Nova Scotia

'Perfect match': Foal rejected by its mother adopted by mare that lost its baby

What started with the emotional loss of a newborn horse in Nova Scotia has led to a second chance for another foal who was rejected by its mother.

'Within minutes she was licking the baby and acting like it was her own'

After Harlow's own foal had to be put down, she took quickly to mothering Brookie as though she was her own. (Emma Davie/CBC)

It's nearly impossible to tell that Harlow and Brookie aren't mother and child.

Brookie trots behind Harlow like a wee shadow, copying some of the mare's mannerisms, like pawing at the ground when she eats.

The mare's biological foal, however, died earlier this spring. The placenta didn't properly attach to Harlow's uterus and she went into labour a month early.

But what began as a story of loss has turned into a second chance for a foal rejected by its mother.

'Something was up'

Harlow went into labour on April 28.

Her owner, Connie Toft, said she knew right away that "something was up" when the foal didn't come out properly.

All night, Toft, her son and some friends worked to clear the baby horse's lungs and warm him up.

Nor'easter had to be euthanized shortly after he was born. (Submitted by Connie Toft)

But the little horse, named Nor'easter, couldn't stand or nurse.

They brought him from Porters Lake to the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown the next day where X-rays showed Nor'easter's lungs were compromised and that his knees hadn't formed properly.

"We had to put him down," Toft said. "I don't think I ever cried that much in my whole life; I cried for days."

The foal from Truro, N.S., Brookie, was initially rejected by her mother and by another nursing mare. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Around the same time in Truro, Brookie's mother wouldn't allow her to feed.

"She was willing to nurse [the foal] initially but would have moments where she'd very randomly strike it, putting it at great risk of injury," said veterinarian Dr. Trevor Lawson, who received a call from a long-time client to help with the new foal.

Lawson said most first-time mothers figure things out fairly quickly, but may sometimes get confused at first.

"They will at one moment be a perfect mare and allow the foal to nurse and be doing very well, and in the next moment will be very violent."

Lawson put a call out on Facebook to find a nursing mare. Initially, they found a candidate horse in Liverpool, but that mare "was unwilling to take to the foal that wasn't hers," he said.

But when Toft learned of Brookie six days after Harlow had given birth, she said she knew her mare would to take to the foal.

And she was right.

Connie Toft gives some love to her mare Harlow and the foal Brookie. (Emma Davie/CBC)

"Within minutes she was licking the baby and acting like it was her own," she said.

Lawson said they put Brookie in a stall next to Harlow to see how the mare would react. From there, they did hormone injections to recreate the experience of foaling — and then let the two horses get closer.

"She showed an abundance of mothering instincts and she started to speak very softly to the foal," Lawson said. "It's really quite an experience to watch."

After this mare lost her baby, she helped raise another foal as though it were her own. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Lawson said there's no question Harlow went through a period of grief, but said it's hard to know the benefits of bringing in another foal for her.

"I think with mares that are genuine and are destined to be mothers, there's a lot of good to come from it," he said. "[Harlow] turned out to be just a perfect match for this foal and I think she's going to do a wonderful job raising it."

Toft said while it felt great to see the two horses connect, it was still bittersweet.

"The loss is still very painful, but we've helped this little one survive," she said.

Horses will stay together for about 5 months

And after three weeks together, the two animals are inseparable.

Brookie will stay with Harlow until the fall.

"Then she'll be going back home to the farm that she was bred on," Toft said. "They will keep her probably until she's two, until it's time for them to teach her how to be a racehorse."

The young foal mimics her adopted mare and has even started picking up some of her mannerisms. (Emma Davie/CBC)

She already knows it won't be easy to say goodbye.

"But it's their foal, it is what it is," Toft said. "We'll follow the baby and we'll follow her career. And hopefully one day when she retires maybe she'll come back to the farm."

About the Author

Emma Davie

Reporter

Emma Davie is a reporter, web writer and videojournalist in Halifax. She loves listening to, and telling stories from people in the Maritimes. You can reach her at emma.davie@cbc.ca.