By Barbara Newtown.
Delta Equine Center in Vinton, Louisiana, is a labor of love for the extended Findley family. Founded by Dr. Larry Findley, Sr., in 1983, Delta now offers a wide choice of veterinary services: equine surgical and medical suites, mobile vet setup, equine MRI, hyperbaric chamber, sales prep, reproduction techniques, stallion and mare care, and a small animal hospital with a dog-and-cat-size MRI.
Caleb Findley, grandson of Dr. Findley, Sr., explains the family ties to Delta: “My grandfather specializes in surgery, lameness, and reproduction. He has four sons. My dad, Dr. Larry Findley, Jr., is the eldest, and is a small and large animal vet who follows the thoroughbred circuit. I am one of ten children. My sister Kaylee Findley does the lab work and my sister Kieran Findley is the receptionist. My uncle Troy is a racetrack vet and he follows the Quarter Horses from meet to meet. My uncle Craig manages our practice and my uncle Brad runs the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.” Dr. Phillip Appleton, a large and small animal vet, is also a big part of Team Delta, even though he isn’t a Findley.
Caleb, part of the third generation, is just starting his career as Stallion Manager. Although Caleb is only 26, he has been preparing for a position at Delta Equine since he could walk. “After school I’d come to the clinic. In middle and high school, I’d go to Delta Downs with my dad, and in high school I worked with my dad and my grandpa as a tech.”
Caleb played some conventional high school sports, but horses had always been his main interest. “I remember going to horse races as a little kid and going to watch my uncle Troy rope calves. Just living in Louisiana, it seemed like everybody had something to do with horses! When I really got into calf roping and team roping, I gave up baseball and football. A lot of my inspiration came from my uncle, but also from my grandpa. He calf roped and rode cutting horses.”
At McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Caleb studied the pre-vet curriculum with an emphasis on equine science. However, about the time he would have been applying to vet school, the stallion manager position at Delta Equine opened up. Caleb realized that even if he’d been a vet, he would have wanted to concentrate on equine reproduction. The pieces began to fall into place: the chance to work alongside his grandfather, his father, and his uncles at Delta Equine was something Caleb didn’t want to pass up. Caleb also knew that he could do the job: “I’d been around the owners and the trainers and their horses since I was little and I knew I’d be good at it.” He talked the decision over with his wife, his grandfather and his father, and he took charge of the Delta Equine breeding operation at the beginning of 2016.
Delta Equine is a large facility: five buildings house the equine and small animal clinics, storage for feed and equipment, the reproduction facility, and ample stabling. (Total acreage is over 70. Delta Equine hires someone to cut and sell the hay, because the clinic and repro horses are fed alfalfa brought in from points west.) Caleb oversees 12 stallion stalls, 74 mare stalls, and 16 paddocks. The clinic has 50 stalls for patients, but, as Caleb explains, it usually isn’t full, and Caleb puts mares there, too, as well as in the paddocks. All in all, Delta Equine’s reproduction business can handle as many as 110 mares waiting to be bred, not only to the 12 stallions boarded at Delta, but also to stallions whose chilled or frozen semen is being shipped in. So far, 2017 has seen an increased number of mares at the farm and 12 stallions, double the number of stallions that stood at Delta in 2016.
At breeding time, some of the visiting mares have already foaled out, but many give birth at Delta. Caleb keeps an eye on the mares during his work hours (from 6 or 7 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night). He has a barn crew of 8 or 9 busy cleaning stalls, and they keep checking the mares, too. At night, the mares are checked every 30 minutes. If a mare starts to deliver, the person on duty notifies one of the on-call veterinarians: Dr. Findley, Sr., Dr. Appleton, Dr. Hannah Richard, or Dr. Sara Bercier. Newborns get first-class treatment. For example, Delta Equine is one of the few facilities in the nation offering a hyperbaric chamber for horses. Used most often to treat infections and inflammation, the high-pressure, oxygen-rich therapy is also useful for helping “dummy” foals. (Neonatal maladjustment syndrome, or hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, makes a foal act “slow” after birth—the baby may fail to nurse and/or may seem uncoordinated.)
The stallions at Delta are Quarter Horse stallions, bred for the track. Their bloodlines boast top quality like Mr Jess Perry, First Down Dash, and Corona Cartel. Most of the mares that come to be bred are Quarter Horses, with a few Thoroughbreds from time to time. The Thoroughbred mares that are mated to Quarter Horse stallions will produce foals that can be registered as Appendix Quarter Horses and are welcome in Quarter Horse races.
