Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Night Shift (con't.) . . .

In my last post, I wrote about my all-time favorite job: delivering foals on the night shift. I adored that job and have many fond memories such as the one I described about witnessing a mare nickering to her unborn foal.

The mares I dealt with were Standardbreds, and in case you’re not familiar with that breed, they’re the harness racehorses (the trotters and pacers) that pull the sulkies and usually, in my experience, race at night. They’re similar to Thoroughbreds in many respects, but overall, they’re less high-strung, and the wonderful mares I worked with bore this out.

Most of them were extremely easy to deal with and tolerated my presence before and after the delivery with a kind generosity. Only one had a reputation, and lucky for me that she did, because I was warned about her. The woman who trained me had delivered her foals twice before, and she told me that soon after delivery, once the mare was on her feet, she’d try to kick me, and sure enough . . .

We followed a strict procedure foaling-out. Once the mare entered the first stage of labor, if we had a chance, we’d wash her vulva and udder, then braid and wrap her tail, warm two enemas for the foal, and wait as unobtrusively as possible for the mare to enter stage two, when her water broke. During the delivery, we offered gentle assistance if needed and made sure the foal’s nose and mouth were clear of the amniotic sac once he was delivered. After he kicked free of the umbilical cord, we’d treat it with an iodine solution and administer the enemas. (A foal’s first movement is sometimes difficult and can make him colicky.)

But back to my troublesome mare. After the delivery chores were completed, we were supposed to strip and bed down the stall with a luxurious layer of straw that we banked along the walls. I had finished one half of the stall, and was working on the next, when the mare spun around and fired with both hind hooves. I actually had to use the pitchfork to hold her off so I could get out of the stall.

But that was it. The rest of the mares were dreams to work with, even a maiden mare that I had to open up as she bore down to deliver her colt. Her vulva had been stitched partially closed some ten months earlier, to keep containments out of the birth canal after she was confirmed in foal, and the vet had missed opening her up. She was a sweetie; although, when I think about it, she was a bit preoccupied with the contractions when I got to work on her.

So, in and of itself, the job was exciting. Patrolling the barns in a driving blizzard was a highlight, but my nightly patrols took a sinister turn one season when a serial arsonist settled in the area.

Even in the dead of winter, we kept the barn doors cracked for ventilation purposes. One morning, around two-thirty, I was checking a mare to see if her teats had waxed up when I stepped out of the stall and glanced down the aisle. There was an orange glow on the horizon.

I realized the fire was located in the direction of my house. I hopped in the farm truck and drove past, relieved that it wasn’t my horse barn that was burning, but a neighbor’s structure used to house farm equipment.

My boss considered hiring someone to patrol the barns with a shotgun, and I was relieved when he didn’t. I figured I had a better chance being shot by mistake than encountering the arsonist. Eventually, the fires stopped, and the horse farm was never impacted, but I’ll never forget how I felt when I stepped out of the stall that morning and saw that glow on the horizon.

Here’s an excerpt from COLD BURN:

At four-thirty on a bitter February morning, the arsonist struck for the third time.

I’d heard about him from the guys who worked the day shift. So far, he’d entertained himself by torching vacant buildings, and as I stood in the doorway at the end of the barn aisle, listening to the mares moving in their stalls behind me, I hoped like hell he’d stick with his game plan.

I slid the heavy door farther along its tracks. An eerie glow marred the horizon as if a monstrous red moon had tilted on its axis and risen behind a screen of cloud and smoke. Without a reference point, distance was impossible to judge. Six miles away, the Rappahannock River snaked through the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, but the blaze looked much closer, and that worried me.

I had just finished feeding the mares in barns one and two and still had four more barns to work my way through before I was supposed to check seven and eight. They were located on the newest section of the farm, directly to the northwest. Directly in line with the fire.

I decided to ditch the schedule and head over earlier than usual.

When I turned to close the door, the bay mare in the stall to my left angled herself in the corner by her feed tub so she could peer through the bars on the front of her stall. She stared at me with such unnerving intensity, I could have sworn she knew more about what was going on--and what was yet to happen--than I did. But I was letting my imagination run away with me. If anything, her superior senses had provided her with far more information about the fire than I could ever hope to understand. I inched the door down the track, blocking out her image as deliberately as if I’d closed my eyes to her

Happy riding and reading,

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Night Shift . . .

