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Skooter the miniature horse goes to school

June 22, 2005

Looking at him now, you would never suspect that this frisky, hungry colt was ever anything but. Two weeks ago, however, he was clinging to life.

The foal, a light sorrel “Arab mini” breed of miniature horse, was born June 8 at Laurie Mason’s home in Parkdale. Perhaps because he was born slightly ahead of the expected time and was somewhat premature, or perhaps because the mare was a first-time mother and inexperienced, the mare rejected the newborn. According to Laurie and her daughter, Michelle Jernstedt, who is home from college for the summer, rejection isn’t all that uncommon.

“Sometimes it’s (human or other) interference, or it’s a new mother who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” Laurie explains. Or just instinct: “Animals can sense whether there’s something wrong with their ‘kid,’” Michelle says, “and because it takes so much energy to raise one, a mother might instinctively decide not to waste the energy if it’s not likely to make it.”

The Masons, who have a lot of experience with farm animals, milked the mother by hand but getting the milk into the colt was a problem, because he didn’t have strong enough suckle or swallow reflexes. They took him to their vets’ office, Tucker Road Animal Hospital, where veterinarians Tom Gilliom and Ann Brown managed to get it in him by tube-feeding.

“Laurie somehow managed to get at least a cup of the mother’s milk, which we call colostrum, and we ‘tubed’ him, or stuck a tube through his nose to his stomach,” Gilliom said. “She took him home, and she was going to try to get him to nurse, but no luck there.”

The next day Gilliom paid a visit to the colt at home to check up on him, but since the foal still hadn’t been able to nurse or take a bottle, he tube-fed him again, then took him back to the clinic.

“On Thursday, the vet called and said, ‘We have a person here who is wonderful with animals, and who’s had a lot of luck with this sort of thing with goats and sheep,’” Laurie says. That person was Cathy Chappell, who works as an assistant at the veterinary hospital. She took the colt home with her and worked with him through that night and the next two days, feeding him goat’s milk — which is close enough, nutritionally, to his mother’s milk — every two or three hours, until he was strong enough to suck from a bottle.

“I couldn’t get him to eat out of a bottle at all on Thursday,” she says. “I used a syringe with a catheter tip, and cut the hole bigger so it would sort of dribble out, and he would take it that way. By the next morning he was getting about half a cup.” Cathy raises goats, and bottle-feeds all the babies, so she’s had “lots of practice,” she says.

By Saturday morning, the colt felt strong enough to suck out of a bottle, and the more he ate, the stronger he got. By Sunday he was out of danger and able to go back home, where Laurie and Michelle took turns feeding him, every 2 or 3 hours, round the clock. He was still on this feeding schedule Monday when both Laurie and Michelle needed to report to their respective jobs, but fortunately Michelle’s schedule permitted her to take care of him in the morning, then pass him off to Laurie, who took him to work. She works in the Early Intervention program of Head Start at Frankton School.

Bringing the colt — whom by now they had nicknamed “Skooter” — to work not only solved the problem of keeping up with his feeding needs but also gave the kids a little time with a very little horse. A few got a chance to feed him (from a makeshift bottle: a nipple attached to a plastic Coke bottle) and let him chase them around the playground a bit.

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