LIFE's First Rescued Foal

My mission that day was to treat dogs in a rough Roma area against ticks and fleas. To this end, I was walking between mud-brick hovels, followed by a mob of barefooted children dragging dogs on leads made from string. I’d already treated several puppies and had stopped to remove a wire collar cutting into the neck of another, when a shout made me look up. Yanko, a man whose stallion I wormed last year, wanted me to look at his mare. He said she needed an injection because she’d had a foal he must ‘throw away’. I finished fastening a donated collar onto the puppy and told its five year old owner to loosen it as the puppy grew. LIFE has seen deaths due to throats severed by string or wire collars on older dogs.

Yanko showed me his mare, who, tied to the cart she pulled, was snuffling at a grain mix used to feed pigs here. I assumed that if her foal needed to be ‘thrown away’ it was dead and was asking when she gave birth when we were interrupted by a commotion. In the corner of the yard, kids were shouting and jabbing sticks at what looked like a pile of rags on the ground. One of them was stooping, stick raised, when I saw movement and realized it was the foal. Yanko’s wife must have seen my face as I strode forward. She tried to shoo the kids away but I’d already got the stick out of the ringleader’s hand and broken it.

The father tried to mollify me. ’’They’re just playing’’ he reasoned. I controlled myself. I’ve learned that to rant here in the face of ignorant cruelty is useless. To play the role of a plain-speaking but helpful guide can be more effective. ‘’Ýou must teach them not to play like this. It’s bad’’ I stated.

Had I known then what I now know about Bulgarian and EU law, I would have added “...and it is illegal. You could be fined.’’ This is the approach LIFE takes now. Back in those days, I had no registered Foundation to help animals; I was just an elderly expat trying to reduce the suffering of a few horses and dogs living near me.

I looked at the foal. With a few tufts of red wool sprouting from an otherwise almost hairless body it did indeed resemble a pile of rags. The eyes were staring like a frightened rabbit’s. I guessed it must be around a month old but knew little about foals then. I was told it did not suckle, the mare did not want it and it would die. Yanko repeated he must ‘throw it away’.

‘’Ít’s mangy’’ his wife said, wrinkling her nose. Mangy is a term used loosely here to indicate almost any skin condition in an animal. Dogs are stoned away from villages if they show symptoms; some killed brutally. I’d never seen an equine with mange but had treated many dogs successfully. The foal’s head was stretched out on the ground. I asked for water, raised the head and it drank. At this positive sign of life, attitudes changed. "It will be all right. We will give it to you". ‘Give’ in this context means sell. I suggested we take the foal to the mare but heads were shaken. The mother would kick it to death. The little head flopped down again, tender skin hitting hard ground. I asked for clean rags and an old coat was brought for the head to rest on. The kids gathered around laughed. Demonstrations of tenderness towards animals are uncommon here. It crossed my mind how much I would like to teach these kids how rewarding a mutually respectful and warm relationship with an animal can be. I noticed a puppy with them itching madly - another candidate for tick and flea prevention.

By now, adults had gathered, too. Whenever a horse sale is in the air men in the Roma enclaves seem to sniff it on the wind. There were suggestions I take the mare, too. Silly figures were proposed. I reminded the owner he’d planned to throw the foal away. He shrugged. I leaned forward to ruffle the fluffy mane but the response was an eye roll. This foal had never experienced kindness and I’d never reared a foal. At home I had just one gelding, a giant Halflinger I was only just learning to handle with the help of one of my sons, a Doctor of Anthropology specialising in man’s relationship with herd animals, including horses. I’d need to consult him but I already knew I was not going to let this foal be ‘thrown away’.

I offered forty pounds. They scoffed. I walked away. The owner chased me and a deal was agreed. I’d cover treatment for the mare, too. A vet would see them in the morning. Meantime, I must find transport. I was anxious that night, imagining the foal tormented by those kids again. Then I reminded myself the owner would protect her now because she represented cash.

Efforts to secure more suitable transport failing, I accepted an offer of a diminutive open trailer with high sides. By the time it arrived, both foal and mare had been examined by the local livestock vet. The foal’s hairloss was indeed caused by mange and a wormer containing Ivermectin was administered. Antibiotics were given for its ‘bent legs’ which looked alarming to me but which I later learned are common in foals and have many different causes, not all requiring treatment.

So, my journey with Amber began, in a tiny open trailer on a back road, the pair of us locked in a sweaty tussle for fifty minutes to prevent those precious legs breaking. The pile of rags had come to life and fought vigorously. I held her tight but also squeezed along the line of her mane to indicate friendly intention and by the time we arrived she was ready to totter behind me to where she would stay alone for as short a time as possible. I knew that however tempting it may be to rear a foal as a pet, it’s rarely a wise plan. Baby Amber must learn to be a horse in the company of other equines. How she became part of LIFE’s small herd of rescued horses, and how I learned to handle them, will unfold over the coming months. I will also write about how LIFE now works with local kids and their puppies, kittens and foals, to create kinder attitudes. Meantime, donations halters and headcollars for horses, and soft but sturdy dog collars would be most welcome. Oh, and Neem Oil, which is helpful for wounds caused by mange as well as much else.