College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

Fearless Foaling

Students, faculty excel under pressure to help save newborn horse
Students and faculty helped save this newborn filly who showed signs of duress shortly after birth.
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

A tense scenario inside the horse barn on the University of Maryland’s Campus Farm required quick thinking and heroic actions by a group of students and faculty in the equine studies program to help save one of the newest members of the Terrapin family.

At 7 am on Monday, March 30th, Amazin’ – a pregnant thoroughbred mare – gave birth to a dark brown filly. Thirteen students enrolled in this semester’s equine reproduction course had been camped out all night long inside the animal science building on “foal watch” watching a live video feed of the mare in the stall as they awaited the little one’s arrival. When she lied down and went into labor, they raced over to the barn to attend the foaling if help was needed.  Shortly after the birth, it became apparent something wasn’t quite right. (Left: Amazin' with her newborn filly. Photo credit: Amy Burk)

“You could tell she was struggling to breathe,” says junior animal science major Allison Pedro. “It was frightening because none of us really knew what was wrong.”

Students and faculty sprung to the filly’s aide. After the horse began to have seizures, a group of students held her legs still so that she wouldn’t injure herself. Quick thinking led to a call to  Dr. Douglas Powell, the university’s on-campus veterinarian. He brought oxygen down to the horse barn and aided the students in rigging up an oxygen mask to hold over the newborn’s face. (Right: Equine students hold oxygen mask to filly's nose. Photo credit: Amy Burk)

 “The students were awesome. They didn’t sit there crying or shaking their heads or frozen. They pitched in and just were amazing,” says Charlie Apter, PhD, who serves as the instructor for the equine reproduction class.

With the help of an equine veterinarian who quickly arrived on the scene, students and faculty were able to stabilize the filly so she could be transported to the intensive care unit at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, VA – an hour and ten minute drive from the College Park campus. Students wrapped the filly in blankets and physically carried her to the back seat of a pickup truck, where she rode with her head in student Bret Bucci’s lap (pictured left).

“The students were all really mature and showed they could handle everything. There was also a lot of creativity, especially making sure the truck was safe for the filly to ride in the back,” says PhD student Aubrey Lowery, who drove the truck to the equine center in Leesburg. Amy Burk, PhD, Director of the Equine Studies Program, followed with the filly’s mother in the horse trailer.

“We really weren’t sure at that point if the filly was going to pull through,” says Burk.

When they arrived at the hospital, the foal was placed on a padded mattress in a stall and the mare was rejoined with her foal. Since then, Burk says the little horse has received expert care from the veterinarians at the equine center and has continued to improve and gain strength each day.

“A student reminded me that the filly shares the same birthday as Secretariat (March 30th) and I've come to believe that she shares his willpower as well,” says Burk.

(Right: Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald of the VA-MD Vet School tends to her recovering equine patient. Photo credit: Rob Burk)

Burk and Apter say the filly was afflicted with a rare condition called neonatal maladjustment syndrome – an uncommon complication that can’t be diagnosed before birth. 

“I’m guessing that in my career I have foaled out somewhere around 125 foals but this is the first time I’ve encountered this problem,” says Apter. “I would never plan to have this kind of birth but the fact that the students all had the opportunity to be involved with that is really a unique learning experience.”

While the filly is expected to recover fully, Burk says the cost of her care will likely exceed $6,000 – money the equine studies program does not have in its budget and the department is seeking donations to help cover the veterinary bills.

Most of the students in the equine reproduction course hadn’t experienced live foaling before the filly’s tumultuous arrival but almost exactly 24 hours later, a mare named Daylight Lassie gave birth to a healthy bay colt in the very next stall (pictured left, credit Edwin Remsberg). The same group of students were on-hand to welcome him into the world and, this time, prepared to deal with any complications that might arise. Fortunately, this birth proved uneventful by contrast and the colt can now be found happily frolicking in the paddocks at the Campus Farm. Once strong enough, the filly is expected to join her playmate on campus, where students will continue to care for her as they have since the moment she arrived.

“Looking back at it, it feels like a blur because everything happened so fast,” says Marleigh Smith, a junior animal science major planning to attend veterinary school. “Obviously everything that happened wasn’t good but it ended up being a great experience and I was glad I was there.”

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