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The Disappearing Foal

I usually write my articles to inform. If that is what you are looking for, you can stop reading right here, as you won’t learn a thing from this one. It’s a true story that happened some 30 years ago, and I am still laughing about it.

I usually don’t use real names in my articles, but Don and Cheryl Piper have given full permission. Don no longer has horses, and the barn in Minot where this happened is no longer there, but at the time he was a good client, a great hand with a horse, and no fool. His phone call came at around 6 AM one early spring morning.

“Doc, you remember my pregnant mare?”

“Sure do, Don, she was about due. Has she foaled out?”

“Well, not exactly, but……yeah, maybe.”

“What does that mean, yeah, maybe?”

“Doc, her afterbirth hasn’t passed yet. It’s still hanging there.”

“OK. Well, I should come out today and we’ll see what we can do about that.
How’s the foal. Do you have a colt or a filly?”

“Well, Doc, that’s what has me a little befuddled here. There is no foal.”

“Let me get this straight, you have a placenta hanging from the mare, but you
don’t have a foal on the ground?”


I was suddenly wide awake and listening hard. “Is she straining?”

“Nope, and she’s slack sided now…you remember how big she was? Well she
ain’t so big anymore.”

“Is she eating?”


“…and no foal in the stall, have I got that right?”

“You got it right.”

“I’m on my way.”

On the drive to the Piper farm I tried to reason this out. Happy mare, looking like she has foaled. No foal. The afterbirth hanging, but no baby. The reason the placenta is called the afterbirth is because that’s when it’s always passed. The whole thing didn’t make sense, and by the time I got to the farm, I was anxious to see what had happened.

Don met me at the barn. I walked over to the mare’s stall and leaned over the dutch door. She seemed pretty happy, standing there eating her hay. It was just her in that stall. No foal. Sure enough, just like he had said, her placenta was hanging from her with some of it almost touching the floor. Don tied the mare’s head to a ring in the wall and held her tail off to the side as I scrubbed up her back end.

“Well,” I said, as I pulled on a long sterile sleeve and squeezed some lubricant on it, “whatever we find in there will be interesting for sure.”

I ran my arm through the mare’s vagina and into her uterus. I felt where the placenta was still attached and it came away with very gentle traction. All 15 pounds of it splatted down onto the floor. I swept my arm around the now contracting uterus, and felt…..nothing. I did it again, just to make sure. Empty. It had certainly recently held a foal, but there wasn’t one in there now. I put some antibiotics in the uterus and then stood there totally bewildered. There should have been four living beings in that stall. Don, me, the mare, and her baby, but there were only three of us. All kinds of crazy things went through my head. Could someone have taken the baby? No, rustling a new born foal without its mom made no sense. We both felt foolish as we kept glancing into every corner of that foaling stall. I even kicked the bedding around a little as if there might be a foal under there somewhere.

We left the stall and walked around the inside of that big old 60 by 60 barn, poking into every nook and cranny. No foal, and even if it was out here, how did it get out of the stall? I asked him if the barn doors had been shut all night.

“All night long.”

Way at the other end of the long barn Don yelled, “Hey!, the scuttle hole!” Don’s barn was one of those big old New England ones. You had to go up a ramp to get into the barn, and there was about 8 feet of clearance under the heavy hemlock floor which was supported by big granite posts. Down underneath was where the manure was put during the winter. The men who built those old barns a century or more ago were pretty smart about saving steps. They never took the manure around the barn with a wheel barrow. It was dropped down through the floor of the barn through “scuttle holes.” In this case the scuttle was about 2 feet square.

We peered down through the hole. The big pile of manure and bedding from the winter came almost up to the barn floor in a cone shape. . We couldn’t see much, so Don went out of the barn and down underneath, and there was a cute little filly, just hanging out with some Hereford cows. She was alive and still a little wet.

Don carried her up, around, and back into the barn and into the stall with her mom. The mare nickered, and with a little gentle pushing we got the foal to her side and she started to nurse.
As we watched her having that first meal, we got our heads together and pretty much figured out what had happened in the early morning hours. The dutch door to the stall was made out of a sheet of ¼ inch plywood, secured just at the top with one latch. Apparently the foal had tried to get up and had fallen against the bottom of the door. The door sprung out, and she got up on the other side of the door. The plywood sprang back, leaving the door as shut as before. Now the filly was on the alley side of the door. We guessed that she had started wandering around in that big old barn, looking for mom who had suddenly disappeared. She got over to the open scuttle hole, fell in and must have somersaulted down that tall manure pile to the ground below.

I’ll never know why the mare never raised a fuss over baby’s sudden departure, just exactly how the filly managed to spring the stall door, or why she wandered down the barn and fell into the scuttle hole. It was fortunate that the big pile of manure reached almost up to the barn floor and prevented an 8 foot drop onto the hard ground.

I haven’t seen Don for any years, so I called to check with him before finishing this article to make sure I had all the facts about right. We both had another laugh over the whole episode and each of us said that we had told the story many times. I’m sure I’ll never have another farm call quite like it again.


David A. Jefferson, DVM

Comments (2)

  1. We had a similar occurrence with a maiden mare. She foaled mid-day in the pasture, apparently next to the fence. The foal stood up on the wrong side and met my cranky old gelding. A dramatic rescue by Hubby re-united mother and foal, no harm done.

    I think my mare didn’t realize that she had a foal – it was her first and it disappeared before she had any opportunities to bond. Once the two bonded, the mare became (and remains to this day, 18 years later) a fierce protector of her herd members, biological or otherwise.

  2. David A. Jefferson, D.V.M. - Reply

    I have heard of this happening, and then the mare crashing through the fence to get at her foal. Glad that your episode ended so well.
    Dr J

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