Frustrated, exhausted, angry and hurt, Becky Davis sat on the ground and cried. There was nothing else to do. Molly, the Connemara cross pony Davis bred to a Thoroughbred stallion, and her unborn foal were going to die. Technically, they were still alive, but there was no way to save them now. The foal, in the wrong position for birth, was declared dead by two veterinarians, Davis’ father and brother. Molly, injured from the labor and near death, would be euthanized.
Davis and everyone else at Roland Farm in Chesapeake City, Md., had used all of their experience, battled time and fate and the odds for the better part of two hours. And lost. Sometimes you lose with horses. That would be the lesson for Davis’ 8-year-old daughter Allison, Molly’s real owner, and her big sister Lydia, even if it was all supposed to be different.
“Molly was given to us several years ago by a dear friend Kelli Magee who has a wonderful lesson program and knows that my girls are the jump-on-in-the-field kind of girls, not necessarily the dress-up-and-show-every-weekend types,” Davis wrote in a 6,828-word essay about Molly and this moment. “When Molly seemed to not be quite as happy going around the show ring and packing kids of multiple levels around for lessons on a constant basis, Kelli said she would be perfect for my girls to learn to canter and jump on. Molly was not only that, she was great fun for me to take on trails and was frequently the leader when we had a nervous horse that needed to follow something brave.”
Arthritis slowed Molly to a walk after about a year, but she was still a beloved member of the family and in 2015, Davis and her daughters came up with a plan. They would breed Molly to Roland Farm’s teaser Sticks and Bricks. The Davis girls would get to watch the 16-year-old mare go through the pregnancy, take part in the miracle of birth, participate in the raising and care and training of the foal and – if the foal got even a little bit of its parents’ pleasant personalities – have the perfect pony. And Molly would get to be a mother.
Davis’ version of the story takes up 12 letter-sized pages, and weaves together a tale that is equal parts tragic and magic. It triggers tears, screams, punches to a wall in all who read it, but ultimately it’s about something far bigger than any reader: a baby horse’s determination, a Thoroughbred broodmare’s instincts to put something in need ahead of herself and the human need to simply try.
A little too close to the action for this magazine, Davis’ complete written account (excerpted here in italics) provides a basis for this article and an example of the work that goes on in the Thoroughbred breeding industry every day.
It also gives a lesson in perseverance, skill and, above all, faith.
Everything went fine with the mating and the plan was for Molly to foal at Davis’ home in Chestertown – so the girls could be there. In early May 2016, Molly was nearing her due date and Davis was waking up every hour all night to check, or simply staying up all night waiting. After too many nights, and no real progress, Davis concluded that Molly would be better off at her family’s Roland Farm 30 miles north. Roland foaled 130 mares last year, and could provide the 24-hour coverage to one more getting ready to deliver. And Davis might get some sleep.
So, here we are with the first part of my plan to have her deliver at our house foiled. I ask to be called if she goes into labor overnight so I can drive the half-hour to Roland and maybe catch the end of the delivery. A couple more days pass and I transition from frustration to relief as I get full night’s sleep and realize I never would have been able to keep up with the schedule I had been on.
Davis, a breeder, owner, sales consignor and daughter of veterinarian Dr. Tom Bowman, works at Roland every day and kept tabs on Molly. Returning from having two mares bred at nearby Heritage Stallions, Davis saw Molly in her paddock. The pony looked uncomfortable, perhaps ready to foal – a seemingly everyday occurrence at Roland Farm in the spring.
I call Lizzie (Roland staffer and future veterinary student Lizzie Sughrue) and ask her to grab the mare and start walking her toward the fence so I can check the position of the foal and determine if I have time to run back to the breeding shed and give my father his requested Diet Dr. Pepper.
Sughrue went out to Molly, and reported that the mare’s water had broken. The pony was on the ground, ready to become a mother. Field births happen regularly at Thoroughbred farms, so Davis grabbed Roland’s foaling “kit” and headed out. It was 11:15 a.m. The kit is simply a plastic carryall with surgical scissors, nylon straps to help pull the foal if necessary, iodine, some medication and whatever else needed for a routine delivery.
