The watchers pace back and forth. They sleep restlessly in a cushy recliner, one eye open, watching the pregnant mothers, waiting for something to happen. The mothers groan and ache; their bellies are swollen, overfull. Days come and go with nothing happening but watching, waiting. Is this a maternity ward? Well, sort of.
Springtime is the birthing season on our farm and the barns are pretty much maternity wards for horses. Pregnant mares populate each stall. Emotions are high: expectation, nervousness, relief. It’s an exciting, beautiful time … but it’s a lot of work for the Sheriff, Wonder Woman and their staff. Starting in January, the babies come, one by one, slowly at first. Then, the pace picks up and by March and April, they’re coming so fast, The Sheriff can barely keep up. One, two, sometimes five foals a week. And they nearly always come in the still of night, just to make it more interesting.
I was walking through the barn the other day, past about six stalls with overripe pregnant mares, each impatiently waiting for nature to take its course. They paced back and forth, aching under the weight of their load. I stopped to chat with one gal who was past due. We could tell she could go any minute, her teets had already started dripping milk, but still, nothing was happening. “Oh, I’ve been there, honey. I know …” I whispered to her. She shuffled up to me, putting her nose against the iron grate that separated us. I bent my head towards her, she did the same, and we both stood there, foreheads touching, our breath sending little clouds into the icy night air. “You’re almost done, sweetheart. Hang in there,” I told her.
My mind went back twenty something years. Two of my children were born in the spring and they were both overdue. I remember that feeling well. I know that mare’s pelvis was feeling like an egg, slowly cracking open. I know her ankles were swollen, her legs buckling, her mind a little crazed. Perhaps, like me, she was craving gallons of ice cold orange juice? This mare is a veteran, though, so she knew what she was in for ... but that doesn’t take away the discomfort, the anxiousness.
My husband, The Stallion, and I have been blessed to have witnessed several births over the past few years of owning this farm. We get the call that one of the mares is giving birth and jump in the four wheeler to race a mile down the gravel road, skidding to a stop at the barn and jumping out. Many times, we have just missed the actual birth. (I wish my own labor and deliveries had gone so quickly). But every so often, we get there just in time to see the magic. The mare is lying down, her water is already broken and a little pair of hooves is jutting out of her. The Sheriff will rub her belly to encourage and calm her. Then he will grab the baby’s hooves and gently coax him out.
If all goes well, and it usually does, the foal is born quickly, sliding out all slippery and confused, and the mare is soon licking him clean. The little guy is about as big as our Doberman, though with legs almost as long as his mother’s, but spindly, nowhere near as beefy and strong. He will lay there for about a half hour, wet and shivering, getting used to breathing air, enjoying the tongue bath from his mom. Soon, he’s testing out his legs. It’s like that scene in the movie Bambi when he’s wibbly wobbling all over the ice. The newborn foal is unsure, struggling, falling, getting back up again. But, in about an hour and a half, that little guy is up, nursing his mama for the first time. It’s amazing, beautiful. It never gets old.
The mares on our farm are broodmares, so they go through this process many, many times in their lives. My hat is off to them; I only gave birth three times. Compared to my sainted mother, who gave birth nine times, I am a complete minor leaguer, an amateur, and Mom wasn’t shy about reminding me of that. “All single births, no twins,” she often would say, implying that with twins, you got two babies for the labor of one, like it was cheating or something.
I remember when I was pregnant, giving birth and nursing … I felt a connection to all mammals on the planet, from dogs to elephants to horses. Oftentimes, yes, I felt like a bosomy cow. “We are all the same,” I thought. “We conceive, gestate, give birth and nurse our young.” I remember my oldest sister, The Sage One, saying that pregnancy and childbirth is the “great equalizer.” No matter your zip code, race, or creed, we women all go through the same thing. From cave women thousands of years ago to movie stars today. How profound is that?
Two of my three babies came in the early spring. Both of my parents passed in the early spring. The good Lord gave hope to us all by rising from the dead in early spring. While Ohio springs are not easy -- I remember plenty of snowy Easters growing up -- springtime is a poetic reminder of the cycle of life: death, birth, renewal, resurrection, hope. Each year, just when we cannot take one more day of slushy, snowy, gray days, the earth miraculously, inevitably reawakens. Ferns yawn out from the ground, as if stretching their arms after a long winter’s nap. Trees explode in slow motion, opening up their leaves in celebration of the longer days. Slowly, slowly, the earth and we come back to life, become reenergized, alive.
And on farms, countrysides and woods the world over, babies are born. Is there anything more hopeful than a newborn baby, be it human or equine, in springtime?