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.