San Diego "To the woman, He said: 'I will greatly multipy your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children.'"
-- Genesis 13:16
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now."
-- Romans 8:22
The second quotation has been cited as evidence that when Adam and Eve fell, all of creation fell with them in some way. Listening to Laura Neeley, owner of very pregnant Western show horse Not Wild Just Foxy (Foxy for short), it seems the curse of pain in childbirth is included in that shared fall. "I would imagine [it's painful]," she says. "They're having babies. It's no different than a human. I've had two kids. It's excruciating, but that's one of the wonderful things about being a woman, or being a female horse -- you get to be a mother."
But, foaling attendant Lydia Caise offers, "they're pretty stoic. They sweat and they groan and they wriggle around." This makes me wonder about Laura's guess. No woman I know was ever stoic through a delivery, a drug-free delivery at that. On this cold, clear February night at FarWest Farms in Del Mar, I'm here to watch Foxy give birth.
Foxy has been hinting at delivery for several days, flicking her tail, shifting her weight, showing a wobble in her walk as things loosen up. Tonight, all the signs are there. She stands with her front legs splayed, her back legs close together and turned in. Her normally firm and defined rump has gone slack; dimples are visible. Her muscular tail is also limp, except for the six inches nearest the base, which jut straight out. (Lydia has wrapped the tail to protect the foal.) She lifts her back legs to scratch at her swollen belly; a belly once round, now oblong from the baby's drop down toward the birth canal. She throws glances of curiosity and irritation at her backside, sometimes biting at her sides. All day, she has been waxing -- the buildup that keeps the antibody-rich colustrum in her udder has been dripping away in preparation for a nursing foal.
To insure cleanliness, Foxy's night is spent in a large stall outside one of the barns at FarWest. The floor of the stall is lined with straw instead of shavings. The straw is cleaner and less likely to cause infection. The stall is fenced in on three sides by gray metal pipes, about seven feet high. A yellow, slanted metal roof connects to the brown wooden back wall; a single fluorescent light is affixed to the roof. The clear, dead light puts things in oversharp focus, as if you had put on glasses a little too strong for you. It clashes with the warm earth tones of the roof, wall, and straw, and throws stripes of shadow from the fence onto the hard earth outside the stall. Except for a white diamond on her forehead, Foxy is brown-black under the light. Her coat has thinned in places from the light and the pregnancy.
I'm told that most mares foal between midnight and 2:00 a.m. If 4:00 a.m. arrives and nothing has happened, Foxy will hear the roosters and decide it's time to eat. Birth will have to wait till the following night. Around 9:15, she stamps her front feet, cranes her head forward so that her neck forms a straight line with her back, and then drops: front knees first, then back, then to her side. "She'll be up and down five or six times," says Lydia.
Foxy's nostrils flare with her breathing, sending up puffs of vapor. Her great mound of a belly is pushed into the air by the ground under her side. Getting up, she begins pacing, wobbling like a drunk, then pauses at her feed trough. "That's Foxy -- food centered," laughs Laura. "She's trying so hard to maintain normalcy. 'If I just keep eating...' "
Down she goes, then up. She beats her bottom against the bars. Milk starts running in a goopy stream from her udder, soaking her back legs, but stops when Lydia runs to get a cup. By 10:00 p.m., she is still not sweating, "not as warm as she needs to be," according to Lydia. She's eating more than is expected. Her water hasn't broken. The foal could be a while in coming.
Ninety-eight percent of mares foal without any trouble. Of the remaining 2 percent, over 1 percent of the problems are correctable, often by repositioning. "Sometimes the babies can come out without the forelegs coming out first," says Lydia. "All you have to do is kind of push it back a little bit, reach in there and pull the leg -- just very gently hold the legs and help guide the baby." C-sections and episiotomies are almost never performed.