There was not enough in the kit to prepare Roland Farm for this day.
I hop the fence, kit in hand, and walk/jog through the field out to Molly in the final stages of labor. Let’s bring another baby into the world. I put on a long sleeve and place my hand into the birth canal and I feel that sort of nervous, empty-stomach kind of ache, the feeling of knowing in an instant that you are experiencing an emergency not just witnessing one. Instead of the nose and two feet I was expecting, I feel ears (head tucked under) and knees (legs folded under head). It has been seven minutes since Lizzie called.
Davis called her father, the expert, and her brother Brooke, also an equine veterinarian; and sent a NEED HELP text to several people on the farm. She and Sughrue worked to get Molly up and moving toward the more controlled setting of the barn where an emergency would be easier to deal with. Davis tried to push the foal into a better position, but made no progress. Six minutes after the call, Tom Bowman arrived with veterinary intern Natalia Recco. Good, Davis thought, more help. Bowman was able to push the foal deeper into the birth canal between contractions and get the legs straightened, buying some time and raising some hopes though the foal’s head was still tucked too low for a normal delivery.
I feel a sense of hope then because I realize it’s been about 35 minutes from when her water broke and placental separation had most likely begun so we are within a decent timeframe to get this baby out without any ill effects. That is, of course, if the foal is not deformed in some way.
When you do what Davis does for a living, you see plenty. Some foals simply don’t live – for whatever reason. They’re positioned incorrectly in the womb, something genetic goes wrong, they’re stillborn, they’re born alive but don’t breathe, their bones don’t grow in the right directions. There are decisions to be made, sometimes painful, difficult ones that involve life or death for the mare, the foal or both. In this case, Davis was dealing with her daughters’ pony.
Dad sends Natalia for lidocaine, the first of her many hundred-yard sprints to the truck and back. As she jogs off, my dad mumbles, “We don’t have much time here,” so I yell “Hurry up!” Natalia stops, turns around and responds to what she had not clearly understood, “What?” . . . “RUN!!!” Lizzie and I scream. The mare buckles and I throw my shoulder into her hindquarters. Natalia runs and grabs vial, syringe, needle and draws up 10 ml of lidocaine as she jogs back. “Are you gonna do an epidural right here?” I ask my dad. “Yes,” he says.
“We need to slow her down if we are going to have any chance of getting this thing flipped around.”
At that point, a chance was all they wanted.
Bowman gave the mare an epidural, designed to ease her pain and hopefully buy time. It wouldn’t stop the contractions, however. Between them, Davis and Bowman tried to move the foal’s head down and then back up again to get it in line for delivery. It didn’t work. Molly received more pain medicine and a tranquilizer. Bowman and Davis even got farm workers to bring a tractor to the field, with hopes of lifting the mare’s hind end so perhaps gravity could help reposition the foal.
More than an hour after her water broke, Molly – and her foal – were in trouble when Brooke Bowman arrived after being away from the farm on veterinary calls. He jumped out of his truck and into a crisis. The foal was still in the wrong position, the mare was sedated, the people were worn out. As the new vet on the scene, he did his best to try to move the foal inside its mother. Tom, the one with all the experience and the one who’d been with this case since all but the very start, told his son not to bother.
I hear my father say “Just go ahead and do a caesarean, Brooke, this foal has been dead for a couple minutes.” At this point I transition from frustration to anger. “Oh my God. I asked you to just try and save the foal. Why couldn’t you just try?” My brother hustles back to his truck to get euthanasia solution and he is equally adrenaline-filled. “The darn foal was probably dead when I got here,” he says. He grabs a bottle of Euthasol and slams the drawer shut so hard I am sure I hear a few vials shatter inside.
A field caesarean was the only thing to do now, as much for the students to see how the procedure is done as anything else. It would mean euthanasia for Molly. Despite the veterinary opinion, and the odds, the foal might still be alive but nobody gave that possibility much hope. Brooke gave Molly a dose of ketamine, a heavy sedative, and she lay on her side. The scene quieted, the tension did not.
