Don't let that sweet “I'm just a little baby pony” face fool you. Gretchen Pelham recounts the story of a filly who came into this world swinging.
Photos by Gretchen Pelham.
My newborn filly looked right at me and there was no mistake that she had every intention of murdering me very soon. By her still wobbly state it was apparent that she had no idea of just how to accomplish my early demise, yet, but the glint in her eye left no doubt that she would achieve her goal one way or another.
This 2010 filly, Harper Lee, was the second Trakehner foal by Hennessey that I had bred. The other full-sibling colt was born the year before, in 2009. I had to wait three weeks after his due date for his arrival. It felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown “sleeping” 25 nights in a row in the dressing room of my horse trailer waiting for him to be born.
This new filly, however, was not late. Not even by one day.
I had been told by several people that once a mare is late, she would usually go late every pregnancy. Well, no one told the mare this tidbit.
On June 4, 2010, the official due date, the dressing room of my horse trailer wasn’t even set up yet for me to camp out in. I was so sure that I still had weeks of time, with the mare giving no signs of imminent foaling, that at midnight I didn’t even go to check on the mare. I was awake at midnight, and I even contemplated it. But in the end I was lazy and didn’t leave the house. “She won’t foal” I thought.
At 8 a.m. I walked into the foaling stall and saw a filly jump up quite easily in the corner. It was obvious that she was about 7-8 hours old. My first reaction was to say, “Why, you B@#$%.” I was directing the cuss at the mare, but I believe that the filly took offense. Major offense.
The filly had no idea who or what I was, and she had no intention of figuring it out either. I had my colt imprinted the moment he was born. It was obvious that this filly was not.
It took about 30 minutes for me to catch her in the stall. Even less than 12 hours old, she tried to kick me every time I got near. She would keep her head as far from me as she could and only present a twitching tail towards me. I believe that is the equine version of Giving the Finger. This was to be the pattern for every time I approached her. In college I had worked at an equine hospital in Lexington, KY, Hagyard-Davidson-McGee, and I had learned several tricks to catching unruly foals. This spanking new filly made all the Standardbreds and Thoroughbred foals I had worked with in Kentucky look like sissies.
I somehow managed to get a halter on her and dip her navel without losing any brain matter. Relations did not improve when the vet arrived later to take blood.
I caught her about four times that first day, and I followed the routine I had with the colt. Each time I would rub her all over with my hands and a fleece saddle pad. Unlike the colt, she was not amused. I would handle her ears and put my thumbs in her mouth, which left her highly offended. I would sack her out by gently thumping the heavy lead rope all around her belly and legs. That she considered criminal. I rubbed running clippers sans blades all over her head, ears, body and as far down her legs as I dared. She was left quaking with fury and indignation and formulating a plan to rub me out.
My colt never batted an eye at any of this, but SHE was obviously not the colt. After many attempts, I found I could only catch her while holding a dressage whip. Now, I didn’t whip her. It was an extension of my arm – it was literally the only way I could separate her from her mother, and get her in a corner without getting kicked. Without it I wound up in endless circles ‘round and round’ the mare. At one point I honestly planned to try to get her distracted by dizziness, but I succeeded in only getting myself sick.
By her second full day I knew I was in over my head. This filly absolutely hated me, and was getting stronger and therefore closer to her murderous goal. I realized that what I did with the colt was not working with her. So I asked for advice, and was told to “throw” her. I had never actually picked up a foal and sat down with it, but I had seen it done before. How hard could it be?
I realized too late that I had seen it done by a rather large man, not by a five-foot woman who weighed not much more than the filly.
So, all alone I caught the filly that morning. After the usual tussle, I was able to catch her and stand at her ribs. I tried putting the lead rope around her hind leg that was closest to me. She kept kicking it off. After about five tries I got it around and started to pull up toward her head while I lifted her up. Oh wow, that really ticked her off.
It became apparent very quickly that I had no skill, no grace and no strength at this exercise. Instead of gently lowering the filly to the ground, it became a battle suited for the caged fight nights on pay per view.
I wish I had a video of that fight. I never knew equines could perform mixed martial arts. No one told me that Kung Fu was learned in the womb. Hooves were a blur in every direction. She could do the most amazing round house kick with all four legs at once. I racked my brain for moves I had seen in Jackie Chan movies and the Matrix. Just how did Bruce Lee manage that One Inch Punch again?
She gave me a black eye when her head popped up and cracked me in the cheek. Then I thought I had lost a tooth when I felt blood on my lip. Since it was unseasonably hot for early June, the combined sweat from both of us made my grip on her slick, newborn coat slippery.
The mare never even got upset; she seemed amused watching us. After going about three rounds of heavyweight boxing without a break, I finally got the filly down and caught my breath.
