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A Knight’s Tale of Heritage Horse Stud

We run a heritage horse stud and rescue/rehabilitation property in Nannup, southwest WA. So we are used to having wild mares rescued from remote outback stations drop the odd foal in our yards. Even when the mares are in very poor condition they are generally fabulous and highly protective mothers.

What we were not prepared for was the highly unusual – for a small, wild buckskin brumby mare from Theda Station, north of Broome (yes Lizzie Spender/Wild Horse Diaries fame) to drop a lovely, healthy colt foal in the yards…and then walk away from it.

It happened nearly three weeks ago and we have been on a bit of a roller coaster ride ever since; emotionally, physically, and financially. Hand rearing a foal – and a foal who had not even had its initial colostrum from the mother – wasn’t something we were either prepared for or experienced in.

It happens and foals are orphaned or abandoned….there’s a bit of information on the internet if you are prepared to look, but not a whole lot of detail about options or the many different case scenarios. When we tried to move them into a smaller area together to bond, the mares (the foal’s mother and that mare’s mother, both mature horses) just went straight over the top of the poor colt, fortunately not doing any real damage. In our case, the mare was (still) so wild and so completely uninterested in the foal we couldn’t even run her into the crush to sedate her and try to get the foal suckling. The mare would have damaged herself and in the process, tried to damage us and the foal.

We didn’t have any nurse mares…or so we thought. So we removed the little blighter, who had been found standing, already dry and sucking rather hopefully on an outside corner of our hay shed.

He was small but strong and healthy. We named him Balian, after the main character in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven”, a young man who lost everything but then went on to become a Knight in the Holy Lands. As Balian was about to embark upon his quest – for survival – we thought it appropriate.

He was an unusual color – almost the color of light cinnamon, with pale eyes like his mother, but already greying out. (His sire, we found out not long after, had been a tall, grey part Arab stallion who had escaped the yards on Theda.) Despite his initial robustness, we knew that he would not be healthy for long if we didn’t get some sustenance – and some colostrum – into him within the next 24 to 36 hours.

We consulted Dr. Sheila Greenwell, our friend, vet, and equine specialist. We had Divetalac formulae which Sheila said we could use in the interim, but it wouldn’t have the protein or fat that the foal needed to grow. We needed Wombaroo, she said, which is a powdered formula specially made to feed foals. We needed (frozen) mare’s colostrum, which after an hour of phone calls was found (at that time) to be completely unavailable in our southwest area. And there were no just-foaled mares anywhere in the area either, at least none that we could find. We possibly could have couriered frozen colostrum down from Murdoch Uni in Perth, but to be honest, we could not have afforded it. Nor could we afford spun plasma…although we have since learned that there is an “at home” version you can ask your vet to create if you have the right horses, the time, and the equipment. We also needed a milk formula suitable for young foals.

My mother came to the rescue. She knew a woman who bred Alpacas and also goats, as goat’s colostrum was ideal for orphaned or rejected Alpacas. Who knew?! It was also better, Sheila said than cow’s colostrum for foals. So my sainted mother made a three-hour round trip in the car and returned not only with frozen goat’s colostrum, but also cow’s colostrum, which was just out of date and which she had been given by the woman for free, just in case.

At this point, we had to solve another problem…Sheila had noted that orphaned or rejected foals, hand-reared without equine influence, mature into often dysfunctional horses. Balian needed another horse for company. But the only two lactating mares we had, already with healthy young foals several weeks old at foot, were openly aggressive and would not let the brumby foal near them or their offspring, understandably. Our geldings were too big and boisterous and Balian was a tiny thing. Then my husband thought of Betsy…

Earaheedy Betsy is one of the greys Sheila rescued from up near Wiluna in 2005, a six-year-old, 15hh, maiden mare. Maiden because when rescued Betsy had been in foal (for the first time it was thought), but was so emaciated she aborted the fetus in the yards. Then, when she came to join our little herd, she had been put in foal again…only to lose the big, healthy bay colt at birth because he was mispresented and too large. (Highly unusual for mares generally.) The colt died before we could get him out and the resulting effort by the vet and my husband to remove the body from Betsy had nearly killed her. It was very distressing for everybody concerned and Betsy took several weeks to recover.

I don’t believe in putting human emotions on to animals, however, we all knew that Betsy had desperately wanted a foal. When pregnant she had “talked” to her baby constantly, nickering quietly all the time in a way none of our other mares ever did. After she lost her colt she really, truly grieved…she parked herself by the fence adjoining the foaling paddock where our other two Waler mares grazed with their healthy young foals, and watched them for hours at a time, day after day. It was a heart-rending and very poignant sight, and after she was deemed fit again, we put Betsy back in with our Waler stallion to help her on the way to another foal.

Ten days later Balian came along. So my husband went and pulled Betsy (who had been successfully mounted by this stage) out and brought her over, on a halter, to the hay shed where I had Balian. Right from the start, she showed interest. She sniffed Balian and then proceeded to follow him about a bit…but when he moved to her udder, directed more by good luck and instinct than knowing, she flattened her ears and squealed. No, go. We allowed Balian to continue to move freely about Betsy, still keeping her on the lead rope. Sniff sniff, again…then she licked him.

We risked it and placed them both together in our nearby grassed holding paddock. For the remainder of the day, Betsy objected whenever Balian tried to go for her udder, but she followed him about and continued to show interest, not at all bothered about being taken away from the stallion. (Although he had strongly objected and continued to scream his annoyance for the several hours it took us to find another mare for him!)

As soon as they were together, we started feeding the very sprightly Balian – a standard baby bottle (250ml) every two hours to begin with.

