You always know there is something up on a horse farm by the amount of sleep the people appear to be getting.
Good or bad, the delirious slur of their speech and swaying, sleep-deprived way they walk reveals a lot about what has transpired in the night.
Sometimes it’s a bad thing; an overdue bill left them tossing and turning, a colicky horse kept them pacing at the end of the lead rope, a broken gate that let a whole pasture of mares escape to places horses shouldn’t be.
Other times, it’s a good thing: Waiting on the late delivery of a new horse, coming home from a long show, getting up early to bathe a horse for sales photos so that they are dry and brushed for that magic hour when the lighting is just right.
There is no sleep deprivation, however, more distinct that than that of a horse breeder during foaling season. Once a mare starts to show the telltale signs of impending birth—relaxation of the croup muscles, waxing of the —the sleepless nights begin.
“This is the most boring movie ever,” a breeder I once knew complained after spending yet another night watching the foaling camera.
“I got a full night of sleep!” proclaimed another when there was a lull between due dates.
I have been lucky. I have only had a few nights of foal watch here and there, but even those made me wish I had enough money to buy coffee for every breeder this time of year. Just like with human babies, sometimes things go wrong, and it is important to be around as a precaution.
The pregnant mares yet to pop start to get a little grumpy too. They waddle around their enclosures, their sides sticking out like the wings of a cargo plane. Some still frolic like idiots until their due date, but others hang their head and glare as if to say, “GET THIS THING OUT OF ME!”
It all becomes worth it, though, when a healthy foal hits the straw. Then as if by some supernatural miracle, it stands up and reaches for its mother within those first couple of hours. Its fairy slippers fall away, and the first signs of a unique personality come through even before the baby is completely dried off.
There is something about baby horses that make even the grumpiest old cowboys and farmhands melt. Neighbors you didn’t even know you had ring the doorbell, asking if they too can see the baby, and even if they are super annoying, it is hard to blame them for being drawn in by the fluffy, lanky magnetism of a foal.
Like tufts of new spring grass and the blossoms on fruit trees, baby horses are harbingers of possibility. On their tiny backs, our dreams take flight. Jumper? Reiner? Packing mount? Fine driver? Prize winner?
Of course, we breed for different things, so there is always an air of predestination to each baby, yet nothing is certain. The mystery of it all spurs our brains, cold and stiff from winter, into hopefulness we have forgotten. Anything becomes possible again, and if all else fails, babies will make us laugh and keep us humble.