I hadn’t cleaned the stall yet, which I learned not to make that mistake again. I was covered in sweat, bits of manure, urine-soaked shavings, hair and blood, but I had won. The filly was panting with her head in my lap. I put a fleece pad under her head and just stroked her. I was trying to show her that even in her most vulnerable state, I wouldn’t eat her. She struggled a bit, but she was tired. I kept her down for a while, until letting her get back up.
I felt really guilty for stressing a two-day old filly like that like, but I had run through all my other tricks to try to “tame” her. I’m a small woman with very bad asthma, so I had to convince this filly to get with the program before she got too big for me to handle. Or before she turned serial murderer.
The next project was leading, which she wanted no part of either. The colt was halter broke without fuss inside of five days. This filly just bucked and bucked and bucked with the butt rope, but it was the only thing that got her moving. At least she bucked while moving forward! At one point she managed to get her hoof to kick the small of my back while I was standing in front of her shoulder. It was then I really started to worry about not having a Last Will and Testament.
Trying to load her on and off the horse trailer was another battle. She threw such a fit she fell down on the grass, so I kept her down. I petted and scratched and cooed over her to try to convince her to let down her defenses, all to no avail.
By day seven she hadn’t improved one iota, except to improve her aim. The kaleidoscope of bruises I had collected was impressive. I had become so adept in avoiding her daily assassination attempts that I wondered if I could qualify for the Secret Service. She still tried to kick me every time she could, and started to use her newly emerged teeth on my arms when I wasn’t looking. Leading was just a joke.
While trying to catch her that morning of her seventh day, she fell in the stall. She didn’t fall hard – she did it quite gracefully and purposefully. She was like Scarlet O’Hara fainting when she didn’t get her way. So for the fifth time in a week I “sat” on my filly and wouldn’t let her up. I had a plane to catch in two hours, and here I was sitting on my filly AGAIN because she threw an unholy fit at just being caught. I wondered for the millionth time just what I had done wrong with this foal.
I was to be gone for a week. The plan was for my friend, Lisha, to pick up the mare and foal after she got back from the Upperville Horse show. I was praying that Lisha would fix whatever I had done wrong with Leatherface, a.k.a. my filly. I knew my students could not handle the filly for an entire week, and I shuttered to think of how bad she would be without being touched after another seven days.
Until Lisha could come, I instructed my student Olivia, just 14 years old, to not touch the filly. She was to lead the mare only to and from the pasture and not touch the filly. I warned her repeatedly about keeping an eye on the filly’s hind hooves and teeth. And Olivia did just that; she completely ignored the filly for three days. On the last day, the filly couldn’t stand it any longer. Here I had done nothing but overload her with attention, but Olivia ignoring her was not to be borne. The filly started to come up to her, something she never once did to me. The filly was nudging and tugging at Olivia’s shirt. Then she started to follow Olivia around the stall.
Olivia tamed my murderous filly by ignoring her. Ignoring her, now why didn’t I think of that?
Lisha came to pick up the mare and foal. Guess who lead and loaded like a champ after asking to be caught? Yep, my Ted Bundy filly did everything she could to prove me a liar.
When I got home to pick up the momma and little Hannibal Lector, Lisha said that she had been an angel and needed no retraining. She was easy to catch and lead reasonably well. The filly hadn’t even tried to kick or bite her. I swear the filly did this attitude switch just to get to me. I then decided not to breed the mare again. If I could be outsmarted by a week-old filly, then I wasn’t about to breed more foals to humiliate me.
Ever since I got the filly home she has completely recanted her wish to see me sleeping with the fishes. She is now the most affectionate and easy filly. She leads, ties easy, stands quietly, willingly picks up her hooves when asked, etc. She hasn’t tried to kick once.
In many ways the experience of the two foalings was very similar. With the first colt I was exhausted and semi-delusional from sleep deprivation due to his very late arrival. With the second filly I was exhausted and semi-delusional from the repeated head trauma. I don’t think I will breed a mare of mine again for a long while. The break will at least give me time to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And Taekwondo. And Kung Fu. I wonder, does Randy Couture give lessons?
Gretchen is one of the five Joint Masters of the Tennessee Valley Hunt. She is a photographer and always hunts with her large 20D Canon camera and zoom lens shoved down the front of the her hunt coat (including this day she fell). Sometimes she even remembers to put the digital card in the camera. She is known as the Naked Foxhunter from a series of articles she has written for The Chronicle of the Horse. Her other hunt pony Ziggy writes a blog for the foxhunting magazine Covertside. Occasionally Gretchen manages to finish a hunt without falling off, but that is not as often as she would like.