What is so extraordinary about watching a foal being born is the length of their legs. Inside the stretched and bowed tummy of the mare are these babies with quite a large head, solid shoulders and four endlessly long legs with huge knees and hocks.
Mares tend to foal at night when it is quiet. As the due date approaches, you spend a lot of time during the day just looking for signs that it’s about to happen. Luckily, in today’s world, we have cameras which means during the night we can stay put and check on our phones to see whether the critical moment has arrived. This makes it far more civilised than the old days when you might have been up waiting for a couple of nights in a row. Nevertheless we then do have to leap out of bed and head to the stables.
Apart from having a rough idea of the foaling date, there are other indications of an imminent birth. There is of course the size of the tummy and then whether the mares are bagging up with milk. Sometimes there is some wax at the tip of the teats which is a sign birth is very close.
The mares look round at their sides and pace in the roomy stables, getting down and standing up before you see liquid coming out just before the tiny (soft) hooves appear. Quite quickly, the rest of the foal appears on the straw in a dark wet heap. As with any animal (and humans too), it is about ensuring the airways are clear, clearing away any mucus but the mare will swiftly and intuitively set to. With licking, nuzzling and small noises she will begin to create a maternal bond of touch, sense, hearing and smell: the contact of one body to another.
There is usually a quiet audience of the two grooms, Maggie and Sam, plus my husband and myself depending on the time of night and who got there first. Each stable is large, deeply bedded with straw banked up high around the sides with well-fitting doors to exclude draughts and a heat lamp over one half casting a red light but making a difference.
Valentina was born first on St Valentine’s Day and found her legs quite quickly. The key, as with all births, is to get the foal to suckle that first extra rich milk – it is called Colostrum. It is nature’s equivalent of a super food: highly nutritious, with elevated levels of protein, fat, vitamins, sugars and minerals and, above all, maternal immunoglobulins.
Just before Storm Eunice struck the next foal arrived, with a sweet head marked with a crescent shaped star on her face and big shoulders – a bit of a heave out for her poor mother Farah (her real name is Fair Value). At the moment her stable name is Stormy which seems rather appropriate.
From now on it is all about food, feeding the mares well – our Oatalin (which is a new Highclere endeavour containing micronized linseed and alfalfa pellets for calcium and vitamins) added to nutritious whole oats. Just as it is for us humans, oats have the highest fibre content and lowest energy of all the grains, making them the safest to feed. Horses have been fed oats for centuries. In each mare’s bucket of food we add to the Oatalin, alfalfa, a grain mix with milk pellets and glucose, coconut, garlic and turmeric and it is all soaked so it includes sufficient liquid to make it easy to digest.
Highclere has records of pasture going back over a millennium with some fields being kept for “palfreys”. It is good grazing land and the fact that much of it is chalk downland means that it effectively filters the water for us as well which makes it good hard drinking water although the subsequent scaling is more challenging on all our pipes and taps.
In many ways it is the same approach that we should apply to ourselves. A mixture of good water for hydration, healthy grains and greens. Whilst we may not be able to cure ourselves of various health challenges simply by what we eat, I always think it must help support other efforts. Food seems to have become so complicated these days but at heart it is about balance, diversity and enjoyment. Just as feeding the mares well will help them and their foals stay relaxed and happy, giving them the best start in life.