Completely exhausted, feeling helpless and defeated, I know the reality is that this is going to be a teaching experience. Most likely my little girls’ mare and foal are goners. Molly had endured a tremendous amount of pain, and I didn’t want her to suffer anymore, but if there is any chance for the foal in my mind, it means sacrificing the mare. I walk away. I don’t need the learning experience, I have seen it before and marveled at the process when we saved babies destined to die along with their mommas, but this is different. This is Molly. This is my baby girls’ pony. I climb the fence and think, ‘All I can do is pray.’
Davis watched her father, her brother, an intern and a future veterinary student perform their duties.
The cut is made by one veterinarian, a lifeless filly is pulled out by that vet and two students and laid next to her mother as the other vet euthanizes the mare. And there is peace. We all stand around staring. The guys had not witnessed more than a handful of births during the daytime and all were normal deliveries. “Whose mare was that?” someone asks, avoiding eye contact as we all are. “That’s Allison’s mare,” I respond. My eyes well up with the realization that I can not say, “Guess what, sweetie? Molly had her baby today!” when I pick her up from school. What actually will I say?
The vets weren’t finished, however. They’d come this far, after all, why stop trying? Natalia ran for epinephrine, and handed the syringe to Brooke who punctured the foal’s rib cage near the heart. Natalia pumped the foal’s chest and was startled by a faint heartbeat. They clamped the umbilical cord, to hopefully stop the euthanasia solution from getting to the foal. Brooke closed the filly’s lips and one nostril, and blew into her other nostril hard enough to raise her rib cage. Her heart kept beating, so he blew again and again. Between breaths, foam bubbled from the foal’s mouth and nose, so the crew lifted her still limp body to drain the liquid. It poured out of her upper respiratory system. For a half-hour, they repeated this – breathing, watching, lifting, breathing, watching, lifting. The foal’s gums turned pink, a good sign, but she didn’t respond to pinches on her muzzle or rubs on her body.
At one point after we gently set her back down and she takes a breath, we see a responsive breath. One little sign of life. We all perk up and almost all simultaneously chime, “Did you see that?”
It didn’t happen again though. Her lips stayed slack, her ears stayed drooped. She didn’t even blink. Davis half-thought, half-talked to herself about the growing calamity.
What are we doing? What will we accomplish? The foal is obviously brain dead or in a drug-induced coma. She has no momma. She is a limp rag with a heartbeat and a crew of people breathing for her. Time to give up? I drop to my knees and offer this: “God, please let me see your plan here and let something good come out of this. Maybe, most of all, help me get through telling Allison.” I feel my eyes fill up again, but I refuse to fall apart. I tell myself that I will understand the reason for it all at some point and I have to have faith that there is one. I return to the scene and prepare to open my mouth to ask, “How long do we keep doing this?” when Brooke says “Aww, did you see that? Two!”
They’d breathed for her for an hour, and gotten two independent breaths in response. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Tom Bowman suggested a medication used on foals deprived of oxygen, even if the farm only had two vials left in its hard-to-get supply (with 25 mares left to foal in the season). Next came a question about oxygen. It couldn’t hurt, and Davis sent another Roland staffer Khrys Rosier (just back from taking a mare to be bred) to get a tank at Select Breeders Services around the corner. By now, the filly could be stimulated into taking a breath by rubbing her rib cage. More progress. The vets worried about the drugs in the filly’s system and contemplated a treatment. Davis mentioned a reversal drug used for heroin overdoses in humans. Won’t work on barbiturates, said Tom. Brooke suggested naloxone (a similar medication sometimes used to treat shock in horses) and found some with a resident vet on a nearby Standardbred farm. Davis jumped in her car to pick it up. On the short drive, she called her mom, Chris. It was time to get Allison at school.
My mother is the rock of the family and certainly the best for this job. I know that somehow she will be able to avoid the truth without actually lying to my little girl about what has happened to her pony.
When Davis returned, the foal was in a stall in the barn – still limp and lifeless – but in a better environment for treatment. Davis grabbed a syringe from the supply cabinet, guessed at the weight of the foal, read the instructions on the package and drew up a dose.
