Mother and daughter run the farm together. They have had horses for years and know what they are doing. This April I was asked to do some chiropractic work on two of their horses. I did that, and then they said, “hey, while you are here…..” It turns out that they had bought a mare for a good price just after Christmas. The complaint was that she wasn’t doing as well as they had hoped under their care. She was a bit potbellied, and they wondered if she might have worms. They had already mucked out her stall before I arrived, so there was no manure to take back and analyze. I asked permission to get some manure from her rectum. I slipped on a sleeve and slathered lube on it. There was some fecal material right in the rectum. She was a nice mare to work on, and something told me to just go a little further in and see how things were internally. I was surprised to find a close to term fetus, alive as could be. The owners were more surprised than I, because the mare had been in heat a few times since the start of the year. It turned out that the previous owner had been having employee issues on her farm and that at least one of her studs and maybe both had gotten in with this mare last June.
Any equine veterinarian will tell you that these surprises do happen. My first experience with this was a racing Standardbred mare. She had been in a claiming race in the fall and her new owner had given her every chance to prove herself. As the spring season went on her times got slower and slower. He didn’t cull her from his racing string because there was just something about this mare that he liked. One morning in the spring he called me over to his barn and said that he found out why she had been racing so poorly. I asked him why, and he said, “Just stop over at the barn before you leave the track.” I did, and he motioned me over to the mare’s stall. As we looked over the split door, I saw her nursing her new colt! She had actually raced the night before! She hadn’t finished well, but amazingly, she was still trying. There was no history of her being bred, and again, since she had been showing heats all spring, neither he nor I suspected that she might be pregnant. Pregnancies can be pretty well concealed in stocky mares, and while it’s not common, some mares will cycle through their pregnancies.
Another surprise foaling I remember was over 20 years ago, and cross my heart, this is a true story. The owner, whose place I had never been on, called to say that she had a new foal to check out. She added that she had always owned the mare and knew for certain that she had never been bred. I asked her if there might be a neighbor with a stallion who was adept at jumping fences, and she said there were no stallions in the neighborhood. Three days later I stopped at her farm and saw a very obvious stallion in the stall next to the mare. I said, “Could this be the father?” She replied that the two were sometimes turned out together, but he certainly couldn’t be the father. I asked why, and she replied, “Don’t be silly, Doctor, that’s her brother!”
There are lessons to be learned from these three stories. Any time you take possession of a mare, be suspicious that she might be bred. Ask the owners how long they have had the mare. If they have had her less than 11 months, it could be that she was bred before they got her. When you buy a horse you often don’t get the story that that goes with them. This seems to be common in “rescues.” Some mares come from wild or poorly managed herds where everyone runs together, and, of course, those mares are more apt to be pregnant than not.
Just when you think that you have things figured out by counting elapsed months on your fingers, be careful. The books will tell you that mares cycle from early spring until fall. This is not always true. I knew of one mare that would only settle in early November. That meant that she would foal in October, and she did it every year, no matter what we did to make her “normal.”
If you are having a pre purchase exam done before buying a horse (always a good idea), ask to have a pregnancy check done unless you don’t care if you are buying into a two for one deal. Even if the news is surprising, it would be nice to know about when the package will arrive.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM