Mares — and the women who love them — stand vigil during foaling season

Old Lyme - On Wednesday, the day before her May 12 due date, Whippoorwill Larissa goes out on the pasture for the day with the equally pregnant Whippoorwill Prairie Lark. The two horses at McCulloch Farm share the same due date and the same mate, Whippoorwill Red Oak.

With 14-year-old Prairie Lark, there's no telling when she'll go into labor. But 20-year-old Larissa is more predictable, and with Larissa's ninth foal on the way, owner Mary Jean Vasiloff knows by now what signs to look for.

She is sure the mare will foal this evening, or overnight.

Come 6:30 p.m., though, the only foal on the Morgan horse farm is playful and friendly Meri Dan, or Danny for short, knocking around his stall. Danny was born on April 30, on the 20th birthday of longtime volunteer Meredith Chamberlain. Vasiloff named the colt after Chamberlain and her twin brother, Daniel.

It's as much a guessing game as a waiting game to catch sight of a foal being born. Chamberlain and her mother, Nora, slept in the horse barn for nine days before 8-year-old Whippoorwill Goldusty had Danny.

Chamberlain sits outside the barn with her computer while Nora reads. They want to give shy Larissa some quiet time in the barn in case she's going into labor.

A third volunteer, Caitlyn Byington, of Old Lyme, joins them. As dusk comes and goes and night settles in, Chamberlain and Byington play a game of Go Fish and B.S. by a lantern's glow.

Bedtime is an early 10 p.m., for no other reason than that it's too dark to do anything else. Athena, the barn cat, indulges in the opportunity to curl up by humans for the night.

For Chamberlain, of Old Saybrook, part of the draw of foaling season is following the arc of the animals' lives. She's been at the farm for enough years that she's had a chance to see some of the horses she saw being born when she was a child have foals themselves, as was the case with Goldusty.

"Every time that you first see the foal stand up, I always think, 'What is this foal going to be like in three or four years?'" says Chamberlain, who studies zoology and biology at the University of Vermont.

The farm, at 100 Whippoorwill Road, has afforded Chamberlain and her brother experiences their mother says they couldn't have paid to get. Other farms might balk at the idea of letting children sleep over at the farm out of safety and insurance concerns, Nora says, but Vasiloff has always had an open-door policy. She shows interested children every aspect of farm life, from the daily chores to the breeding to the birthing.

"It's a kind of education you don't get any other way," Vasiloff, 81, says.

Vasiloff has raised about 350 foals in her 65 years of breeding Morgan horses, but even she can't tell you what day a mare will go into labor. Some horses exhibit signs - they start to drip milk, for instance, or "wax up," meaning they have a salt-like substance dotting their udder - but others offer not a clue.

"You just can't be absolutely sure," Vasiloff says. "They can go 10 days one way or the other with their due date."

Vasiloff says the foals seem to come mostly at night, during a rainstorm, because in the wild, the combination of dark and wet would keep predators from sensing the vulnerable foals.

But that's not a reliable indicator; Prairie Lark, the last of the three mares to foal this year, gave birth in broad daylight.

Vasiloff, who runs the 500-acre family farm with her son, Christ, and a handful of volunteers, no longer sleeps in the barn in wait of foals delivered in the still of the night. But she still slips out of her house, just up the driveway, multiple times a night to check on her pregnant mares.

"I just put on my bathrobe and come down," Vasiloff says. "I sleep in pajamas that I can wear in the barn."

For the love of horses

Meredith Chamberlain was 11 when, alongside Vasiloff, she watched Whippoorwill Melissa give birth to Whippoorwill M'Lady while everyone else was out on a snack run.

Chamberlain was smitten.

"We had an essay, and you had to write what you wanted for Christmas," she says. "And you had to convince Santa to give it to you. And I wrote this, like, 10-page thing on why he should give me a horse. I was very specific. … I had the cost of everything down in the essay. There was, like, hay: how much it would cost per year."

Chamberlain got her wish. Melissa was hers on Christmas Day, all groomed and clean in a stall at the farm that Vasiloff had decorated with a giant bow.

It would have been easy for Chamberlain to devote her time on the farm solely to Melissa, but she and other volunteers share a sense of camaraderie and responsibility for all the horses. And so she does her fair share of general chores - filling water buckets, cleaning up manure, sleeping in the barn during foaling season - in addition to looking after Melissa and M'Lady, whom she now also owns.

"Foaling is a huge, huge deal to Jean," Chamberlain says. "So it's sort of like, you're invited to stay. So that was a very big deal, when we first stayed over to see M'Lady be born."

When she's not away at college, Chamberlain is the person Vasiloff relies on to stand watch over the pregnant mares and make sure the births go smoothly. Chamberlain does it as much to witness one of the most important aspects of a breeding farm as to help Vasiloff out.

Vasiloff can call the vet in Chester if needed, but when the mare needs just a little assistance - Danny, for instance, had an elbow tucked in that he needed Chamberlain to straighten out before he could come out - Chamberlain is there, a "foaling bag" in hand filled with supplies she may need.

"I line up everything the same way every night so when something happens (at) 3 o'clock in the morning and you're a little disoriented, I still know where everything is," she says. "And it just runs like clockwork. And now, we don't even talk when we do it. It's just, you know where your position is, you know what everyone's going to do, what their jobs are."

'Time to get up'

In the half-awake state of 4 a.m., it's hard to tell whether Larissa is lying down and grunting because she's tired or because the time has come.

The time has come.

Vasiloff is an apparition out of nowhere, quietly standing by the stall door, watching under the glow of a dimly lit bulb above Larissa's stall.

Chamberlain stirs awake, checks in, then wakes the others.

"Time to get up."

The foal is lying on the ground by Larissa, but it takes everyone a minute to realize the foal isn't quite born yet; her hind legs are still tucked inside her mother.

She whinnies. Brand new, she's a horse from the very start.

Vasiloff chuckles. "Good morning."

"Happy birthday," Chamberlain says.

Goldusty senses she shouldn't be missing out on whatever is happening next door and pokes her head over the stall partition.

"You have your own baby," Vasiloff tells Goldusty good-naturedly. "Get your head in your stall."

All legs and dazed, the foal is officially born at 4:02 a.m.

"There, now you've got your feet where you can do something with them," Vasiloff says.

Vasiloff wants Chamberlain by the foal right away - "The more touching and handling you do right now, the better," Vasiloff says - and asks Chamberlain to check the foal's sex.

It's a girl, a filly.

"We always hope that we're going to get girls," she explained during an earlier interview. "We usually sell more boys than we do girls, but girls are always the chance to breed another good horse the next time with them."

Chamberlain wipes the foal down with towels. The filly isn't as robust as Danny, who was up and running within an hour. She jerks about on the ground, as if she were hiccupping, then samples some bedding before testing her legs out. She needs her ears to stand up before she herself can stand, Vasiloff says, and she collapses several times before finally making it on her feet 40 minutes later, to collective relief.

Her next feat: nursing.

"Close, but no cigar," Vasiloff says as the foal aims for her mother's milk.

The next morning, the volunteers sleep past the birds' wake-up call, but Vasiloff is already up and checking on the new family.

She tests out a name for the grayish filly with a white mark on her forehead who, by the time she sheds her coat in the fall, could turn either black, like her mother, or brown.

Oakesia, a type of wild lily. It'll do.

Meet the foals

Who: McCulloch Farm

What: "Foals and Flowers" Open Barn weekend

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 28, 29 and 30

Where: 100 Whippoorwill Road, Old Lyme

More information:


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