RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, the thoroughbred foaling season is underway, meaning sleepless nights for the farm managers and stable hands, as they help new baby horses into the world. NPR's Noah Adams went there to experience one of those births, and pay a visit to an equine neonatal intensive care unit where newborn foals are treated.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I noticed when I first met Eduardo Terrazas - at his foaling barn - I noticed his eyes. Smiling and very tired. When the babies are coming it's hard to find any time to sleep.
EDUARDO TERRAZAS: For two nights in a row I think I only slept one hour one day and about two hours the next day. Normally I'm here with the guys at night, they call me and I come here 'cause I do like to be here on every birth. I deliver every foal.
ADAMS: Every foal this season will mean 51, for Eduardo Terrazas, who came to Kentucky from Mexico years ago, worked as a stallion manager before starting his own boarding farm. It's called Terrazas Thoroughbreds, south of Lexington. They take care of sixty mares year-round, and 120 others which are shipped in to have their foals, or be bred, or both.
TERRAZAS: I have mares from New York, California, Canada, three from Argentina, Florida, New Jersey.
ADAMS: His foaling barn has a wide center aisle, doors stand open at both ends. The stalls are concrete block, painted white, clean straw. In late afternoon Eduardo checks the mares who are close to their due date. Is there a certain look in the eyes? Does the rump look like it's dropping. Is the udder gathering milk, getting waxy? The most likely mother doesn't really seem ready.
TERRAZAS: You can see her bag is fuller, however the milk hasn't come down to the nipples yet. At this point, I don't really think we're going to have one tonight.
ADAMS: Eduardo, who lives ten minutes away, leaves to pick up his kids from school and it's home for dinner and maybe some sleep on the couch, his cell phone on his chest, to vibrate if his night watchman calls.
Lexington has two world class equine hospitals, and that's because of the money that's involved in thoroughbred breeding and racing. Horses sell at auction for millions – stud fees can easily go over $100,000.
DR. BONNIE BARR: We are standing in the intensive care unit at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital. It's primarily for the neonatal foals, so newborn foals that are sick.
ADAMS: Dr. Bonnie Barr leads an intensive care team at Rood and Riddle. These are also people who don't go out of town or get much sleep during the foaling season. The hospital's NICU has eight stalls. On this afternoon seven are full.
BARR: Last night we had a foal that came in that was just born on the farm and it wasn't breathing on the farm. The farm veterinarian did CPR. They brought the foal in here immediately. It was breathing by the time it got here. My concern with the fact that he had a lack of oxygen right at birth is that it can affect his brain. There he is.
ADAMS: The colt is quiet in a front corner of the stall, supported on a foam pad, with blankets. Eyes covered, cotton in his ears.
BARR: So right now he's kind of in a drug-induced coma because when he came in he was very hyper-responsive, not acting like a newborn foal. And then the excitement that happened when you just walked in here, is his mother was showing me some signs she was just kind of quivering that maybe she's having a problem post-foaling. It was a good size foal and they can have complications after foaling.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)
ADAMS: Most of the stalls have both the mother and the baby. There is one orphan foal whose mother died soon after giving birth. They'll bring in a nurse mare. Another newborn was not tolerating her mother's milk.
BARR: We've got her on some intravenous fluids and then the kind of milky white bag is total parental nutrition made up of dextrose, lipids, and protein.
ADAMS: She looks good right now.
BARR: She does, yes. Earlier she was rolling around in the stall saying my belly hurts. Not saying it, but showing me that her belly hurts and everybody else in here.
ADAMS: Veterinarian Bonnie Barr – watching over babies and mares at Rood and Riddle. The hospital also has 24 ambulatory vets with their trucks full of equipment ready for calls from out on the farms. And that's usually at nighttime during the foaling season. It is nighttime when Eduardo Terrazas walks in out of the cold and dark to find the mare he's been watching. She's almost ready but having trouble. She's lying down, breathing is heavy.
TERRAZAS: She, uh, she's got a thickened placenta here, so she's not going to be able to break her bag, so I'm going to break it for her. So we need something sharp to puncture it.
I'm breaking it now.
ADAMS: And first to appear, the front hoofs and the forelegs, stretched out. Between the legs, you can see the nostrils, then an eye, and it's open.
TERRAZAS: Come on mama, I help you. You see he's a little sideways.
What do we do? We just kind of tug. We don't push or pull unless we have to. Once you pass the shoulders sometimes they get hung from the hip, but this mare is an old pro.
ADAMS: And with a gush, the foal is clear, out on the straw. Eduardo cleans the nostrils and mouth.
MICHAEL TERRAZAS: Is it a boy?
ADAMS: Eduardo's family has come to watch the birth. Ten year old Michael wants to know if it's a boy. His sister tells him dad hasn't had a chance to look yet. The umbilical cord is tied, Eduardo gives the foal an enema solution, a small oxygen tank is hooked up.
TERRAZAS: Not everybody does this but I give all my babies the first four or five minutes with oxygen in case they lost oxygen during the delivery.
ADAMS: And soon the baby horse is standing, trying to figure out what legs are for. The legs are tall. You look from one animal to another and wonder how the little one was ever up inside the big one. The mother gets a shot, a painkiller, lots of praise, as she licks her baby, which is indeed a boy. It's a colt.
TERRAZAS: So the owners, as soon as the baby is born, they get a picture of their - their baby.
ADAMS: Cell phone pictures are sent off to the owners, in Georgia. This little thoroughbred is an investment. The owners had paid a stud fee of $25,000. The colt will most likely bring $100,000 at the yearling auction.
Eduardo Terrazas celebrates the birth by brewing a pot of coffee. He says barn coffee is always the best. And then he turns to the next door stall and a mare that may just be waiting for things to quiet down.
In the Bluegrass state this foaling season – late January into June – 8,000 registered thoroughbred colts and fillies will be born. And one of them just might win the Kentucky Derby as a three-year old.
Noah Adams, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.