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The scrawny foal huddled miserably in the corner of the straw-filled pen, and I moved as slowly as I could so as not to scare her more. My heart sank as I took in her protruding ribs and scraggly coat. The Mustang foal was only seven days old and had been orphaned for two of them, and she was wild.
The Mustang herd lived in the high mountain desert on thousands of acres of public land, and the foal’s mother was young and inexperienced. A new stallion had stolen the mom away from her band, and she’d been forced to abandon her baby. The filly had wandered helplessly around the desolate area until being captured by some BLM volunteers almost two days later. She was starving and dehydrated, and she’d had to endure a long, solo trailer ride to the farm.
Foals get their immunity from the mare when they nurse the first milk, called colostrum, so my first order of business was to learn how successful the colostrum transfer had been. If this orphaned Mustang foal had not received enough good colostrum, she would be in grave danger from infection.
The filly shivered unhappily, hating my touch as I took her temperature, slid my stethoscope over her heaving rib cage and gently palpated her joints and umbilicus. Her gums were pale with a network of purple blood vessels. When I pressed a fingertip against them, they confirmed dehydration. She pinned her ears flat as I checked her eyes and mouth, then weakly tried to kick and bite, and the foster owners chuckled.
“There’s definitely life in her, Doc,” said Janice. “She put up quite a fight when we unloaded her, but she was glad to see a bottle! Phil already got her to drink about 6 ounces.
I regarded the angry little foal thoughtfully. Pathetic as she was, there was absolutely a spark there that I didn’t usually see in sick foals, and I dared to hope just a little. Maybe, just maybe, we could save this one, but foals could die so easily.
I drew blood for testing, passed a stomach tube and delivered a little more formula and medicine, then injected a mixture of antibiotics. I counted out tablets and tubes of paste to try to treat the stomach ulcers that I knew were probably there.
Her vitals were fairly normal, and I held my breath as I dripped some blood onto a snap test that would give us a baseline level for the immunity factors. The timer hadn’t even reached the halfway mark before her results blazed bright on the test screen, showing normal levels. Hopefully she’d be able to fight off the battery of bacteria that were surely attacking her little system after her ordeal in the desert.
I ran more tests later that evening, and her complete blood count was totally normal. My hopes soared and confidently I set up the next tests. When the machine spat out the results on a long strip of paper, my gut clenched tightly as I saw two frighteningly high sets of numbers, a combination that was generally predictive of pending massive infection. I’d known this was a likely outcome and most certainly a deadly one, but this just wasn’t fair to the poor foal.
But I’d drastically underestimated the scrawny dun filly’s constitution, and she didn’t seem to care that her bloodwork was semi-catastrophic. She proceeded to fight for her life, and fight with a ferocity of will that was humbling in such a tiny specimen.
Over the next week, the orphaned Mustang foal effortlessly defied every grim prediction that I made. She sucked down her bottles with ease, then graduated to a bucket at my recommendation, soon guzzling almost a quart or more at a time.
I saw her every day and injected antibiotics, adjusting and adding every treatment that I could think of. Phil and Janice heroically covered feeding and medication shifts around the clock. My awesome colleague covered a shift too, and provided excellent care.
The filly would terrify us with limp and feverish episodes, then come roaring back to life. Her caregivers finally named her Bellona, a Roman name that means “to fight.”
Bellona got stronger and brighter every day, but she wasn’t gaining weight like she should.
She made endless chewing motions and ground her tiny teeth fretfully, tolerating her medical treatments but moving away from us as soon as she could.
She didn’t need formula. She needed a mother, and it was time to start looking for a nurse mare.
I put some requests out on social media and within 12 hours, a kind woman responded. She had a fancy warmblood mare named Skye who’d just lost her foal, and they were eight hours away. We arranged for Phil to retrieve the mare.
Skye wanted absolutely nothing to do with Bellona, who was frantic, calling and lip smacking and sticking her little yellow head through the temporary safety panels, trying tor each the full udder.
We’d made sure Bellona was good and hungry, and I injected a drug into Skye that would hopefully trick her into thinking that she’d just delivered the little dun filly. It was an anxious 45 minutes, but the orphaned Mustang foal finally nursed. We all teared up watching Skye fall in love with the delighted little filly, nuzzling the shaggy little body and giving her a good cleaning.
Bellona finally sank to the straw in a milk coma, and Skye munched from a nearby hay-bag, hind feet planted carefully so as not to step on her sleeping baby. Skye was on duty now, and we could rest.
The bonding was complete, and Bellona had a mom again. I had to laugh at the sight of the big expensive mare with her feral little baby, but all was bliss with the two. Bellona stopped the endless chewing motions and started gaining weight quickly, living up to her name.
This article about a sick orphaned Mustang foal originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Courtney S. Diehl, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She is the author of Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian and Stories of Eric the Fox, first place winner of the CIPA EVVY award. She is currently working on her third book.
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