I’ve been doing some spring-cleaning (the worst kind, actually: in the garage) and admittedly a little late in the season. Feels more like summer cleaning. Here it’s already June 3rd, technically wrapping up one of my favorite “horse” seasons: breeding and foaling time.

When I worked at a Standardbred breeding farm in Pennsylvania, our last foals would be hitting the ground about now, and generally, we humans were pretty darned happy that the season was coming to an end, what with the constant and seemingly never-ending chores that revolved around getting five-hundred to six-hundred mares in foal: ultrasounds, palpations, teasing the mares to see if they were receptive, and the actual breeding, itself. Even the stallions were probably happy to take a break. But I was always sad to see the season end because foaling-out was my all-time favorite horse job. My record was four foals on one shift.

The schedule was fairly brutal for foal attendants. We worked alone with only two of us splitting the nighttime hours for the season. I worked the midnight-to-seven shift for five days, then work a double shift (six p.m. to seven a.m.) so my counterpart could have off, then I’d have my day off. The day off would occur every weekend, and somewhere in there, I’d usually be awake for 30 hours before I got to bed – every single week.

Despite the difficulty of working when your body thinks it should be asleep, I loved the job more than any other. I loved being the only person on the farm and loved the connection I felt with the mares, the things I learned and observed . . . the wonderful privilege of being with these animals and getting a look into their lives that most people don’t have the opportunity to experience: listening to a mare snoring; watching one dream; feeling the contentment and peace that settles over the barn around two in the morning; watching a light snow fall when most of the world is asleep . . .

I incorporated one of the most touching things I’ve witnessed, when it comes to broodmares, in the following scene from COLD BURN:

Note: Steve has just returned from a rather racy party at a millionaire’s home and is relieving his partner on foal watch:

Maddie sat sideways on a hay bale with her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms clamped around her shins. Her right shoulder and hip leaned into the stall front, and she’d rested her head on her knees. As I walked down barn three’s aisle toward her, at five past midnight Saturday morning, I wondered if she had any idea just how titillating her pose was. To begin with, she wore jeans snug enough to cut off her circulation, but drawing her legs up as she’d done, tightened the denim even more.

I sighed. Then again, maybe it was the mood I was in. I’d always found that lack of sleep triggered some primal need to copulate, and the party had completely messed up my schedule, not to mention the sensory input overload.

I smiled as I remembered Elaine’s reaction to Hadley’s invite and guessed she hadn’t wanted to lose her ride to an orgy of sex and alcohol. She’d been anxious on the drive home, but I’d been thankful for her interjection and told her so. I liked my sex private.

Pulling my gaze away from Maddie, I glanced toward the dark storage area in the back and thought, as private as a horse barn, anyway. “What’s going on?” I asked.

Maddie jerked her head toward the stall as I realized the mare wasn’t standing in plain view. “I think she’ll go tonight. She hasn’t heated up yet, but I bet you’ll have a foal before daybreak.”


“Yeah, well it’s not so cool for me if they’re all gonna start waiting for your shift.”

I grinned and stepped closer so I could see over the bottom half of the stall. As I looked over the edge, the bay mare rolled onto her sternum, touched her muzzle to her belly, and whinnied. “What’s she doing?”

Maddie slipped off the hay bale and stood beside me, her right arm brushing mine. She whispered, “She’s talking to her unborn foal.”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“Uh-uh. She’s had four or five foals already. She knows exactly what’s going on, and she loves her babies. She’s such a devoted mother, one of the best mares I’ve ever worked with. I’ve foaled her out two years in a row, now, and she’s always talked to them.”

I raised my eyebrows. “But before they’re born?”

“Uh-huh.” Maddie turned toward me and licked her lips. “And now, it looks like you’re gonna have the honor.”


Next post, I’ll tell you about some real-life spooky events on the night shift; one of which triggered the opening to COLD BURN.