By Dianna Hubbard Stein
Will and Grace have entered the world, and what an unlikely event it was. Shari Burns, stable master of her Wilton, California barn, is no stranger to delivering foals.- she lost count at 950 or so. When the mare, Elegant Emma N, owned by Richard and Marlene Thomas, and bred by Little Steven, owned by Shari and her husband Ferris, began her final pacing around and around the stall, Shari knew that it wouldn’t be long until her labor would begin.
The fact that Emma began calling out early Wednesday morning was a warning sign to her that things may not go as smoothly as she hoped. This was new behavior for her; Emma had birthed twice before, and had been induced each time since she carried large foals. She was two weeks past term for this event, and was scheduled to be induced the following week.
As Emma gave in and lay down on her side to begin her birthing process, Shari was ready with all of her sage experience. As soon as Emma’s water broke, she knew that she was not dealing with a typical delivery. “There’s no bubble!,” Shari yelled to Ferris, who was watching the events unfold via video camera from the house, and her son-in-law James, who happened to be nearby. Ferris quickly headed for the barn. In a normal delivery, the mare will pass a white bag, or the amnion, which is followed by the fetus it contains. Before she had time to summon a vet, she had an even worse situation on her hands, “It’s a red bag!” Things were going wrong fast, and Shari quickly contacted Sara Steidl, DVM, her veteran veterinarian, with the dire news. Sara was 45 minutes away doing a routine mare check at a barn.
On rare occasions, there is a premature separation of the placenta prior to, or during, a mare’s foaling, causing a “red bag.” When this occurs, it requires quick action to prevent a stillborn or weak foal.
“You know what you have to do! Do you have your knife?,” the vet asked quickly. “Yes, and it’s clean,” Shari replied. Shari knew she had less than five minutes to try to save this foal’s life. With Ferris holding Emma steady, she pulled on the red bag, felt it tear, and the fluid began flowing. Soon after, a tiny hoof appeared in the birthing canal. Shari waited for the other leg before assisting Emma with her contractions. When no leg appeared and it was apparent that the foal was not positioned correctly, Shari carefully pushed the fragile leg in to find the other leg so she could gently guide its way. When she felt another hoof and then head movement, she knew she was dealing with a viable birth.
Emma’s contractions were more and more intense, and Shari’s arm was being smashed and constricted. She once more pushed forward, and this time found the foal’s mouth. Accidentally thrusting her hand down her throat while guiding her through the birth canal, she helped the new foal expel fluid just as a final contraction sent the tiny miracle into its new world. Shari quickly put her years of experience of delivering foals to work. Before long, James had wrapped the tiny filly and moved her away from Emma to keep her safe, as Emma continued to finish her birthing process. “She is small, but alive,” was all Shari could think. This was this mare’s last foaling, and Shari let out a sigh of relief that both the filly and mare had made it through without a tragedy.
The vet had examined Emma regularly during the pregnancy, including performing two ultrasounds. Everything was moving along as planned up until this point. Shari left the frail filly to check on her tired mare and was shocked at what she saw. There was another bubble! In slow motion, Shari realized she had another foal on the way and a dire emergency on her hands. Before she knew it, the white bag and another small leg was protruding from Emma’s vulva. As she reached in to assist in the birth, she discovered there was no second foot ready to follow, so she pushed the foot back. Working as fast as she could, she could not feel another leg or the foal’s head. Finally another leg! And a nose!
Ferris followed her orders as she shouted them out. His ranch duties typically involved tractors, fencing, and irrigation. He left the horses to his wife. His job now was to help her get through the next moments in any way he could help. Shari grabbed the bottom of the baby’s lip to guide it up to the birth canal. Once again, she lost the second foot. Keeping her hand firmly on the baby’s lip as Emma’s contractions continued, she found a second leg and quickly realized it was a hind limb. She knew she had to work fast. Letting go of the hind leg, she found the other front leg curled back up underneath the foal’s head. Shari quickly got her fingers under the knee and pulled the leg forward. Emma’s contractions were crunching both of them at this point. Now that she had her second surprise correctly positioned, she let go of its legs, grabbed the head and instantly, another miracle of the morning was laying in her arms.
It had been 12 minutes since she sent the first frantic text to Sara. She left Ferris and James behind as she grabbed her phone and ran past stall after stall, finding the spot that she would have cell service and could make an emergency phone call to the vet. “I’m so sorry,” was the vet’s response. She had assumed when Shari had called earlier about the red bag situation that the chance of survival was pretty slim. “You need to come!” Shari responded. “Right away?” Sara was assuming that there was nothing she could do since she was still so far away.
“Yes!,” is all Shari could yell.
“Was it a bad outcome?,” Sara asked.
“Depending on how you look at it.”
“Did it expire?” The outcome of even a well-handled red bag birth can result in a compromised foal.
“They are doing fine!” Shari said with a smile, even as she knew they were far from out of the woods.
“She had twins! We have a colt and a tiny filly!”
“She will probably expire,” the vet warned Shari.
“I don’t think so!” Shari had years of experience and an eye for a special animal. This little filly was already standing and suckling, right alongside her brother. She guessed that they weighed in at about 38 and 45 pounds, the size of one normal foal at birth. The vet’s response was loud with amazement and a quick, “I’m on my way!” Shari was left with the newest additions to her barn, and an intense will to keep them both alive.
The chances of either of the twins and possibly the mother surviving this episode was slim. The percentage of twin pregnancies is only two to five percent, with less than one percent resulting in live births. Sara Steidl, DVM, arrived to find Shari, soaked in sweat and blood, expertly caring for the first set of twins they both would have the privilege of caring for. She knew of the possible complications, including heart problems, lung issues, underdeveloped intestinal tracts, and other myriads of possible health issues.
It has been a week since the arrival of Will and Grace. True to their names, Will has a willful, full-charge personality, already frolicking and kicking around the stall, taking charge of his little sister. Grace gracefully picks her way around her rambunctious brother, becoming stronger and more self-confident in her surroundings hour by hour. As for the names? Shari explains quickly, “That was easy. Will- he has the will to live. Grace? She was saved by the grace of God.”
These tiny beauties are lucky that they happened to be at this Wilton barn when it was time for them to join our world. Shari quite simply saved their lives.