He sucked well and took a goodly amount of colostrum the first day and all through the first night and second morning. He took all of it – all the goat’s colostrum and then all the cow’s, in between bottles of Divetalac. Unfortunately, this was our first mistake. We gave him too many different, rich brews at once. Plus he was given a tetanus shot and a multivitamin shot. In hindsight, we should have watered it all down and introduced it slowly, but he was so ravenous we let him drink it straight.

By the second morning, we saw it…Betsy stood quietly, with Balian’s head buried under her flank. He was sucking and she was allowing it. He certainly wasn’t getting anything but the bond that had so quickly developed between the two was unmistakable and getting stronger. Betsy was quite happy to suckle him in our presence, even nickering as if to show off the fact that she could do it. (Despite no milk!)

By midday of day two, however, Balian was a very sick little foal. His poor tummy was so overloaded he had given up sucking altogether and had developed terrible diarrhea. On Sheila’s instructions, we took him off all milk and put him on to electrolytes for twenty-four hours to allow his tummy to come good. Although happy with Betsy, who nickered in constant concern, he was listless and did not drink well in the heat of the afternoon. By day three, he still wasn’t sucking down anywhere near enough electrolytes and was now in danger of becoming dehydrated. Late that morning we reintroduced half-strength Divetalac but Balian was still unwilling to drink much at all.

The universe, however, seemed to be working in Balian’s favor. That afternoon Mary Hitchcock called in. Mary is an Equine Touch instructor and practitioner and had earlier volunteered her services to the Outback Heritage Horse Association charity we are involved with, to assist with any rescue horses that needed help. “Equine Touch” is nondiagnostic, noninvasive, gentle, hands-on discipline consisting of a series of unique gentle moves (some similar to Bowen), performed in choreographed patterns over specific points of the body. It was Mary’s first visit and she was immediately drawn to Balian.

Over the next thirty minutes, she gave Balian a “treatment”, gently working all over his body and massaging his poor tense little muscles. As each delicate maneuver was made, you could see Balian’s body twitch and respond. He enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, Mary had to leave before she could see the results of her work, but ninety minutes later, Balian started to suck again and suck well. He took nearly a whole bottle of weakened formulae. We believe that Mary made his tummy feel better, and allowed Balian to concentrate on his hunger again, and we were very grateful to her for her assistance that day.

Over the next few days, despite on and off diarrhea, Balian continued to improve slowly. It was warm and sunny and although still on Divetalac and not putting on any weight, the colt was doing okay. We got a local vet to test Balian’s IG levels to check his immunity and see if he had managed to absorb the colostrum he had been given. The results were not good. Balian’s immunity was very low and if he got sick, we could lose him.

As we couldn’t afford any other options to boost Balian’s immunity, our local vet nurse, Anne, suggested giving the colt colloidal silver every day in his milk, which was known to boost the immune system. Sheila agreed and we started that. We also started giving him cornflour in small amounts mixed in with his milk, to help prevent his diarrhea. It worked to a point. We also started giving him lactobacillus powder (live culture) in his milk to help his gut bacteria develop properly. This was helped by the fact that although only a week old, he was already nibbling at Betsy’s hay and grass in the paddock. Dirt in, bacteria in. It was all good.

At about this time several things happened – we finally got a foal rug for Balian, we got Wombaroo, and it started to rain here.

Unfortunately, we had no stables and no shelter. Balian would have to survive with Betsy in the paddock. Fortunately, Sheila had also provided a dog rug, and with that on underneath and the foal rug over the top, Balian was as snug as a bug and weathered the next few cold nights very well.

It took several days to swap him over to Wombaroo – we were careful to dilute it at first, but even though it was diluted, he started to put on weight almost immediately and became noticeably livelier after just a couple of days.

Despite our best efforts, several days after going on to full strength Wombaroo, Balian developed diarrhea again, and on top of that, a cold. He had the snots.

This was a real concern. We put him on to Trimadeine powder immediately, mixed in with his Wombaroo twice a day. However three days later his snotty nose was worse, not better, and for the next few days, he had to suffer an injection of Accent antibiotics every day. (Specifically designed for respiratory infections.) Unfortunately, the side effort of the antibiotics was that his diarrhea became much, much worse. Eye of needle stuff, despite the cornflour.

We were torn. We couldn’t take him off his formulae because he would become too weak. We couldn’t take him off the antibiotics or the cold would kill him. We couldn’t give him enough cornflour to stop the runs, he would get sick from that. We just had to keep on with everything we were doing and hope that Balian managed to sort himself out.

We are still trying. Despite diarrhea, Balian gallops about the paddock, giving little bucks and kicks and making us laugh. He still suckles from Betsy – who has started to produce an opaque liquid from her teats. Her udder is not huge but…is she developing one? We will have to wait and see. It would certainly be a blessing.

Balian is nearly three weeks old now. His cold is clearing and he is off the Accent, although back on Trimadeine powder. He lost a bit of weight from diarrhea but isn’t too bad. We wash his backside down once a day, something he tolerates but only barely. Sheila says it’s good he is fighting. We think so too. We are focusing on his making it to 2 – 3 months old when their immune systems kick in. After this, he will have a much better chance of survival. In the meantime, we make do with the lack of sleep and organize a friend to come in and feed when we have to work. We long for the day he learns to drink from a bucket. We have been trying but he’s not there yet. Our biggest problem has been isolation and lack of money to pay for what Balian needs. But that’s life in the country and for now, we are just doing the best we can. Every day above ground is a good one.

By Katherine

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