Most students at Iowa State walk by the beautiful horse barns to admire the animals. Only few get to experience a part of what it takes to run an equine facility. One of the many equine specific courses students are able to take in conjecture with our Domestic Animal Reproduction Course (An S 331) is an Equine Reproduction Lab, 332E, taught by the Horse Barn Manager, Nikki Ferwerda. This course provides incredible hands on experience unlike any other university. Topics discussed and demonstrated include every aspect of reproduction from breeding both thoroughbreds and quarter horses to foaling. In an average class, we might watch a few palpations, assist in a live cover, and collect a quarter horse stud to ship semen.
As a TA for the 2018 breeding season, I assist in all of these areas and help guide the students and the horses through the process. Each student in the course is assigned 3-4 mares to check prepartum, assist in foaling alongside a TA, and then begin training the foal. Approximately 3-4 weeks before the mare’s due date, the student will begin checking the mare’s udder and teats for development, croup muscle and tail head relaxation, vulva length, and milk hardness. The mare will go on “foal watch”, which means we have two shifts with two students each that will rotate watching the mare for signs of parturition. These might include pawing at the ground, getting up and down, looking back at her stomach, biting her sides, and pacing.
Once the mare’s water breaks, she is moved inside our heated barn to a clean foaling stall. The TA on call and student assigned to the mare oversee the foaling. If all goes well, we stay with the mare and foal for 4 hours to cross off all major checkpoints such as standing, nursing, urinating, defecating, and laying down for the foal. We also make sure the mare passes her placenta within 3 hours, accepts the foal, and does not look uncomfortable. In the case of a dystocia, our facility is only 5 minutes away from the Large Animal Hospital at ISU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Foaling does not always go as expected, and students get to see textbook and atypical births.
For most students, training of the foal is the highlight of the course. They form strong bonds with their foals especially since they get to choose their barn name. Even I am guilty from shedding a few tears when saying goodbye to my foal that was here for four months. The assigned student with the help of a TA will begin catching and desensitizing the foal to our presence and our touch. Students are asked to work with their foals once a day to make it as easy as possible for employees to wash their dirty butts, medicate, and bring the foal inside for the mare’s palpations. Working with these foals very easily goes from frustrating to rewarding with consistent training.
Because a mare’s gestation is approximately 11 months, rebreeding may occur as soon as two weeks after parturition, with the foal at her side. Because we have 5 studs standing at our farm, we have many client mares coming in and out for foaling and/or breeding. Students get to wash the stallion before breeding and hold mares and foals during a live cover. They also collect both of our quarter horse stallions. In order to ship or freeze the sample, students assist in the processing of the semen where we practice determining motility, using a densimeter to calculate concentration, and calculating the amount of semen and extender. We also observe artificial insemination of quarter horse mares.
This experience is provided to any student who has taken the lecture regardless of background. I grew up in the suburbs of West Des Moines having only ridden a horse twice in my life. I started out my horse path here at Iowa State by taking our Safe Horse Handling and Welfare course, An S 116. All it took to be successful was a bit of courage and persistence. I went on to take this reproduction lab and eventually earned the confidence of the horse barn manager, Nikki. When I came to work with my foal every day of the week, she realized there was no getting rid of me. I went on to take the yearling class in the summer and then the weanling class in the fall where my patience, arm strength, and heat tolerance were tested. My skills grew more than I thought possible in the last year alone all because of these courses and the instruction from Nikki. I never imagined that I would get these opportunities here at Iowa State. The purpose of these courses is to give hands on experience, so you can go on to work with horses as a career, own horses, or simply gain an incredible appreciation for the industry. I plan on going to veterinary school where this experience, especially the foaling, will be invaluable.
By: Emily Settle firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior in Biology/Animal Science at Iowa State University