From the Foaling Barn


In Praise of Recipient Mares

I have a conflicted relationship with recipient mares.  I often need recipient mares, as I do this year.  My mare Shin N in the Finals (Shiney) experienced a calamitous health crisis as the result of a retained placenta.  Even though we were treating her aggressively, she spiked a high fever, developed severe colitis and then foundered.  She’s on the mend and doing well, but we are still worried about residual laminitis in her feet.  As a result, we think it unwise for her to carry her own foal this year.  We bred her last week, and will pull an embryo next week.  The embryo will be sent to Royal Vista Southwest to be implanted in a recipient mare if all goes as planned.

This year we have two recipient mares from Royal Vista Southwest.  Both now have now foaled and are excellent mothers.  I appreciate what these recipient mares do for my breeding program, and while they are with me,  I take the same care of them I do of the mares I own.  Over the year and a half I have them here at the farm, I become very fond of them.

But here is the hard part–I have to send them back to unknown futures.  Royal Vista probably bought them at auction for very little money.  The mares have value to Royal Vista as long as they are fertile and present no problems to the breeders who lease them.  But when they fail to perform their job as broodmares, then what happens to them? If they fail to get in foal, how many chances do they get before they are sent to auction yet again.  I’m sure a fair number of them were never riding horses, or have some sort of injury or deformity that would make them unridable now.   So who buys them and why. I can imagine all sorts of awful possibilities for these two mares that I have cared for this year  and who now are caring for my foals.

So, though while they are here I have the same kind of relationship with them I have with the mares I own, that is, I think about them everyday, I feed and medicate them, I groom them and have their hooves trimmed–after eighteen months I send them away and try very hard not to think about them again.

Foals in Cold Weather

It amazes me that foals born during the coldest time of year are born with heavy hair coats, while late spring foals are born with slick, short hair. Since we manipulate the breeding season with artificial light and hormones, it’s a good thing Mother Nature offers our foals this protection.

However, even the furriest, little foal is no match for our Minnesota winters, when we average 30 days below zero. Every year, we are always in a quandary as to how cold is too cold to put a foal outside during the day. My vet says that for a two day-old foal the temperature should be at least 25 F and preferably sunny. The older the foal, the colder the temperatures it can withstand. I don’t like to put blankets on foals. I find they inhibit the foal’s movement, and, invariably, foals seem to be able to wiggle out of them. As with older horses, once you start blanketing, you have to continue to blanket. Blankets crush the natural insulating loft of the coat, so that when you remove the blanket, even in a heated barn, the colt may begin to shiver. We do have a heated foaling barn, but we keep the temperature no warmer than 45 so that the difference between inside and outside is not too much of a shock to mother and foal.

I try to get foals outside every day that it’s safe, because foals need to run freely to grow strong bone and muscle. But sometimes that is just not possible, when the mercury falls to single digits and the wind howls. About the best we can do on those days is to take mother and foal into the arena to exercise for thirty minutes or so.

Gestational length

One of my mares had a pregnancy that lasted 372 days, or about five weeks longer than a normal pregnancy. The resulting foal was average in size, if not a little smaller than normal. Most equine pregnancies are considered full-term at 335 to 342 days. Occasionally, a viable foal may be born as early as 305 days. Although not common, my 372 day foal was not considered to be unusual or endangered by the prolonged gestation. There is some conjecture that these long pregnancies may be the result of fetal arrested development early in the pregnancy.

While this hypothesis has yet to be proven, what is certain about equine gestation is that it is notoriously variable. For example, foals born early in the year are usually 5 to 10 days later than foals born late in the spring. However, if mares are put under lights sixteen hours a day, then the winter affect is mitigated by 5 to 10 days. Maternal nutrition and health can also determine pregnancy length. Male foals tend to be born later than females.

I keep detailed records of each of my mares, so over the years, I can usually detect a pattern in gestational length for each one. The 372 days over-due mare was three weeks late with her second foal. Each pregnancy has gotten shorter until last April, she foaled on her due date. I have an older mare who is consistently 10 to 14 days early. But then, there are a couple of mares in my band who are consistently inconsistent.

Right now, I’m waiting for a foal that was due five days ago. While the mare started bagging up five weeks ago, she doesn’t look as though she is close to foaling. Her udder is not turgid and there has been no sign of waxing. Last year she foaled nine days late. Her records show that her fillies have arrived several days early while all of her colts have been late. Also, in the past she has streamed milk for two days before foaling. So given all I know about her, I’m pretty confident that she won’t foal for at least three or four days. At the least, I ought to have a good night’s sleep tonight.

Ready and Waiting for the First Foal

There’ s a camp of horse breeders who believe in a radical nonintervensionist foaling protocol– breed the mare in the spring, go out to the pasture one spring morning to find a newly born foal. Just let nature take its course. I am firmly not in this camp–I do not like surprises.

Living in Minnesota, we really can’t depend on the weather to be safe for a new foal–even in early May. Since our first foal of 2012 is due January 14, we’ve spent the weeks since Christmas getting the foaling barn ready. Our broodmares spend nights outside until six weeks before their due dates, when we start bringing them in at sunset (about four o’clock at our latitude). In preparation, I scrub and disinfect each stall, lay in a supply of clean, fresh straw, check out the cameras, and order Foal Alerts for each mare.