We give her the same amount recommended for a large child and wait. Nothing really happens – not like when a dog gets the reversal agent for the tranquilizer xylazine. I have seen that and it is remarkable. One second they are asleep and a few seconds after, they wake up, they are up on their feet, tails wagging. That doesn’t happen, but we do notice that she starts to move her legs. At first it’s just a little movement but it develops into convulsive-like thrashing which just adds a new twist. Now she might come out of this potentially drug-induced stupor, but she has probably been so severely oxygen deprived that she has no control over her body. Her temp drops to 90 (normal for a new foal is 99.5-101.5). We get blankets on her and I bandage the joints on all four of her legs to prevent her from beating herself up too badly. The stall is bedded heavily and we take turns sitting with her, keeping the blanket from getting twisted, keeping the oxygen flowing in front of her muzzle and packing the straw back underneath of her after each thrashing session. After about an hour, she falls into a deep sleep.
OK, now what? A newborn foal needs colostrum, the antibody-laden first milk from its mother. This foal didn’t have a mother, but the farm kept a colostrum supply (by freezing a little from each mare that delivered a foal). They used a tube to put the colostrum in her belly. Next, they gave her IV fluids and DMSO to reduce brain swelling.
They were trying everything. If the foal died, lack of effort would not be the reason. Sitting in a stall doorway, staring at a small life just getting started (barely), Davis saw her mother’s car arrive.
My stomach knots up a bit like when I used to go to swimming lessons as a kid. This is that same kind of moment when I have to do something I don’t really want to do, but at the same time want to do it well and without struggle. Allison opens the passenger door and I rise to my feet.
“How was school?” Davis asked her daughter.
“Good,” the 8-year-old replied. “Did Molly have her baby yet?”
As smoothly as she could, Davis answered the question: “Yes, and I will tell you about it, but first I have something I might need your help with. This baby’s momma died during the delivery today and she is going to need a lot of help. We aren’t sure if she is going to make it.”
Like only a little girl can, Allison responded, “Aww, poor little baby. Are you going to get a nurse mare?”
At that, her voice trailed off and she hesitated.
“Wait . . . Mommy . . . is . . . this . . . Molly’s baby?”
Now Davis had to be a rock.
As I shake my head yes she crumples into my arms and sobs and I stroke her sweet smelling hair and tell her I am so, so sorry. My eyes well up yet another time, but I need to be strong so I do the double blink and stare upward for an extra second to stop the potential flood and am able to focus on what to say. “Allison, I can’t tell you why this happened, but I can tell you that Molly didn’t suffer. We were able to give her medicine so she could just go to sleep and not be in terrible pain. The foal was in a bad position and it took a very long time to get her out and she has a lot of problems right now. She got some of the medicine that was used to put Molly to sleep in her blood and that’s not a good thing. We have all worked really hard to save her, but really now that you are here and got to see her there isn’t much else to do but pet her and love her.”
Allison asked some questions – about the blanket, the bandages, the IV – then went into nurse mode. She sat down next to the foal, stroked her coat, sang, hummed and added some peace to an anything but peaceful day. The adults in the stall noticed the foal’s eyes tracking the little girl and two hours later the sleepy baby horse tried to lift her head. More positive signs, but it was going to be a long night.
Since there really is nothing else we can do, and it is a school night, we need to go home. When we get home I give the abbreviated version to Lydia, Allison’s 13-year-old sister who was planning on helping to break and train the baby. When I tuck Allison in she asks me if it is OK if we pray for the foal. Of course, I say, and I hold her hands in mine. I don’t remember the exact words she used, but the content was: “God, please help us to understand why this happened and if you want to let that baby foal live I will take really good care of her. Also, thank you for having Molly have her baby where people could help and for her not having sore ankles anymore. I hope she is having fun in Heaven. Amen.”
Davis awoke the next morning and checked her phone, as usual. Normally, at that time of year, it’s to find out what mares foaled the night before. This morning, it was far more meaningful. The text from Brooke had come at 2:35 a.m. The message was, “Sucked down the whole bottle!!!” and came with a photo of a perfect, beautiful, normal foal.
