Friday, October 8, 2010

Mares Don't Like to be Watched

This is the first installment in a series I have been thinking about writing for some time. Over the years I have learned so much from so many about how to be a good doula. Every time I support a woman I either learn something new, renew my understanding of something ,or see an old truth from a fresh perspective. But I see clearly now that my beliefs and understanding about how best to help laboring women wasn't learned at my doula training. It wasn't learned through all the birth books I have read. It wasn't even learned through the birth of my son. My real doula training and my core beliefs about birth predate all of that. As crazy as it sounds I have come to realize that I learned how to be a good doula through my work with horses. The skills I needed for guiding women through the intensity of natural birth I honed in grass pastures, show arenas and barns. Some of my most amazing teachers were the brood mares I met along the way. Their ability to listen to their bodies and do exactly what needed to be done blew me away. Horses are fascinating and fabulous creatures. This set of stories is dedicated to the wisdom of the mares.


I lay still in my sleeping bag trying not to make the rusty springs of the old metal cot squeak, listening in the cold dark. I could hear Lunette on the other side of the wall rustling the straw as she moved about the deeply bedded foaling stall. The quiet was so complete in the dark of the old barn I could hear the mare's teeth grinding as she peacefully chewed her alfalfa. The stillness was broken by the screech of a far off owl calling to his mate. Lunette stopped in mid chew to listen but there was no answering call to hear and the intense quiet slowly settled back over us like a blanket; even deeper than before because of the sharp interruption. I tried to quiet even my breathing so as not to disturb the heavily pregnant mare. Finally Lunette relaxed, blew a big warm horsey sigh, lowered her head and went back to contentedly eating.

I lay in the dark trying not to doze off as the hours passed. Carefully I moved my arm out of the warmth of the sleeping bag and raised my wrist to my face. Peering down I could see the dial of my watch glowing in the dark; almost one o'clock. As quietly as I could I unzipped the sleeping bag and wriggled out. The cot gave a rusty groan as I stood up. Looking over the half wall into the dimly lit stall I could see the brood mare standing, neck straining, head up, eyes wide, on high alert from my noisy progress. I talked to her calmly then walked to the other side of the barn. Picking up the phone in the tack room I dialed Betty's number and woke her up.

"Hi Betty. Its time for the second shift."
"How is she doing?" inquired the owner of Belvidere Welsh Pony Farm.
"She is fine; not as restless as last night" I informed her.
"Okay. I'll be down in a minute. Just let me make a cup of coffee."
"Do you want me to stay until you get here?" I asked.
"No; no need for that. I'll be there in five minutes. You go on to bed and get some sleep. It sounds like we might be doing this for a few more nights."

I hung up the phone, walked wearily out to my beat up Chevy pick up, climbed in and started the reluctant motor. I longed for my cozy bed warmed by Mike's body. It was just a quick two minute drive from the barn but it felt like miles. Steering down the dark sandy farm road next to the soy bean field I wondered when Lunette would decide the time was right and have her foal.

I climbed the steep stairs to our little farm house and quietly opened the porch screen door. Spot jumped down from the shabby upholstered chair where he slept on the screened porch during good weather. He met me with a shaggy wag of his plumed tail. Too tired to stop and pet him I eased out of my old leather boots and went inside. Pausing only long enough to peal off my clothes, I carefully slid under the cold covers on my side of the bed trying not to wake Mike. Before I could close my tired eyes the phone rang.

"Come back. The foal is here!" Betty excitedly gasped in my ear.
"What?" I answered in disbelief.
"She foaled. Hurry!" and the phone went dead. I scrambled into my clothes, pulled on my boots and ran.

When I entered the old converted dairy barn I could see the dim glow of the lights coming from the foaling stall and heard Lunette nickering to her new baby; a low, deep rumbly sound with the hint of a whisper in it; a special whinny only share between mother and foal. She proudly stood on guard over a wet bay bundle of colt half buried in the deep yellow straw. As soon as she recognized me she dropped her head and went back to the important business of being a new mom; alternately licking the colt's haunches dry with broad strokes of her pink tongue and drinking in it's odor with deep wuffling draughts of her nostrils. Betty knelt in the straw with an old cotton terry towel in her hands vigorously rubbing dry hair of the foal's shoulders slicked down by amniotic fluid. I grabbed another towel from the birth kit sitting ready by the open door of the stall and went in to help.

"I can't believe it" I said amazed. "She wasn't showing any signs; no sweating, no nervousness, no looking at her sides, nothing."
Betty just chuckled and explained, "Mares don't like to be watched."


This story was a glimpse into something called foal watching that is a part of the cycle of the seasons on a breeding farm. Every breeder wants to be there when foals arrive. But mares, as prey animals, are genetically coded not to foal when anyone or anything is around because this might put their foal in danger during those first couple of critical hours when the foal is most vulnerable to attack. In order to survive in the wild a mare needs to be able to run away. She instinctively knows that once her water breaks and the birth process has begun she will be incapable of running away, therefore she is easy prey. Once the birth process begins it is very rapid and the foal is on its' feet within the first hour and can keep up with the herd within a couple of hours. So when a mare is watched it triggers her adrenaline and other stress hormones. As long as these hormones are flowing through her veins her labor will be suppressed. This is why brood mares like to leave the herd and search out a well known secluded spot to birth.

So what is a breeder to do? Lots of money has been made creating high tech devices that alert the owner who is in an apartment or room on another part of the property when the mare has begun giving birth. Even more money has been spent on outfitting stalls with remote controlled video cameras so foal watchers can observe from a room far enough away to not disturb the mares. Horse breeders have long understood what our scientific medical community still doesn't get, that intervention in any form, even just watching, should be done in such a way as to disturb the natural physiologic process of birth as little as possible; to only step in and make your presence known when absolutely necessary. To be a good doula you need to learn the art of being present without intruding on the process until you are needed.


  1. I watched my mare nightly for over 4 weeks. She went two weeks over due, it was a long month. The first morning that I did not go out to the barn to check at 4am, although I was awake (just reading in bed), heard the loud sound of a birth song. The cat's head came up off the bed at the sound. I threw on my clothes and as I ran outside I could see the outline of the mare pacing in the soft backlight in the barn. She moved and there was the precious outline of the little filly standing for the first time. The only reason I didn't go out that morning is that my shoer had said she could go another two weeks. Just love that she did it the way she wanted too. Humans would do well, to birth the way horses do.

  2. What a great story Nancy!It fits right in with another piece I have floating around in my head, "Mares Don't Listen to Due Dates". First though I want to write, "Mares Believe in Homebirth".