I put my mares in groups of three or four, based on their foaling dates. Right now the first group of mares is in the barn at night. The first mare to foal, Smart Sugar Pop, is an old pro, who usually foals close to her due date. The second mare is a recipient mare, big and strong, and pretty spooky. The third mare is young and worries me a bit because her first two foals came two weeks early and were small. Having them in at night, and under cameras allows me to keep close watch on all three.

Last Friday, the vet sewed the Foal Alert transmitter across Poppy’s vulva, and we then performed a test of the system. When the foal’s feet first emerge, the transmitter will be tripped and send a signal to the barn phone which will place four phone calls, to my home and cell phones, to our trainer, and to our barn manager. Of course, usually I’ m watching the mares on television, but having the Foal Alert allows me to sleep and know that I’ll be alerted in the event of a late night birth. So that I don’t have to watch the mares for days, I also start testing the mare’s milk when I’m confident she is getting close. I use the Chemetric kit that allows me to determine the calcium levels in the mare’s milk. When it reaches 200 parts, I can be pretty confident the mare will foal that night.

In spite of all my precautions, I have had a couple of surprises. My oldest mare has managed to foal outside in the middle of the day several times, thankfully on warm May days. But in general, because of all the systems I have in place, I have forestalled several disasters and avoided many potential problems.

Trouble Shooting in the Breeding Barn

This year, two of our first three mares to foal experienced retained placentas–a placenta is considered retained if the mare does not expel it within three hours after birth. I always wait until the mare passes the placenta so that I can retrieve it for the foal check the next day. The vet will examine it to make sure no pieces remain in the mare’s uterus. Also, a retained placenta usually means a crampy mare who will pace and often roll, interfering with the foal’s effort to nurse.

After three hours of waiting and seeing no progress, I gave the first mare, Bunny, oxytocin to help stimulate uterine contractions. After the second shot she finally passed the placenta, over four hour after the birth. During the foal check the next day, the vet suggested that I monitor Bunny’s temperature for the next few days and put her on sulfa. Two days after the birth she spiked a fever. The vet cultured her and infused her with antibiotics for three days. The second mare, Ginger, again made no progress even with oxytocin. The vet made a late night call and manually removed the placenta. Because of our earlier experience with Bunny, we treated Ginger more aggressively right from the beginning.

When it came time to breed the mares, we let Bunny, who had the more virulent infection, go through her 30 day heat and bred her successfully on the next cycle. We bred Ginger on her 30 day heat and checked her infoal at fourteen days. This was the first year we have treated retained placenta so aggressively, and with such good results.

So I began to wonder about past years and if there was a relationship between retained placentas and breeding failures. I keep meticulous and detailed records of births and breeding. When I looked back at my 2010 breeding book, I found that the two mares who retained their placentas for more than three hours were the two mares who ended up open last year. Subsequent years proved to have similar results. My vet explained that a retained placenta becomes a breeding ground for bacteria in the uterus. Sometimes, as with Bunny the mare shows obvious signs of distress, but more often than not the mare may have a low grade infection that does not present with symptoms except a failed attempt to breed.

I’ve been breeding mares for almost ten years now, and I take every chance I can to learn about the science of breeding. But, invariably, I learn the most from observing my own mares, and keeping good records from year to year. Then I incorporate what I learn into my breeding practices. I have in the past attended a birth, made sure the foal was up and nursing well and then gone back to bed without waiting out the mare if it was late and she wasn’t making any progress on expelling her placenta. But after my experience with Bunny and Ginger this year, I realize how important thoughtful observation is to the success of my breeding program.


We’re on foal watch, with two mares approaching their due dates next week. The Foal Alert System is set up; the cameras are turned out; we’ve given the prefoaling vaccinations; we’ll spread straw for bedding tomorow. Then we’ll sit back and watch. Both mares are beginning to bag up. Jewel, the older of the two mares, seems to have dropped and she has a good deal of oedema in front of her udder. I check the foal cams several times during the evening. I still think they are both at least a week away, but someone surprises me every year.

I’m especially concerned about Jewel. Two years ago she lost her full term foal. The foal alert did not go off and by the time we got out to the barn, the foal had been born. It was not moving and, though, we tried to revive it, the autopsy said that it never took a breath. We were heartbroken– the foal was a beautiful, palomino filly by Big Chex to Cash. So I plan to sleep out at the barn when she gets a little closer.

Chatsberry Farm at the 2010 NRHA Futurity

We have two horses in the NRHA Futurity,  Smart Like Valentino (Smart Like Juice X Smart Little Jewel X Smart Chic Olena) ridden by Scott McCutcheon and Meganic (Mega Jac X Reminic Chex Bar) ridden by Jim McCutcheon. 

Both horses were born here on the farm.  Meganic’s mother died shortly after he was born,  and eventually Dry Sugar Rose adopted him.   So far, Valentino has been a money winner every time he’s been shown–hope he keeps up the streak at the Futurity.

Chatsberry Farm will also be represented in the Futurity Prospect Sale by three stud colts:  Einsteins Mega (Einstein X Miss Mega Chex), Just Inwhizable (Inwhizable X Dunnits Shadow), and Inwhizable Smartie (Inwhizable X Smart Like Juice).  

All three colts are out of Chatsberry mares.   We also have two more two-year old stud colts for sale who we didn’t put in the Prospect Sale, BH Is Packin Heat (Gunner X BH Song and Dance) and Whizard in Chrome (Custom Crome X Whizard of Ozwald).  Both colts  look very promising.  They can be seen at Scott McCutcheon Reining Horses.


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