I will never be able to completely describe the wave of emotions of that day. It began with shock and concern over the position of the foal and switched to frustration over the inability to rectify the situation. I then felt a tremendous amount of guilt for even breeding the mare, and thought I should have just left her to live out her life grazing in the field. I felt tremendous anger when I heard the words, “This foal has been dead for a couple minutes,” and then guarded hope when I heard “Did you see that?” Concern and worry followed when I pondered the reality of having a serious dummy-foal case to deal with. Now we have an orphan with more will to live than I have ever seen and who has been given more chances than any I have known. Maybe most importantly, there is a little girl who prayed and trusted that whatever the outcome, it was not ours to decide.
As Davis wrote, the people had some help. And would get more from an unlikely source. Without a mother, but with a normal suck reflex, the foal was a candidate for a nurse mare – a fairly automatic decision with an orphan Thoroughbred foal. This was not a future racehorse, however, and Davis figured they could bottle-feed the foal while perhaps getting her to bond with a retired broodmare on the farm. And she had the perfect candidate in The Ruler’s Sister. The then 23-year-old mare won stakes and earned $239,442 on the racetrack, but her produce record was spotty because of health issues. She had foals in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005 and one last baby in 2014, but missed being a mother. Davis thought the mare would be a good companion at least. Boy was Davis right, and wrong at the same time.
When I walk the mare into the barn and she sees the filly, her ears perk up and she nickers to the half-Thoroughbred baby. The foal hadn’t yet seen another equine and is slightly cautious of this big creature. She scoots around behind me and into a corner. The Ruler nickers again and nuzzles the tiny orphan. The foal not only relaxes, but starts to let her instincts guide her and within minutes is suckling the teats of a 23-year-old broodmare who had her last foal two years ago.
When a foal nurses, the mare’s body produces oxytocin, which promotes a maternal instinct and bonding. Davis and her team added hormones to further mimic the end of pregnancy resulting in a live birth for The Ruler’s Sister and continued to bottle-feed the foal. Between feedings, the pony/Thoroughbred nursed on her “mother” who improbably began producing milk. Davis backed off the hormones, monitored the mare and watched the miracle add another chapter.
Having a business of delivering and raising Thoroughbred foals for 30 years gives us unfortunate exposure to lonely foals orphaned at a variety of ages due to many circumstances. There is one rule standard with all cases: Once you get a foal to nurse on a mare they will refuse a bottle.
Not this foal. She took milk from a bottle and a retired mare who wasn’t supposed to have milk. Soon, the bottle wasn’t necessary and mare and foal simply lived like every other mare and foal at Roland before ultimately returning to Davis’ small farm in Chestertown.
It would be easy to say the Davis and everyone else at Roland that day did something heroic. They did somewhat literally bring something to life. Davis won’t go that far.
“I think a hero is someone who risks their own life to save another,” she said. “We were never in any danger. It was just a lot of perseverance by a lot of good people with good minds coming up with ideas and not willing to give up . . . and the outcome truly was miraculous.”
For his part, Brooke Bowman wishes he got there sooner. He’d like to have had the chance to try to maneuver the foal for a normal delivery. He was at another farm, involved in a procedure, and couldn’t get away despite the calls from Roland.
“When Becky calls me more than once it doesn’t always mean it’s an emergency,” he said, speaking for brothers everywhere. “But when my dad is getting people to call me . . . he’s seen every possible situation with a foaling that there is and if he wanted my help I knew it was an emergency.”
Once he finished with the client’s horse, Brooke headed straight to Roland – and straight into battle.
“Becky made the call, and once she did we were going to get the foal out,” he said of the C-section. “We were going to try. I’ve done a couple emergency C-sections and, even in a hospital, they’re not easy. Sometimes foals have a lot of problems. The mare is under anesthesia when it’s happening, the foals don’t get squeezed (in the birth canal) and a lot can happen.”
In this case, the foal came out limp and lifeless.
The vets euthanized the mare, a pony belonging to their niece and granddaughter, then went to work on the foal. The epinephrine helped, maybe, but Brooke’s CPR ignited some hope.
