It is a spring morning. After watching the breeding of a mare at El Hornillo, I decide to wander down to one of the lower pastures where the foals and their mothers are almost sure to be found.
Just before leaving the dirt road to enter an olive grove, I meet the yeguero, Alfonso, who complains that one of the ranch’s nicest mares, Noticiera, is several days overdue in foaling. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” he grumbles as he leaves me and plods through the wildflowers still heavy with dew.
The clouds that grayed the past week’s skies have now been blown from Andalucia, Spain. Somewhere ahead in the olive grove a nightingale is singing, accompanied by the faint, alluring sound of the mares’ bells.
After reaching the herd, most of which are grazing in a field of mustard, the better part of an hour is spent photographing new foals at play. At about 10:30 I decide to leave the yellow field; somewhere not far away the nightingale is still serenading, and I want to try to get a close look at it. Of all the spring mornings spent on my book Equus, this is perhaps the loveliest; the sky is so freshly blue, and dew is sparkling on the thousands of brilliant blossoms that spread out around the olive trees.
Locating the nightingale is not difficult, but staying with it as it tries to lure me from its nearby mate sitting on a carefully woven, cone-shaped nest, is not easy. However, because there is nothing else to do–the sun is almost too high for good photography–I follow the bird.
After I wander about a quarter of a mile, the bird’s singing suddenly stops and, as I swing around hoping to see his rust-colored body bursting in flight from one tree to another, I notice a white horse spread out on the ground, almost hidden from view by low-hanging olive branches.
At first, this sight does not rouse my curiosity; often mares can be seen stretched out in deep sleep, but usually somewhat earlier in the morning and close to the herd. Approaching the white mare, I see that she is breathing heavily and her eyes are not shut–she is also obviously pregnant, but so are a number of other females in the herd.
When Noticiera hears footsteps, she lifts her head and turns it around to stare with large, limpid eyes. Fourteen years old and the mother of nine foals, she is handsome for her age and, washed clean by the recent rain, looks beautifully white against the thousands of flowers that blossom around her. As I walk forward, she stands up, and it is then the thought flashes: “She’s giving birth!” I am terribly excited, although she turns around and starts to graze. I can see no secretion coming from below her tail.
But now I begin to worry that if she is in the process of giving birth, my presence might be disturbing her. Mares, I know, can postpone foaling for hours. In the grove the nightingale has resumed singing and, trying to remember every landmark in sight–the grove is so extensive and each tree looks alike–I begin walking in what seems to be the bird’s direction. I check my watch; I will give the mare 15 minutes before returning to her.
When eight minutes have passed, I turn around and rapidly but cautiously retrace my steps to one of the larger olive trees that stand about 20 feet from where I left the mare. Through the leaves Noticiera can be seen stretched out on the ground, a pair of small, blue hoof tips just emerging from below her tail! Obviously, before lying down she has expelled the birth water and is now on her side, which will help to press out the foal. The mare sighs, and her stomach rocks with heavy breathing as she lifts her rear top leg into the air, straining to force out the baby horse that her belly has carried for nearly a year. Almost 10 minutes pass before the foal, except for its hind legs, slides from its mother.
The little animal that has been sleeping inside the mare is suddenly bumped awake as he slips onto the ground and shaken into consciousness by the tremendous bright light. Front lit, the scene is beautiful, but it becomes even lovelier when I move around cautiously to the other side of the mare to photograph the back-lit foal. Noticiera, breathing hard, is still in too much of a trance from the birth to notice me.
When the foal becomes more awake, he lifts his head and a front hoof to break the sac, which hangs over his head like an Arab burnoose. His hind legs remain inside his dam. The sac membrane is strong and not easy for him to break. After about 10 minutes, Noticiera raises her head, glances back at the foal and then, with a great effort, gets to her feet as his back legs slide free from her body. She turns around and looks curiously at him, as if to say, “Where did you come from?” before she briefly licks his muzzle, probably instinctively trying to remove birth fluid from his nose.
As the foal feels his mother’s tongue, he makes a soft, bleating sound, which she answers. Seemingly stimulated by the brief licking, he unsuccessfully attempts to get up, which frees him from the sac.
Three-quarters of an hour pass before he is able to stand and maintain his balance. Taking a few wobbly steps, his long, slim legs seem not at all sure of their course. It is a great effort for such a newborn animal, and each time he falls to the ground, he has to stay there and rest before making another attempt to stand.
Shortly after he is able to keep his balance, one of the younger mares appears through the trees and comes curiously toward him. Noticiera, who has seemed to pay very little attention to her new offspring, lifts her head in threat, ears flat back, neck outstretched, teeth bared, to discourage the young mare from approaching closer. The foal’s sense of balance is still so delicate that it seems if the slightest breath of wind sweeps through the grove, he is sure to capsize.
The mare continues to graze, the torn sac still hanging from under her tail. A few minutes later the afterbirth is cast out. Then the foal, who has been nosing around his mother’s forelegs, sides and tail, knowing instinctively that somewhere there is nourishment to be found and sucked, discovers one of Noticiera’s bulging teats. In these moments he appears barely able to make out forms, his muzzle testing rough and smooth surfaces, his ears, eyes and nose taking in stimuli that are all unidentifiable to him.
And now, at precisely the wrong instant, the mare takes a step forward toward taller grass, and the foal loses contact with her udder. Those are anxious moments–I want to put down the camera, take hold of Noticiera’s bell strap, grab the foal, and press his muzzle to his dam’s udder. Finally, though, he finds the teat again and fastens on.
This book excerpt comes from Robert Vavra’s book Stallions of the Quest and appeared in EQUUS magazine in December 2001.