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A woman's special bond with a Thoroughbred leads to the most successful horse rescue organization in the country
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
JO ANNE NORMILE founded two hugely successful horse rescue organizations and has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune among numerous other publications. In addition, she has appeared on CNN and many local television broadcasts.
LAWRENCE LINDNER is a New York Times best-selling co-author who has also written for many publications including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and O, the Oprah Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
How One Woman's Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption
By Jo Anne Normile, Lawrence Lindner
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jo Anne Normile
All rights reserved.
It’s very quiet in the barn at night, but when a horse is about to have a baby, she’ll get restless and start to pace, and I wanted to be able to hear the rustling of the straw as Pat walked back and forth. That’s why I started sleeping with my head right next to the video monitor on the coffee table that streamed in the activity from Pat’s stall, the volume turned all the way up.
To catch a mare foaling is rare. Horses almost always give birth in the predawn hours, preferring to have their babies away from people, and even other horses. Some will tell you they can time their labors for privacy. But once their contractions begin, they can’t hold back. And I needed to be there, as a midwife for Pat as well as for myself.
The first couple of nights, Pat didn’t settle in but kept walking and biting at her sides—a sign of pain. She also swished her tail, yet another sign of discomfort.
Then, one night, some time before sunrise, she went down on her side, nipping at her flank. Her pain had increased significantly. She rose, circled several times, then went down again. Her body gave a heave. “This is it, everybody!” I called out, jumping up from my perch on the family room couch and running to the bottom of the staircase. “Grab your stuff!”
We had very little time. A horse gives only three or four major pushes before birthing her foal. The four of us raced down to the barn. My husband, John, would be on duty with the video cam, while one daughter had a camera for still shots and the other would stand by the barn’s wall phone in case there was an improper presentation at birth and the vet needed to be called. Normally a foal is delivered with the front feet coming first, one several inches ahead of the other so that the shoulders, emerging at an angle, can fit through the pelvis. You see the hooves, one before the other, and then the nose laid down on top of the legs. Any other presentation can prove a life-or-death emergency for mare, foal, or both.
We were whooping excitedly, all smiles and eager chatter as we ran from the house, pulling on our coats. We had already seen the baby kick when Pat drank cold water. We loved watching Pat’s stomach sway like a pendulum in her last week before delivery. We had placed bets on whether the foal would look like its mother, with her dark coat, or whether it would have any markings. New life now just moments away, it was a giddy anticipation.
When we reached the barn I had to tell everyone to lower their voices to a whisper. “No running,” I said. We needed to tiptoe, contain our excitement, so Pat wouldn’t be alarmed or disturbed. The baby’s front legs were already out. We could see its knees. We could see the bluish white sac, a filmy casing, enveloping the tiny foal.
By the book, you’re not supposed to go into the stall. Birthing is something horses are meant to do by themselves. But Pat and I were already too bonded. The day we met, she had blown out through her nostrils to greet me, as horses do. She let me touch my face to her muzzle and blow directly into her nose so she could become familiar with my scent. And while some Thoroughbreds are very fine boned, Pat was a big, broad-chested mare with a look more like that of a Quarter Horse, which I preferred. More than that, she was such a people horse. Her eyes beamed empathy, intelligence. So of course I couldn’t let her go through giving birth alone. I went in, knelt down, and stroked the side of her head as she lay there in labor, then moved closer to where the baby was emerging.
But Pat soon rose and started to walk around. The foal needed repositioning to be properly birthed, and Pat’s movement would make it happen. “It’s okay, Pat,” I whispered soothingly while stroking her some more. “I’m here. Everything’s okay.”
Pat shortly went down again, gave a sigh followed by another heave, and out came the foal’s knobby shoulders. They are the widest part of the birth, so we knew we were home free. One more heave, one more sigh, and whoosh, the baby was fully born. It took all of five or six minutes. Elated that we made it in time, we wanted to scream but just kept saying softly, “We have a baby. A baby!”
