Each spring, six or seven foals are born at one of the horse units on Horsebarn Hill Road. The entire process has developed into a wonderful learning experience for animal science students through an independent study commonly known as the Foal Watch Class.
Prior to developing the course, John Bennett, academic assistant and farm manager, and with Kathleen Pelletier, assistant farm manager, volunteered to watch over the birthing mares. Bennett created the course to offer students a unique hands-on experience.
“It’s a lifetime experience for the students,” Bennett says. “Some of them may never again watch a mare giving birth.”
On average, eight to ten students sign up for foal watch, although in 2015, the course topped out at fifteen students. Students meet once a week starting in January. The course begins with the assignment of each mare to students, estimation of a due date and the students’ becoming familiar with the mare and sire. Students attend lectures on foaling and are involved in the entire breeding process, which includes choosing mares to be bred for the following year, selecting a stallion and reviewing breeding contracts and methods of insemination.
Dr. Alfredo Sanchez, the College’s contract veterinarian from Cummings Veterinary Medical Center’s Tufts Ambulatory Service, located in Woodstock, presents a lecture on birth procedures and possible foaling problems.
When the due date is close, students check the mare’s milk calcium levels to help predict foaling within a 72-hour period. Students are placed on a 24-hour watch, using a phone grid to stay in touch. The assigned students must be present for the birth, although the entire class is welcome to watch. Science aside, mares can be secretive when preparing to foal. Last year students caught three out of six births.
Students frequently remark that it is one of the highlights of their time at UConn. “The students are excited to experience everything they have learned during the semester,” says Pelletier. “I’ve been here for thirty years, and it is still amazing to see. I enjoy watching the kids learn.”
To prepare for the birth, students prep the mare and the stall and attend to the mare during labor. The vet is on call for any emergencies. Using a post-foaling kit, students treat the foal, dip the navel and suction mucus from the nose. They inspect the afterbirth for any abnormalities, which, if noted, are reported to the vet and samples sent to the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory for analysis. An hour after the foal is born, students begin training it in a process known as foal imprinting, developed by animal behaviorist Robert Miller.
Foal training involves activities such as placing pressure on the hind quarter, raising the foal’s tail, placing a finger in their nose and mouth, helping them stand on three legs, and running clippers over their body or rubbing their coat with plastic bags, all in an effort to make future training less stressful for the young horse. The foal retains the effects of these lessons, and at two or three years old when formal training begins, the foal is more comfortable with hands-on training that involves wearing a harness, being handled, groomed or shoed or being checked by the vet. The training also desensitizes the foal to sensory stimuli.
The College’s equine program houses 85 horses in two units. Additional facilities include a research unit, training arenas, pens and trails. The horses are available to students in animal science classes for courses such as horse breeding and horsemanship, equine research and business management, as well as a wide variety of activities including polo, 4-H, riding programs and lessons, Morgan Drill Team and Equestrian, Western and Dressage Teams.
Horses are sometimes donated to the horse program from private lines or as part of the State of Connecticut horse rescue program. Each spring, the College hosts an auction to retire certain horses that have earned a quieter life in a private home.
UConn has a Morgan breeding program that began when the government split up the US Calvary and provided each New England University with several mares and stallions as a way to continue the bloodlines.