I find this topic very interesting because it happened to me… it isn’t THAT uncommon.
You see, Gwen was a dummy foal. Luckily, we managed to do the right thing at the time – but it was just by default. I was so determined not to lose my first baby, that we manhandled her until she latched on. It took us 5 hours, but we did it.
WHAT IS A DUMMY FOAL?
It is the most strange and terrifying (for a breeder) behavior in a newborn horse.
From my experience, newborn Gwen stood and had absolutely no interest in her mother. Instead, she circled the stall, rubbing and licking on the stall wall. Circle after circle after circle. It didn’t help that Mama Tess was a maiden mare and had absolutely no interest in her foal, either…
I was dumbfounded and very upset. This was my first baby and I had no idea what to do. So, I called the vet. He told me that she was a ‘dummy foal’ and that he would come out in the morning and put her down.
No! I was going to make it better.
So, my friend (who was a very big and tall guy) and I spent the next 5, sweaty and exhausting hours, manhandling this baby – forcing her up to the mare and doing everything possible to make her drink. We squeezed milk into her mouth, we put her lips on the nipple, we made sure she could smell the fine milk… but nothing was working. Gwen continued to break away and circle the stall.
Here is a definition of dummy foal syndrome from The Horse (Marcia King, linked here):
This term applies to foals that exhibit abnormal behaviors and/or neurologic signs during their first few days of life..
Dummy foal syndrome is not a disease but, rather, a broad term that applies to foals that exhibit abnormal, often vague behaviors and/or neurologic signs during their first few days of life. These signs include sleepiness, ataxia, weakness, circling, disinterest in the mare or in nursing, loss of suckle reflex, chewing or licking stall walls, abnormal vocalization, hypersensitivity to the touch, depression, or seizures. Other names used to describe this syndrome are neonatal maladjustment syndrome, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, peripartum asphyxia syndrome, wanderer foal, or barker foal (for foals having abnormal vocalizations).
THE MANHANDLING WAS ACTUALLY WHAT SAVED HER.
By manhandling her, I mean my friend would put his whole body around hers and walk Gwen up to her mother and keep her there. While doing this, he would inevitably squeeze on her chest – like a bear hug.
When he took his breaks, I would do the same. I’d grab her around her back and belly and walk her up to her mother.
It was this action, this ‘squeeze’ that eventually turned on the receptors that awaken the foal responses to nurse and seek its mother.
After about 5 hours of this, Gwen finally latched onto the nipple and drank on her own. As soon as this started, Gwen was a normal foal – or so we thought.
I have my own thoughts on this… especially now that UC Davis is equating ‘dummy foal syndrome’ to autism. I’ve always thought of Gwen as autistic. She doesn’t have any friends, she isn’t bonded to me or anyone and is very, very smart. And now they say that dummy foalism is linked to autism. Yep. I kinda thought that all along.
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN TO GWEN?
They say that rapid births or abnormal birth processes can bring on dummy foal syndrome. It has something to do with the massaging of the foal while in the birth canal. If this process is interrupted, the foal is not told to ‘wake up’ and therefore is born without the reflex to nurse.
In scientific speak, here is an explanation from UC Davis (article linked here):
“Foals don’t gallop in utero,” Madigan is fond of saying, pointing out the dangers to the mare if a four-legged, hoofed fetus were to suddenly become active in the womb. The prenatal calm is made possible, he explained, by neurosteroids that act as sedatives for the unborn foal. However, immediately after birth, the infant horse must make an equally important transition to consciousness. In nature, a baby horse would be easy prey for many natural enemies, so the foal must be ready to run just a few hours after it is born. In short, somewhere between the time a foal enters the birth canal and the moment it emerges from the womb, a biochemical “on switch” must be flicked that enables the foal to recognize the mare, nurse and become mobile. Madigan and Aleman suspect that the physical pressure of the birthing process may be that important signal. “We believe that the pressure of the birth canal during the second stage of labor, which is supposed to last 20 to 40 minutes, is an important signal that tells the foal to quit producing the sedative neurosteroids and ‘wake up,’ ” Madigan said. – See more at: http://equimanagement.com/article/madigan-foal-squeeze-procedure-neonatal-maladjustment-syndrome-27269#sthash.8YTDFiei.dpuf
I can tell you that Gwen was born in an instant. I was there. Mama Tess had a massive cramp and Gwen squirted out like a torpedo. MT was still standing when Gwen shot out and hit the floor.
I was so shocked, I barely comprehended what had happened. Since this was my first foal, I had no idea that this was not normal. But from all the literature out of UC Davis on dummy foal syndrome, her birth is classic for this birthing illness.
THE STUDY FROM UC DAVIS AND HOW TO HELP YOUR DUMMY FOAL!
First off, if you are in the middle of a dummy foal crisis, read this article and here
Instructions to Use the Madigan Foal Squeeze Method (MFSM)
If all else fails, I am not a vet, but what I did was hold the baby tightly (not too tight) as I was walking her up to her mother. This took 5 hours, so you might want to use the scientific methods described above. The idea is to simulate the squeezing of the birth canal.
I also found this article from the Manual of Equine NeoNatal Medicine.
AFTERMATH WITH GWEN: DUMMY FOAL 20 YEARS LATER
Gwen has always been absolutely rock solid healthy. She is never sick… But she is also not really adjusted. I say this because she has never, ever bonded to another horse. She is friendly, but she doesn’t really care about anyone or any other horse. Her only interest is food.
And, she is brilliant.
I know this is a part of autism that scientists don’t understand, but Gwen is the smartest horse here, in her unusual way. I mean, Rojo is the smartest as far as how to survive (being born wild and all…), but Gwen can problem solve. She knows that the front door is how to enter the house. She knows that there is fruit in a fruit bowl on the table inside. She understands about feed trucks and all that food implies (how it arrives, where it goes, my habits when sorting food). She also knows to run to the gate that has no other horses near it so that I will open it and let her out.
I could go on and on. To me, what stands out about Gwen is how she is different than other horses. She doesn’t bond. She isn’t needy. She never cries for another horse. She isn’t ever barn bound or in your pocket. She just isn’t. That emotional stuff is not even on her radar. She has bigger fish to fry, so to speak – like figuring stuff out. Her mind never shuts off.