Laura offers this account: "I don't think it's really like women, where we have so many different issues to deal with. Mares are built for having these babies, and unless there's a problem with the positioning of the baby, there almost isn't a problem." Aren't women built for having babies? Evidence that the curse rested on Eve alone?
If there are serious problems, the life of the mare is paramount. "It's different than a human baby," says Laura, "where sometimes, the decision between the two lives may be a harder decision. If it's a horse, you love this horse, this is your horse. If you had to choose, I don't think you would choose the baby over the mare." The increased health risk is part of the reason why mares are rarely bred over 20. The other is that the spontaneous abortion rate is higher at that age, and with stud fees sometimes climbing to two or three thousand dollars, a lot of money can be lost.
At 11 years old, Foxy is in the prime of her life. She was bred by artificial insemination to Chickaroula -- "a sweet horse," says Laura, who chose him partly for his disposition, partly for "what he's done" -- on March 3 of '97, and again on March 6. Fee: $1000. Other expenses included sonograms (mares cannot carry twins) and vaccinations.
10:37 p.m.: Foxy stops and stands in silhouette against the fluorescent. A shadowy ridge of evaporating sweat curls up from the length of her back. Delivery is underway. 10:45: she goes down, :48: she gets up, :54: down again, :55: up, :59: down and her water breaks, a pinkish-brownish burst shooting about a foot and a half. She struggles up and keeps walking, squirting water as she goes. She settles back down to push. The baby should be born in 20 to 40 minutes; any longer can mean trouble. "If they take their first breath while they're still in the bag, they can inhale fluids, and that can kill them," warns Laura.
Foxy is snorting and heaving, full of loud exhalations. But as the front foot appears, still encased in a glistening, yellow-white clear sack half-filled with fluid, she does not scream. She does not whinny or whimper. This is effort, but it doesn't seem to be agony. The mass between her legs pushes one leg into the air, and she waves it back and forth as her body twitches. The second foot appears, and things slow down.
Laura wants to break the sack, but Lydia counsels against it. "If something were stuck, and you had to put the foal back in, you'd want that sack on there. I usually wait until the ears are out." Foxy resumes work, grunting every five seconds or so.
"There's the nose," cries Laura. "Oh, my God, my heart is racing. Is she doing okay?"
"She's doing great, coming out fast," answers Lydia. "There's an eye." The head is long and slender, as if it were done growing in length and wanted only filling out. The head is jet black. An ominous tongue lolls out the side of the mouth, and there is no movement, but Lydia says, "Sometimes it takes a pretty good push to get them moving."
What seems like a long time passes, though it is not yet 11:10. Still, there is no motion, and Foxy has taken another break. "I really expected to see breathing by this point," worries Lydia. "I'm going to let her give one more big shove..."
But Foxy is not shoving, she is getting up. The foal's head, exposed to about the ears, and the forelegs hang out, motionless. Foxy looks back, then begins pacing. Laura fears she'll try to rub her backside on the bars, but instead, she bucks toward the ceiling, hard. The metal roof crashes and rings at the impact, and Laura lets fly an expletive. The foal's head bobs up and down with eerie slackness, the tongue and bag bouncing a second behind. Because the bucking is rare, Lydia runs to call Sandy Arledge, FarWest's owner. Foxy bucks again.
Laura steps into the stall and starts talking Foxy down. In her softest voice, she assures Foxy, "It's going to be okay, it's going to be okay. I know this is hard...." while moving her away from the sides of the stall. Foxy responds, bows her head, and lies back down. Three pushes and a little help from Laura, the foal is out with a gush, breathing at last. The time is 11:15.
Mother and child lie still for about five minutes. Then the foal starts pushing at the bag. Laura helps it out. Its long spidery legs make it look like the horse from Dalí's Temptation of St. Anthony, except the horse in the painting could stand up. Foxy stands up after 15 minutes, breaking the umbilical cord. It may be several hours before she delivers the placenta. When I leave, the foal is still struggling to stand, still struggling for its first taste of mother's milk.