Snow Day: The Tragic Consequence and Life-Affirming Perseverance of the Nurse Foal
By Anna Twinney
I had never seen a horse graze from its knees. But that was exactly what Snow, a majestic, 2-year old, Appaloosa Colt was doing. I thought to myself, “I couldn’t have made him do that, I barely touched his line.” I had wanted to move a short distance, so I could relax on the bleachers nearby while he ate, but just requesting those few steps made him drop to his knees. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to stay on the lush patch of grass or, potentially, a learned behavior pattern.
I reassured him he could stay. He got back on his feet and walked with me so I could sit down. I could have ignored this mannerism and chalked it up to a fun story about a playful and mischievous colt, but the behavior was so unusual I felt the origin was worth exploring.
I also noted that instead of nibbling at the grass and continuously picking little tufts, like most horses, he took chunks of grass. He filled his whole mouth with one bite and would bring his head up high, as he did his best to swallow the mouthful. At first I thought it might be that he needed to settle into a groove, but it became clear this was his way of eating. He looked rushed and was taking whatever he could get. With each mouthful he would take the grass out by the roots before moving onto another. There was no casual grazing. Snow’s way of eating resembled a hungry orphan or someone who was never taught how to eat. I had not seen this behavior before either.
Not everyone would have noticed his unique way of eating, but I did and had to wonder where it originated. A herd will mirror one another and casually graze with their heads down for long periods of time. It’s a beautifully tranquil and spiritual occurrence, to watch wild ones blissfully eat in harmony, but this was not the case with Snow. I wondered if he had ever learned to graze and if this was as a direct result of his youth.
It was then I remembered Snow’s past.
At just a few days, or possibly weeks old, Snow had been rescued 2 years prior by a group including Ray of Light Farm and Reach Out to Horses. He was “Orphaned”. Not because his mother had died. Instead, is was determined that he had been forcibly taken from his mother and found himself abandoned, too young and innocent to take care of himself. New to this world he was most likely left to fend for himself in either a stall or trailer. His only choice was to figure out how to eat and drink… or die. He was the smallest of the foals we had rescued and the smallest I had ever seen in my twenty years of rescuing horses.
I could hardly believe someone could do this to an innocent being.
Unfortunately he had been born into the nurse foal industry. A heartless, cruel business in which, reportedly, thousands of foals find themselves as “biproducts”, of no value to the stewards who manage the nurse foal barn. Their mothers are bred purely to function as nurse mares to raise more valuable foals, normally born to top performance horses. Nurse foal barns can usually be found primarily close to racetracks.
Not only had Snow found himself isolated and lost without ever knowing why, but he also came to us very sick. Within days he sought out human connection and valued the comfort of human touch in the gentling process. Innocently and trusting he forgave the very same species that had tossed him aside to die. I remember thinking, that nobody deserves to be punished or treated this way, let alone a newborn infant.
When his group of foals first arrived milk replacer was arranged for them and placed in special buckets for the foals to drink. Quickly they began suckling on the side of the buckets for comfort, mimicking suckling their mother’s teats. It was heartbreaking to watch. We noticed missing hair from many of their ears and discovered this was due to the foals suckling one another. Innately they knew to find dark and damp places from which to suck, be this around the buckets, each other’s ears, or sheaths.
We kept the foals next to one another during the day’s training and together in the herd at night. We never wanted them to feel isolated or abandoned again. It was like watching a group of kindergarteners with little parental guidance. With hay provided freely they would munch away throughout the day sporadically napping in between meals. While we watched some of them adopting natural grazing habits, Snow must have created his own way.
We offered our very best; a second chance at life, asking, and apparently receiving, his forgiveness. At first touch he would buckle in pain and through veterinary care we discovered that not only was he not able to drop his penis to urinate, but he was suffering from a potentially fatal parasite. This ailment would take months of special ongoing care from the rescue, but this little warrior showed his true nature and eventually pulled through.
The sound of horses returning to their stalls snapped me back to the present. I realized my time with Snow was up. I had assigned the students in my Holistic Horsemanship Foundation Course a fun exercise of discovering the motivating interests of their horses and, in the distance, I noticed horses returning to their stalls.
Giving Snow a couple more minutes to enjoy his banquet, he understood my telepathic message this time, and willingly came along with simply a soft touch. It had been precious time together. After leading him back to his stall, with gratitude I removed Snow’s halter, and said my farewells, looking forward to our many meetings in time to come. I left him with my love, appreciation and admiration.
Later I inquired with the farm as to why they thought Snow had developed this strange behavior of “knee grazing”. Bonnie the manager of the farm knew exactly what I was talking about and remembered how Snow had even drunk his milk in that manner.
She explained that after the rescue, the farm had found 2 surrogate mares willing to accept the foals, which happen to be mini’s. Both mares took the foals on as their own and accepted their suckling. The youngsters had to lower their heads down quite low to reach these mares teats and it was then that Snow learned to make himself smaller. Snow had the chance to graze and learn from the small herd and yet somehow missed the grazing style. They had provided the most natural lifestyle they could with the circumstances they had available to them.
My heart was filled with both sorrow and admiration for this beautiful soul. Snow had endured so much, more pain than any creature should have to experience, especially one so young – all because he was born to the wrong mare. And yet he found his way out the other side. He could have given up, fallen into deep depression, and chosen to leave the planet. But he didn’t. He took the challenges of a rough start and, with the help of many kind people and horses, turned his circumstances around and found a new life and a new beginning.
Unlike so many nurse foals, his journey had a happy ending. I take solace in that thought as I, with so many others in the world, continue to work diligently to give more horses like Snow a chance at a life of happiness, partnership, and love.