are interested to the relationship between astrology and racehorses please visit  http://tht.myblog.it  thanks a lot.

29 Apr 2010 3:53 PM
kathleen

I have some fond memories and great stories from when I was foaling out mares.  I didn't have a night watchman, so I spent many a night in the barn, in my foaling clothes.  Friends would camp out with me in order to be able to watch a foal come into the world, and most were rewarded with the miracle of birth.  One friend in particular spent endless hours with me, waiting and watching, but was never there when the mare foaled.  It became a joke, we all knew the mare would wait until Judy couldn't make it for foal watch.

15 May 2010 11:56 AM
PK

you are living my dream . To be around horses is a love that can't be beat.You have a good personal touch to the writing & that's what makes it so interesting.Keep living my dream .I will keep in touch.

28 Jun 2010 9:30 AM

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