Monday, May 01, 2000

On the job with the Foal Patrol

Group of dedicated horse lovers helps a newborn to enter the world

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Janet Miller towels off Call Me a Lady's foal just after the horse was born.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        For days, Janet Miller has been closely watching her 12-year-old brood mare, Call Me a Lady. She knows the bay thoroughbred is close to delivering a foal. She thinks this will be the night.

        Time to call the Foal Patrol.

        Janet phones about a dozen people and tells them of the impending birth. Whoever can come, comes.

        By 9:30 p.m., they're gathered at Janet's Just Magic Acres farm in Pleasant Plain, a crossroads community in southern Warren County.

        Nancy Bairnsfather has driven over from nearby Morrow; Lisa Taylor, from Mount Washington; and Leslie Laine from Sycamore Township.

Call Me a Lady meets her foal as Miller moves them nose-to-nose.
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        Teri Smith, Janet's sister who lives on the farm, also is here, along with Janet's 5-year-old great nephew, Allen Inskeep, and Natalie Muennich, a Mason High School freshman; Janet used to work with Natalie's father.

        This night, their hearts will pound. First with anticipation. Then with fear. And finally with exhilaration. One emotion after the other, in rapid sequence.

        But for now they settle into the living room to wait.

        A black-and-white video monitor sits in a corner. It receives pictures from a camera aimed at Lady's stall in the barn, which is a couple of hundred feet from the house.

        For two nights, Janet has slept in the living room, her alarm waking her every hour on the hour so she can check the monitor.

        Tonight she has company.

Natalie Muennich naps while Leslie Laine watches the mare on a TV monitor.
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        At 10:15, Natalie falls asleep on the couch. Twenty minutes later, Allen says good night.

        The others pass the time by watching the monitor and talking — about horses, about movies, about current events.

        The monitor shows Lady pacing.

        “She's uncomfortable right now,” Janet says. It's 10:55.

Patrol's beginning
        Janet, who is 49, wears her short, graying hair neatly brushed back. She bought her farm in 1992, but didn't know much about horses. So she enrolled in a horsemanship class at Diamond Oaks Career Development Campus. The instructor's name was Debbie Boeh.

        In the spring of 1993 Debbie invited her students to her Morrow farm to watch a mare give birth. More than a dozen people showed up, including Janet. Everyone became good friends, and they began calling themselves the Foal Patrol.

Miller and Teri Smith try to move the mare out of the corner because there's not enough room there to birth the foal.
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        Their main purpose: Dry the newborn foal with towels, then pat the bottom of its hooves, touch its legs and body. Imprinting, as it's called, socializes the foal so it's not fearful of humans.

        It's also important to be on hand in case something goes wrong. Janet has witnessed and assisted at enough births — 14 — to know a foal should enter the world a particular way: The two front hooves and nose must come out first.

        Complications result if it doesn't happen that way. Two years ago during a delivery, a foal's leg was folded back. The baby had to be pushed back in and the leg unfolded. Sadly, it didn't survive.

        If there's a problem tonight, Janet will have to make do without her friend and mentor. Debbie is at a horse show in Indiana.

"Making us tired'
        “Janet! Come here!” Nancy says, her eyes on the monitor. It's 12:28 a.m. “I thought maybe we were seeing a bubble.”

        Just before a foal is born, the placenta appears as a balloon-like bubble outside the mare's body. This time, though, it's a false alarm.

        And so there's time for popcorn. And for Lisa and Leslie to grab candy bars from the kitchen.

        The monitor shows Lady is still pacing.

        When Lisa and Leslie spread sleeping bags on the floor, Debbie's two dogs, a German shepherd and sheltie, and Janet's dog, a collie mix, take the cue and go to sleep.

        “You're making us all tired, Lady,” Janet says, eyeing the monitor.

        Horses usually give birth at night. Janet's two mares have delivered as early as 9 p.m., and as late as 8 a.m.

