By Tom Best

I think that it is a fitting time of year to relate the story of Gladys.

That was Waxwing's orphan foal, the reason why my 50th Royal Highland showing experience was cut short and the reason why sadness, worry and joy has been experienced in equal measure since that fateful day in June when a 'phone call from my neighbour announced her arrival, along with the death of her mother.

It's not that we haven't had an orphan foal previously, as the problem cropped up in 1997, when our Welsh Section C mare was diagnosed with grass sickness at Edinburgh University's Royal (Dick) Vet School. I found myself taking a mare and foal to the field station at the Bush Estate, only to return with a lonely colt foal of nine days of age.

The situation was much different, as we had a healthy foal which had been suckling and already starting to eat hard food, and we knew he had the benefit of the all-important colostrum which had provided him with nature's ability to fend off infection during those critical early days. In no time at all, we moved from bottle feeding to a pail.

Waxwing Rhys, as we named him, eventually went out in the field with fellow foals who were still suckling. He lived his summer at grass without any fuss or problem.

Unaffected by his unfortunate start to life, with the Aitken family from Kilwinning, Rhys successfully competed in ridden M and M classes qualifying for the 'workers' at HOYS on two occasions partnered by his regular jockey, Phillipa MacInnes.

Needless to say the experience of rearing Rhys provided a steep learning curve and definitely helped our latest problem, but in no way prepared us for what we would experience this time round. Most significantly, the circumstances surrounding Gladys' arrival on this earth were quite different – dramatic, alarming, worrying and exhausting.

Just at a time in my life when I thought I had most pony things sussed out, the arrival of a completely previously unchartered difficulty had arisen from the outset.

Fully aware of the importance of colostrum, I knew that we had frozen mare's milk in the freezer, but foolishly hadn't labelled it as such. However, I knew I had milk to cover several initial feeds.

Remembering to heat it gently and importantly not to microwave it, I was somewhat relieved to watch the bottle empty quickly as Gladys latched on to the teat in desperate hunger. It was at this stage I was able to take stock of our latest Waxwing filly which seemed so tiny and helpless without a mother but beautiful nonetheless – a good one well worth the saving. The fight had begun to rear this foal.

It is amazing how instinctively things start to kick into place and a 'phone call to our vet, Anne Logan, was the obvious first port of call. We have a great working relationship and a course of action was hatched to rear Gladys at home with a plan in place for immediate support from her and our local Loch Leven veterinary practice if required. Armed with these reassuring words of support, we moved on to the next step which was to locate more colostrum and replacement milk.

Ben Wentink, who runs the Scotland AI breeding centre, is not only good at his job but he also has an innate love of horses and ponies. It was no surprise that he volunteered to provide the colostrum, since luckily he had some in his freezer and he was also able to provide us with powdered milk replacer.

Armed with food as well as the offer of help should we need it, confidence started to grow and a determination that our foal would survive with the proviso that it might not be an easy road to follow.

Knowing that the initial few days would be critical for her survival, our filly enjoyed yet more colostrum and embarked on an hourly routine of feeding by bottle, something which she relished – she had a great appetite, a bright eye and an interest in life which encouraged us to keep going.

After 24 hours, hourly feeding gave way to two-hourly feeds round the clock. All went well until day five, when she wouldn't drink and started to scour. Needless to say, our hearts sank and we feared for the worst but armed with words of encouragement from our vet, oral antibiotic and probiotic paste, which we always keep on standby for the foals, we stepped up the care.

We knew she was naturally a little survivor and her eye never dulled so she duly obliged by gradually taking a warm glucose drink and later diluted milk. We noticed that she had started to drink cold water from her trough so the worry of dehydration subsided, as did her scour.

Within a remarkable 24 hours, she was more or less back to normal although we were careful not to overdo the feeding by reducing the amount of milk powder while maintaining volume of fluids. Interestingly, we learnt over time that the recommended dose of milk powder for pony foals was a bit excessive so we used our own judgement based on common sense rather than science and our foal started to thrive.

Soon, she even managed to drink out of a small bowl between bottles in preparation for the long-awaited day that we would be excused feeding duty by bottle when a bucket would suffice.