“She didn’t have any vital signs, but her heart did start to move,” said Brooke, who recalls doing CPR on three or four foals born at Roland last year. “If the heart’s beating, that’s progress, and I’m not going to give up.”
Normally, CPR lasts two or three minutes before the foal starts breathing for itself. In this case, it was 10 – and that was just a single breath. A half-hour in, she was taking two breaths at a time. After 45 minutes, five.
“I’m pretty easygoing about these things,” Brooke said. “I’d breathe for her and wait, breathe for her and wait, but she just wouldn’t do it. Looking back on it, I think it was the anesthesia we gave the mare. That kind of knocked out the foal’s systems or something.”
Ultimately, the lifeless body breathed by itself as the people around it tried all they knew – oxygen, medication, blankets, the touch of a little girl. After all they’d done, they knew there was a strong chance they’d end up with a “dummy” foal, one incapable of nursing or developing normally. It happens sometimes, for reasons people can’t fully explain though they point to oxygen deprivation, a lack of squeezing in the birth canal and genetic abnormalities. This one pushed through a long night of doubt to drink a bottle.
“The next day it was a normal horse, and I don’t understand that at all,” said Brooke. “Maybe somebody who wrote a textbook could explain it to me, but it was amazing. When they become dummy foals, the first thing they lose is the ability to nurse. This thing just started nursing bottles. I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
Through an ordeal of life and death, pain and uncertainty, Molly and her foal managed to teach everyone a little something.
“I guess what you learn is, there’s always a chance,” said Brooke. “It’s cliche, but if there’s a reason to not give up, just don’t give up. From the vet side of things, it was really cool. From the little girl that’s my niece, and my sister side of things . . .”
It was even cooler.
Eight months beyond that day in May, while the Thoroughbred/Connemara cross filly played in a nearby field, Davis called it a miracle. Maybe she’s right. Maybe veterinary skill and horsemanship and an old Thoroughbred mare pulled the baby through. Maybe they all just got lucky. Maybe nobody really knows.
“The foal is normal,” Davis said. “I wish she was a Thoroughbred, because she looks as good as any weanling we have. We’ve done CPR on foals before, but they were born dead or had a little bit of a heartbeat. This was a totally different situation and even my dad said he’s never heard of anything like this.”
The bay filly has four socks, a big diamond-shaped star between her eyes, a snip on her nose and a bright future. At first named Lilly (after the flower which symbolizes resurrection) and now simply called Foal while Allison and Lydia contemplate the perfect name, she learned to run and play, to eat hay and grain, to follow a mother’s cues. The yearling can be feisty and tough to handle, though she comes when she’s called and is gentle enough to let Allison lead her over trot poles on the ground.
“She likes me,” Allison said in January. “When she was inside Molly, I used to sing to her. Maybe she remembers.”
When the 9-year-old calls, “Foal . . . Foalie, come on . . .” the foal trots to the fence. She lives in a field with her “mother” and a Quarter Horse “auntie” named Sue at the Davis home in Chestertown. Weaning can wait. There’s no rush, not with a pony who isn’t going anywhere and a mare who loves being a mother.
“It’s happening naturally, and it’s a cool thing for the girls and I to see,” said Davis. “We feed the foal in the barn and they’re separated at different times. We’re naturally weaning them, I guess. I haven’t really had the opportunity and there’s no rush really. It’s not like we’re getting ready to take her to the sale.”
No, the miracle foal won’t be going to a sale, a racetrack or anywhere else. She’s part of the family. She’ll get weaned, grow up, learn to be ridden and live her hard-won life.
“We all work hard and we all like trying hard with things and we like the horses,” said Brooke, while trying to explain the effort involved. “The whole farm was there. Everybody was involved. Everyone on the farm was all in on that little one.”
“It changed my outlook a little bit,” Davis said. “People say I’m pessimistic, but I think I’m realistic. I really love the horses, but I’m not the person who has to prove a point either. I know we can’t save all the ones we have to struggle with.”
But they saved this one, who then returned the favor.