        At 1:51 a.m., Nancy decides to leave. She has commitments this day, and needs sleep.

        “We'll let you know,” Janet says. A few minutes later, she turns off the living room lights and she and Lisa continue staring at the glowing monitor.

        And they wait.

"Her water just broke'
        Frantic voices break the silence. Lights come on. Janet and Teri rush to the barn. The others throw on jackets while focusing their eyes on the monitor.

        It's 3:02 a.m.

        “Her water just broke! Come on!” Lisa says, and the others sprint outside.

        In her stall, the huge horse lies on her side, close to a wall. Too close.

        There's not enough room for the baby to come out. Not enough room for Janet to get back there and help, if needed.

        Janet and Teri are in the stall. The others watch from the other side of the door. Leslie holds a video camera.

        “Come on, mama,” Lisa coaxes. “You can't have it there.”

        The bubble has appeared. And the foal's first hoof.

        Janet reaches inside the mare and finds the other leg and nose, just where they should be.

        Call Me a Lady snorts. Everyone knows she's too close to the wall. But getting her to move won't be easy.

        “You can't get behind her right now,” Janet tells Teri. “If she rolls over, she'll kill somebody.”

        A kick to someone's head also could prove fatal.

        Lady tries to get up. But her weight works against her.

        “Do not get behind her,” Janet warns Teri.

"Be careful'
        Lady shifts her weight, building momentum for another attempt to stand. But she rolls onto her back, legs flailing.

        “Janet. Janet! Janet!” Lisa's says. “Be careful!”

        They again try to coax Lady up. And fail.

        “Watch those legs! Janet!”

        The horse rests, groaning. Her belly rises and falls with each heavy breath.

        She tries again to get up, and this time, she succeeds. The women cheer.

"Push, push, push'
        Lisa enters the stall to help guide Lady to the middle. The foal is part way out.

        Lady settles in the straw, away from the wall. “Good girl!” the women say.

Miller, Lisa Taylor and Smith clean up the foal.
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        Lisa kneels by Lady's head. The horse's body tenses. Contractions are coming.

        “Push, push, push,” Lisa says.

        Teri's ready to warn Janet if the mare kicks. Janet has two hands around the foal's exposed leg.

        “Come on sweet girl, come on,” Leslie says.

        With each contraction, Janet gently pulls on the foal's leg in a downward arc.

        Lisa: “Push, push, push ... .”

        Leslie: “Come on, mom.”

        Janet: “Here she goes ... .”

        The foal's front legs, head and shoulder pop out. Janet pulls the placenta away from its face. She lifts the head slightly, and runs her fingers down the nostrils to drain fluid.

        “It's alive,” Janet says, with no emotion in her voice.

        The foal takes its first breath.

        It's 3:19 a.m.

        A chorus of “Ahhhhhh” echoes through the barn.

"A little girl'
        “Towels! Towels!” Janet calls.

        She rubs the foal as mother and baby rest quietly for a few minutes. The mare is pumping nutrition and fluids through the umbilical cord to the foal.

        “A little girl,” Janet announces.

Miller watches as the foal tries to discover where to find its mother's milk.
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        Soon, the foal rolls over, breaking the umbilical cord. That's the signal for Janet to invite the others into the stall.

        “You did a good job, mama,” Lisa says, patting Lady. The mare licks her newborn, over and over.

        Teri goes to the house and wakes Allen. She carries the sleepy little boy to the barn. He watches the foal struggle to stand on wobbly legs, shivering in the cool morning air.

        The women rub the foal, over and over. They run their hands over its black mane and brown coat, which is soft as a feather.

        “Congratulations, Janet,” Lisa says. “Another addition to Just Magic Acres.”

        In the little community of Pleasant Plain and beyond, people are sleeping soundly this cool, clear spring morning.

        Janet Miller and friends are tired, but they wouldn't have it any other way. Their night has been just magic, indeed.


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