What could be better for a breeder than living next door to your veterinarian—especially if he’s the best horse doctor for miles around? Dr. Bobby Hewlett comes over day or night—all I have to do is call. So I really have no excuse for continuing my practice of “wait and see” when dealing with broodmares or foals. Bad experiences in the last couple of breeding seasons should have convinced me to call immediately, especially during foaling season when things can quickly go south. Unfortunately I’m a slow learner.
Two years ago I observed a vaginal discharge from our old grey broodmare Hannah and said, “Hey, old lady, we gotta keep an eye on that.” I watched the discharge come and go until, one day during the evening feeding, I found the mare trailing afterbirth. I eventually located an aborted brick-colored fetus the size of a suckling pig. (The foal may have been on its way to becoming a chestnut, but in the flashlight beacon it appeared the color and texture of cooked lobster.) I kicked myself for reacting passively to what should have been a clear sign of uterine infection.
This spring—two years after Hannah’s abortion—I noticed some crustiness (arcs of dried shellac brushed on by the tail) on the butt cheeks of Hannah’s pregnant daughter Hermione. I briefly fell back into playing “wait and see.” As soon as I saw the yellowish drip of mucus-like discharge suspended from Hermione’s vulva, I called Doctor Bobby, and we entered into a daily regimen of antibiotic, Regumate, and Banamine to combat the placentitis. With any luck the mare will hang on to her fetus until her due date seven weeks out, but there’s no guarantee. I hope I don’t have to kick myself again for saying, even briefly, “gotta keep an eye on that.”
After a bout last year with “navel ill,” I learned something new (to me at least) about sterilizing the umbilicus of a newborn. We lost a gorgeous—and apparently robust—week-old colt when our time-honored method of dipping a neonate’s umbilicus into iodine—what we’d done for forty years in the breeding business—did us dirt. This time around I’d used not a mild 2% solution but a stronger concentration. Iodine in a 7% or 10% solution can burn the tissue and—quite the opposite of what the procedure should do—can open cracks that let bacteria enter the bloodstream.
When the substantial black foal popped out I had congratulated myself and our elite Hanoverian mare Weltkin on the easy birth. Noticing over the first several days that he seemed unusually quiet, I congratulated her again: “Hey, Mama, isn’t it great to see that warmblood temperament show up so early?” For a few days he trailed Mom decorously, then lazily, until one evening I observed him walk with his hind legs spread, almost as if protecting his scrotum. Still, I told myself to check him again in the morning. By then the foal could not get up. The progressive lethargy and mounting discomfort should have signaled to me that a systemic infection had attacked his joints—the reason they call the condition “joint ill.” Dr. Bobby put him down.
I learned for future reference that modern antiseptics such as chlorhexidine are safer than iodine for sanitizing the navel—a lesson I intend to utilize this year and into the future. But there’s a more important lesson: I need to call the doctor when even the smallest thing seems amiss. “Benign neglect” may suffice for mature animals, but broodmares and newborns demand a much tighter turnaround.