“Live cover,” a requirement for producing Thoroughbred-registered offspring, is rarely done at Delta. The Quarter Horse registry allows artificial insemination using fresh, chilled, or frozen semen. Caleb prefers A.I. to live cover; mares and stallions (and handlers) are less likely to get hurt.
Delta stallions are trained to mount the “phantom” or “dummy” mare. Caleb says, “Most of our stallions are well-behaved in the collection room. I’ve got some stallions that don’t even need a tease mare. As soon as you walk them into the room, they know what’s going on. It’s all business.”
“We are well equipped to handle repro problems,” Caleb says. “We are part of Select Breeder Services, which is an affiliate program which sets protocols for freezing semen. It’s a quality control process: semen is analyzed not only by me, but also by an affiliate laboratory. This process ensures that clients are getting the best product when they decide to freeze semen for insurance purposes.” After decades of research and practice, methods for freezing, storing, and thawing equine semen now produce results that are almost as reliable as using chilled semen, but breeders must follow the guidelines to get mares reliably in foal. Caleb adds that Delta has all the equipment necessary to analyze and take steps to improve results with stallions that might not be so fertile and with mares that have breeding problems. “We stay up-to-date on all the latest studies and technology,” he says.
In winter and spring at Delta Equine, Caleb starts the day in the palpation room. A veterinarian inserts his arm into a mare’s rectum and feels each ovary, checking for a ripe follicle. Or the vet can evaluate the follicle by inserting an ultrasound probe into the rectum. Optimal time for breeding can be figured in hours. “99% of the time my grandpa does the rectal palpations,” says Caleb. “If he’s not available, it’s Dr. Appleton or Dr. Troy. We might examine 20 to 40 mares each morning. The palpation room has three stocks, so I can line up three mares at a time, and I have a crew of guys catching the mares and bringing them up from the stalls or the paddocks. As the mares come in, I read their collars, find their records, and tell my grandpa what the mare’s been doing and what we are looking for. He palpates them, tells me the situation, I record the results, and Ms. Barbara, the breeding secretary, enters that information into the computer.”
Dr. Findley, Sr., likes dealing with repro problems. Caleb says that his grandfather is an optimist who believes that Delta can get anything in foal. “It’s fulfilling when an owner brings a mare to you and says that they’ve been trying to breed her for two years and she’s never caught, and they want us to try and get her in foal. It takes time and dedication.” Caleb says the most rewarding part of his job as breeding manager is finding out, during those morning palpations, that a problem mare is in foal. “It’s a victory,” he says.
Pregnancy is a victory, but keeping a mare pregnant still takes vigilance. Caleb prefers to keep mares at Delta until the 25th day, when the ultrasound shows a heartbeat. Caleb tests progesterone levels at 14 days, when a vesicle is visible on ultrasound and a mare is declared pregnant. If progesterone is low, the mare can be given progestin, a synthetic hormone, to keep the pregnancy going. “If she loses it before there’s a heartbeat at 25 days, we still have time to rebreed the mare, depending on the time of year.” Caleb points out that owners and trainers want foals to be born as soon after January 1st as possible, in order to maximize the growing time before the first season of racing.
Caleb is committed to continuing education. He has taken short courses in equine reproduction at LSU, Texas A & M, and Colorado State University. The LSU course was an introduction to the field: mare cycles, mare and stallion anatomy, semen collecting and analysis, and managing a breeding barn. At Texas A & M Caleb was introduced to state-of-the-art stallion and mare reproductive studies. The Colorado program was the longest and most comprehensive. Caleb says that his own breeding barn management owes a lot to the Colorado State procedures, but “it’s always good to not be close-minded. You should be open to letting someone show you a different way. You might pick up something that may be better.”
These days Caleb doesn’t have time to ride, but he owns a couple of broodmares with his grandfather and his uncles. Caleb likes Tres Seis mares, but, as he says, “I don’t have one yet, because they are hard to come by for a decent price!”
Caleb has his own Findley family. He and his wife have a daughter who just turned 2—and a little boy who will be here at the end of March. His wife, he says, didn’t grow up around horses, but she did show goats through high school. “She has some interest in horses because it’s my life. But she has her own profession—she’s a labor and delivery nurse.”
Caleb says that his grandfather, Dr. Larry Findley, Sr., has been his inspiration and his mentor. “He’s taught me a lot, and he’s sent me in the right direction to learn more. He’s built up a plethora of connections and knowledge. If I have a question, he’s the first one I go to.”
“At Delta Equine,” says Caleb, “we take pride in what we do and we try to be the best.”