Looking at a photograph of foal Ruby Tuesday and her mum, Sparkle, you’d think they’d been together since the day Ruby was born. But you’d be wrong, for Sparkle is not Ruby’s biological mum, but her foster mother.
“My retired dressage mare, Bella, gave birth to Ruby in June last year and everything seemed fine,” says professional dressage rider and trainer, Lynn Wickes.
“We’d had problems breeding from Bella, but two years ago, she gave birth to her first foal, World Atlas, a colt by dressage stallion, Keystone Walentino. And last year, we had an equally special filly foal in Ruby Tuesday, who’s by Keystone Rhondeo.
“When Bella gave birth to Atlas, she colicked a couple of days after the birth, which can happen with new mums. However, she came through it with no major problems. So last year, when the same thing happened, we were concerned, but optimistic, that it wouldn’t develop into anything more serious.” Famous last words…
“Bella just couldn’t shake off her colic,” says Lynn. “Ruby was feeding fairly well off Mum, but despite attempts to get a reluctant Bella to her feet, she was clearly uncomfortable. There was no sign of an impaction, so obviously she was colicking because she was in pain.”
Bella was given drugs to treat her symptoms of colic, but these clearly had an effect on her foal. “Ruby started to show real ‘character’ in those first few days,” says Lynn. “And rather than retreat into her shell, she was feisty and full of mareish spirit – it was quite funny to observe in someone so young!”
But Bella didn’t improve and her tail went flaccid – a sure sign that her back end was paralysed with pain. “By that stage,” says Lynn, “we guessed there was more to this than met the eye.”
It was then necessary for another veterinary call-out. The vet duly examined Bella and gave his verdict – she had fractured her pelvis during the birth.
“Sadly, we had no choice but to put her down – with Ruby just a week old,” says Lynn. “It wasn’t a great decision to have to make, but the vet was unequivocal – Bella was distressed because she was in such pain and, basically, there was no hope for her.” But what was to become of Ruby?
A foster mum
“I was put in touch with the National Foaling Bank,” explains Lynn, “who subsequently put us in touch with a family in Wales. They owned a six-year-old, Welsh cob mare – Sparkle – who had given birth to a stillborn foal just 24 hours earlier.
“So my husband, John, and I drove to Wales at break-neck speed, having arranged to meet Sparkle’s owners in the service station layby at Junction 30 of the M4. The plan was to bring her home to Ruby, so we loaded Sparkle into our lorry and her dead foal travelled with her.
“While we were away, Ruby was a complete star. She was put in a stable on her own with the top door closed, but she could still see another horse in the stable next door. She could have been incredibly stressed by the whole experience, but she called out for a while, then settled down. I’m sure that her strong character helped her through this tough time, but what else could we do?”
Forming a bond
When Lynn and John arrived back at Furze Hill Stud in Churt, Surrey, they introduced their orphan foal to her new mum, with the help of stud owner, Susan Bach. And what could have turned out to be a tricky bonding process, went remarkably smoothly.
“First of all, we covered Ruby in the dead foal’s afterbirth, because to have any chance of Sparkle accepting her as her own, she had to smell of the dead foal,” explains Lynn.
“And John smeared Ruby with Sparkle’s droppings, so that she smelled of her new mum. Then Ruby spotted Sparkle’s huge milk bar and made a beeline for it!” Happily, Sparkle raised no objection and she took to Ruby instantly, revelling in her new offspring.
And the couple continued to thrive until Ruby’s weaning, “although Sparkle always had the last word!” remembers Lynn. “She was a super mare,” she continues, “but while she had a wonderful temperament, she wouldn’t stand for any nonsense from Ruby, who was so independent and whose favourite game was to playfully charge people!
“We were lucky,” concludes Lynn. “Our story had a happy ending, but none of it would have been possible without the help of the National Foaling Bank – they were our life-saver, we’ll always be indebted to them. Not only did they help our situation, but Sparkle’s, too – she would have been so distressed to have been left without a foal of her own to raise. But as it was, she was given the opportunity to be the terrific mum she turned out to be.”
Then… and now
And it didn’t stop there either, for after Ruby was weaned in mid-October last year, Sparkle was returned to her owners in Wales a couple of weeks later – and in-foal. “She’s in-foal to Belvedere, the son of well-known dressage stallion, Baron B,” says Lynn.
“As for Ruby, it was a very easy weaning,” continues Lynn, “and Ruby has turned into a lovely person. She’s straightforward and easy to handle, and we’ve been through the motions of picking feet up and worming with no problems. Having said that, however, she’s a woman who knows her own mind and is very confident, so I think she’ll make the perfect primadonna dressage mare!”