I arrive at the stables early the next morning to check on Honey and her new foal. There’s a chill in the air, but the sun is out. As I glance into the stable I can see that Ava has already figured out her legs and is darting about inside the box, sniffing at her bedding and shaking her head. I notice Honey is dripping milk, so I stand quietly watching as Ava lowers her head to suckle. My mind flicks back to all the books and information I have read over the past few months. I know dripping milk is a sign of the foal not suckling enough, so I need to keep an eye out for signs of her struggling to latch on properly. Ava makes the sound of sucking air, and after only a few moments gives up and tries the other side. I can see better now that she is not latching properly and appears to be struggling. She lets go, shakes her head and blows a mixture of air and milk back out through her nose. Alarm bells start ringing. I had known from the beginning that the foal may be under-developed due to Honey’s nutrition throughout pregnancy, so I was prepared for the worst. Ava lowered her head and more milk trickled out through her left nostril. My heart was racing; it could only mean one thing.
I immediately called the vet who advised me not to panic, but to watch her closely over the next few hours and see if it happens again. Whilst only the night before the vet had tried to check inside Ava’s mouth, she had struggled and so it was difficult to tell if her palate was fully formed. The only definite diagnosis of a cleft palate is by endoscope, and on a day-old foal this would prove very difficult. I stayed and watched for what seemed like an eternity, but I didn’t notice her do it again. I needed to get back for my children, and so I asked that a neighbour check her again later and inform me if anything at all was out of the ordinary. The following day I sat outside the stable door with the door open just enough to reach my arm inside and greet the new foal. Honey watched my every move, wondering what my plan was with her precious baby. She had taken a step back in her trust work, but I had expected this and accepted that the hard work would continue. However I was aware that I needed to let her foal know I was friend not foe. Especially if she had a malformed palate, as medication would need to be given as soon as possible.
I watched her again attempt to suckle, and noticed that a dribble of milk came back out of her nose. She put her head into the water and tried to drink, but again, it oozed back out of her nostril. A cleft palate was something I had never experienced before, and so I could only go on the advice of my vet, as to what to do. When he called, he was very open and honest with me. He said. “If she has a cleft palate, she WILL get pneumonia, and she WILL die, but there is no way to tell without putting her through a lot of stress. I’d advise we put to sleep”. I was devastated. This happy little foal had just been handed a potential death sentence, and she was less than a week old. How could I make the decision to terminate her existence before she had even had the chance to feel the love of her mother, or the wind in her mane? It seemed so unfair. The vet agreed with me that I could give her a few days grace, to see if she managed alright. This springy little foal who bounced around the stable with ease deserved an opportunity to live, and I couldn’t bring myself to make the decision without at least giving her the chance to prove everyone wrong. I decided to build a small area outside their stable so they could stretch their legs. I found pedestrian barriers and joined them all together to form a solid structure. If Ava’s days were numbered, I was going to let her feel the wind in her hair and bask in the sunshine. I opened the stable door fully, and let them both step outside. Ava took her first step. She was unsure and decided the best approach would be to leap over the threshold. With a wobble, she landed and felt grass under her hooves for the first time ever. She surveyed her surroundings like an intrepid explorer, lifted her nose in the air and took a deep breath. For those moments, she was free. I was on limited time to make a decision; I was so torn.
I didn’t want Ava to suffer, but I knew I had to make a decision based on what was best for her. I sought advice from as many people as I could and found one lady who had experienced something similar; Where the foal had leaked milk from their nose randomly, and it had seemed to sort itself with no reason as to why. I knew that the operation to correct a cleft palate was very expensive and had a high infection and complication rate. I continued to watch Ava closely, stroking her gently from the outside of their new enclosure, knowing this time was precious, and not wishing to get in the way. As the days passed, she did not weaken, and soon the milk lessened to only a drop every now and then. With this in mind, after many sleepless nights, I consulted the vet again, who after seeing her, was happy with my decision. I was going to give her a chance to make it on her own. I was not going to intervene unless she became ill, at which point I would make the right choice. But for now, I had bought her some time.
Honey is happy for me to sit with Ava and stroke her. She allows me to be a part of their world and I am privileged. I begin my work with Honey once more, using gentle touch, time and patience and my knowledge of natural horsemanship to gradually build her confidence. My next aim is to have her feet trimmed, and so it is essential that she allows me to touch her legs.
The days turned into weeks and Ava grew stronger, moved faster, and more importantly, suckled better. Gone were the loud bubbly noises and I could see that she was latching on correctly with not a drop going to waste. I was proud of her; she had proved many critics wrong. I knew it had been a gamble, but somehow, whatever it was that caused her to drip milk in the beginning, seemed to have just, well, gone away. I cannot explain how or why in those first days Ava lost milk through her nose and didn’t go on to suffer any complications, nor can the various professionals and well educated people who have met her since. I believe that she has been a fighter since way before she was born, and I am so glad I trusted my instinct and gave her a chance.
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