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THE WONDER MARE
by Pat Sullivan
Oakleigh Sporthorses at Tallwood, Gainesville, Florida
The first time I laid eyes on her, my thoughts were far from what they would be months later. She was huge, imposing, pushy, had no personality, and was in the pasture with my carefully bred warmbloods. Her name was Dolly, a 16+ hand gray Percheron. She had been leased by my trainer, Kathy Daly, to produce an Arab cross foal. She had no equine social skills, knowing that no matter what, she was the "boss mare". I actually feared for my mares' safety.
After the dust settled, and Dolly was, indeed, in charge, the mares went back to their routine of grazing, coming in to eat, getting groomed, then starting all over again.... Foaling season arrived, and the first foal expected in this group of mares was a Capitol Hill foal out of my Main Marebook Thoroughbred, Tiara Fox ("Tina").
I had owned Tina's dam. I had delivered Tina. I had buried Tina's dam two years later, after a thunderstorm accident. Tina was raised with love and respect. Originally bred for racing, I quickly realized that I could not feel good about the lifestyle she would have to tolerate. Changing plans, Tina became an event horse, and jumper. As Tina aged, I decided I wanted a few foals from her to carry on her bloodline. Tina was inspected at the Holsteiner approval, the only TB entered in the main marebook at that site. That year, she tied for fourth in the country, for foundation mares.
Since this was Tina's third foal, the actual foaling was a non-event. Tina foaled in the large field at 6 a.m. on April 15. No problems, no surprises. The filly was bay, elegant, modern and had a beautiful face! Needing a barn name, I named her "Nikki".
All was well, the filly growing and developing. Friendly and gentle, Nikki was handled daily. After a week, they were re-introduced into the herd. The other two mares were quite interested, but Tina would not allow them to get too near. After another week, Nikki would stay with each of the other mares while Tina grazed, nearby. Babysitting was acceptable with Tina, now.
Britannia was the next to foal, producing a huge filly by Le Santo, on May 4. Britannia had a hard time with this delivery, since the filly was so large. It was necessary for Britannia, and her foal Natalie, to stay in the stall and small paddock area, until Britannia fully recovered.
Meanwhile, Tina, Nikki, and Dolly were getting along very well. Nikki would visit Dolly often. Although Dolly was assertive over Tina, she was quite gentle with Nikki. On May 20th, I got a phone call at my office. Tina had stopped breathing. I was in shock. Tina was only 15 and seemed in excellent health. This could not be... Driving out to the farm, I kept thinking that it had to be a mistake. But, when I arrived, and saw the stillness of her body, I knew it was time to say my good-byes, and turn my attention to her orphaned foal. Nikki, 4 weeks old, was confused. Her mother would not get up and she was thirsty. She went over to Dolly and laid down beside her and took a nap. Dolly watched over her, carefully. Nikki did not try to nurse from Dolly, instead, calling constantly for her mom. Since Dolly was still at least one week from foaling, but bagged up, we could not take a chance that Nikki would drain the precious colostrum that Dolly's foal would need. We separated them in adjoining stalls. Nikki hugged the wall next to Dolly, and Dolly did the same. Fortunately, Nikki had been eating grain for 2 weeks. We weren't quite sure what was coming next, but felt good that, at least, Nikki was familiar with grain.
After talking to the vet, we tried to get Britannia to adopt Nikki. We milked her, and poured the milk on Nikki. Then, holding Britannia, we introduced Nikki to the mare and foal. Britannia would have been happy to accept her, if they had been out together before now, but Britannia's difficult delivery had kept them apart from the rest of the horses. Britannia was fine with Nikki being around her, but got quite upset when Nikki got close to her foal, Natalie. Now we had a confused, hungry, thirsty, sticky and wet foal. We put Nikki back into the stall next to Dolly, and washed the sticky milk off of her.
I drove over to the local feed store, and bought bottles, lambs nipples, and mare milk replacer. Nikki would have nothing to do with it. Milk in a bucket brought the same reaction, despite numerous tries. She did pick at her feed and drank water. The next day, Kathy brought Oliver Twist, "Ollie", over to keep her company. Ollie was an orphan, whom Kathy had just purchased. He had come from a farm that kept nurse-mares, for lease. Ollie had already mastered drinking milk from a bucket, with gusto. We hoped he could teach Nikki, quickly. They got along well from the start. Ollie had brought his "nanny", Bandit, a miniature horse gelding, along. Nikki did not care for him at all, and Bandit had to stay in the next stall, while Ollie was in the stall with Nikki. Ollie did teach Nikki to drink milk from a bucket the next day. Ollie succeeded where we had failed. It was still necessary to keep all the horses in the barn, or the adjoining paddock. Dolly did not want Nikki out of sight, but they could not be together. Nikki bonded to Ollie and the two orphans were constant companions.
Night time brought shuffling of locations, with Dolly in the adjoining paddock, in case she foaled, and the two orphans in the larger stall. Four days after the tragedy, Dolly produced a lovely half-Arab filly. I was quite surprised at her correct conformation and substance. Bay, with a star, she looked like all three of the other foals in the barn. My son, Thomas, named her "Molly", as a barn name. It stuck. Dolly still kept an eye on Nikki, in the next stall, as well as her own foal. She accepted Ollie, since he seemed to come as a package, with Nikki.
Kathy and I decided that we would raise the two orphans with the two mares and their foals. Hopefully, the mares would teach them equine manners, but they would have each other for company. We turned them all out together, as soon as Molly was 4 days old. Britannia and her foal enjoyed the freedom, immensely. Dolly called to Nikki and Ollie, and asked them to join her and Molly. Molly was a little "put-out" at the added company, at first. Within 1 hour, all three foals were being groomed, herded and protected by Dolly. Nikki decided to try to nurse, and nobody complained. Ollie followed suit.
We continued to give the two orphans 2 quarts of milk, 4 times a day, in buckets, as well as grain and hay. the thinking was that if they were full from what we gave them, they would leave plenty of milk for Molly. It worked out just that way, too. Molly is a chubby filly, who is definitely getting more than enough milk. Dolly's milk production has risen to the demand placed on her, by her "kids". All three foals are gaining weight normally, running and playing. Dolly is busy teaching them all how to act like Percherons. It is amusing!!!
Cars stream by the pasture and stop, sometimes for long periods. Occasionally, I walk up to the street to talk to the spectators. The first question they always ask is, "Are they triplets?". The local TV station came out and did a story on Dolly and her kids, as well as the local newspaper. Dolly has followers and admirers across the country. I have gotten email from all across the U.S. from well-wishers.
Needless to say, my opinion of Dolly has changed dramatically. Now, I think she was sent to us as a blessing. Dolly gets baths, grooming and treats from me, as well as the others in the barn. A true Percheron, she may never show her feelings, but we all know that she loves her kids!
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