From the start, she appeared to be 'lost' in the relatively huge pen so a wooden gate was placed across one corner creating a cosy bedsit for her – in time a bar across one of the points would become a doorway and access to a creep facility. Having watched surprisingly young foals lick their mother's trough and pull at a blade of grass in the paddock, within the week we introduced a few blades of pulled grass and a taste of porridge oats. Then, in time, she progressed to handfuls of grass and a foal creep feed.

Having reached seven days with a foal possessing a strong will to live and doing well under our regime, we felt sufficiently confident to turn our thoughts to her immediate future which included the possibility of finding a foster mother.

With this in the back of our minds, it was a chance comment made by Ben that we fell upon an unusual resolution to this idea. Instead of finding a foster mare, he suggested that we create one within our own herd.

He sowed the seed of using a drug called Domperidone, which is normally used to combat sickness in humans with a recognised side effect of stimulating milk supply. It has also been successfully used in horses to aid,or induce lactation in mares.

The Internet provided much information, however it was YouTube that delivered a practical example by a horse breeder in Ireland with an orphan foal which swung the argument in our favour. Following the advice to select a mare with a pleasant disposition, which had previously reared foals, slightly wary but quietly confident, we selected one of our older mares, Oriana, who was barren in 2019.

Following a course of Domperidone fed twice daily for 14 days, a small vessel appeared from which we could pull some milk. We regularly massaged her udder during the latter part of the process and on day 14, she was given a dose of the hormone oxytocin to create contractions within the womb.

After 20 minutes, the mare showed minor discomfort and a little sweating so it was time to introduce Gladys, which had been kept a bit hungry prior to the introduction with the hope she would be keen to suckle. This was the critical time when Oriana might decide to reject her or indeed the time when Gladys might choose to reject a new mum.

Neither proved to be the case and it was a match made in heaven. Oriana instantly fell in love with her new foal and Gladys, after the initial shock of finding herself living with a pony, overcame whatever fear she had as the 'milk bar' proved to be too much of a draw. It was at this point we felt sufficiently confident to give Gladys a name and we settled on Waxwing Gladness.

Our answer to night-time feeding had been resolved at last. Oriana had taken a weight off our shoulders. Nevertheless, we decided to maintain Gladys' feed intake with milk in a bucket night and morning, as well as a jug of milk at lunchtime taken to the field.

She was slowly loosening her ties with her human friends but was more than willing to rekindle that friendship as she galloped down the paddock when she saw the jug appear and quickly emptied. Over a period of two months, Gladys received less milk and more hard feed which was mainly made up of high protein foal creep.

From the very earliest days, she had taken to eating hay and by the time she came to weaning, she was sharing a net of hay with Oriana as well as tucking into Oriana's feed before moving on to her own in her bedsit.

She proved to be as perfect a mother with her foster foal as she had always been with her own. As for Gladys, she took everything in her stride and became quite a talking point, if not star at Waxwing during the summer.

As we moved towards October, thoughts turned towards weaning, so it was time for the milk to stop and to introduce Gladys to the filly foal, Misty, which we had ear-marked as a companion for the winter.

In order to make things as easy as possible for Gladys, we firstly weaned Misty before introducing her to Oriana and Gladys in a large pen. We knew that Oriana wouldn't mind in the least, however Gladys took a bit of convincing as she rushed back to her mum each time Misty came near.

This soon passed and a friendship developed; it was time for weaning and it was with a heavy heart that we led Oriana off to join her older friends. As for Gladys, she wasn't too pleased – however food and Misty compensated for her loss and within a couple of days, she was totally settled yet again to another new life.

As I write, Gladys continues to grow and shows no symptoms of the dramatic start she had to life. I'd like to think that she still loves her human friends as she never fails to 'speak' to us each time we enter the stables.

Absolutely nothing seems to phase her, although initially she wasn't too sure why she required a head collar to come with us. She has grown into a beautiful filly which will hopefully follow a family tradition by making her mark in the show ring.

Her story has been a remarkable one so far so why should it not continue? Given the circumstances of her birth, a home for life at Waxwing is most likely although a holiday with a loving family at some stage to share her love with a young rider could be a possibility. Who knows?