I was admiring the newborn foal in its sac, adoring its lashes, its tiny feet, when I suddenly realized that the water hadn’t broken. I had been so absorbed in what lay before me that I forgot the hooves are supposed to tear open the sac upon delivery. The baby was in danger of suffocating. A foal needs air once it is out of its mother’s body, just like a person.
“Oh my God!” I cried out, tearing at the sac with my fingernails. But the bluish-white shroud was like tough tire rubber. I was out of my mind with fright and desperation—and guilt. Not only had I wasted time looking at the baby through its sac, lost in awe over its beautifully closed eyes and its rounded forehead, like that of a human newborn. I had also forgotten to store a knife or other sharp instrument in the foaling kit even though I knew about the rare case in which parting the sac needs a human assist.
Finally, I did manage to break open the sac, and water gushed everywhere. I pulled out the foal’s head, but it didn’t start breathing. The newborn remained limp.
Frantic, I cleared the horse’s nose and mouth of mucus, then fastened my mouth on its nostrils and exhaled deeply, expressing air into its lungs. Still nothing. The girls were crying. John and I were, too. You can hear me on the videotape saying, “I think it’s dead.”
The moment, gone disastrously awry, had been more than a decade and a half in the making.
Eighteen years earlier, almost to the day, the legendary Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby. The great Thoroughbreds who run in that race are magnificent beings—powerful yet graceful, and beautiful. I always looked forward to watching the Derby. But my fever spiked in 1973, when Secretariat won not only that run but also the other two races in what is known as the Triple Crown: the Preakness, held in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes in New York. Two other horses won all three races in the Triple Crown after Secretariat, but it didn’t matter. He was the superhorse; his record times still stand today.
I soon began collecting Secretariat memorabilia—Christmas ornaments, a program from the ’73 Derby, numbered collector plates signed by his jockey. In 1988, we were even able to meet the great stallion. We were driving to Disney World, and our route from our home in Michigan went right through Kentucky, only twenty miles from the farm where Secretariat was living out his life as a stud horse. We took a detour in hopes of catching a glimpse of the magnificent steed.
But when we reached the farm, a groom actually led me right to him. He brought Secretariat out of the barn for me, and I lay my head on his strong shoulder. Surprised by how moved I was, I cried while John and the girls took pictures. I then scratched his mane, as horses will do for each other with their teeth. He was exceptionally well behaved—and massive. “Locomotive” was the word that came to mind, and I thought, “here is the most powerful horse I’ve ever seen.”
Just one year later, Secretariat was euthanized at the relatively young age of nineteen. He suffered from a disease, laminitis, that causes swelling inside the wall of the hoof, increasing pressure on it and making it excruciatingly painful even to stand, let alone walk or run. I’ll never forget the day I heard the news on the car radio.
It was around that time that Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, gave a speech at the Michigan Horse Council’s Annual Stallion Expo, and I learned that one of Secretariat’s sons, a stud horse, lived only a two-hour drive from us. I thought, what better memorabilia could I have than to look out every day and see a grandchild of Secretariat sired by that stallion? I’d have a piece of Secretariat in my own backyard.
By that point we had owned horses of our own for only five years. I had been one of those girls who grew up crazy about horses but never could have one. The feeling never dissipated, and when I turned thirty-six, I convinced my husband to move from our bustling suburb to a home in the country with a barn and pastures. We were not wealthy people—John worked for Michigan Bell and I was a freelance court reporter—but we sold our house at just the right time, for two and a half times what we paid for it, to be able to afford the new one, and then bought two lovely horses in short order. The first was a black Quarter Horse I renamed Black Beauty, giving into a childhood urge. The second we named Pumpkin because of the orange highlights in her coat.
It was an idyllic life, one that should have been enough. From almost every window, beautiful pastureland spread to the tree lines. I could work on my court transcripts, look outside, and take in a view of the horses. I could stop working at my computer at any time and go pet them, or hop on without a saddle and take a short ride to clear my mind. I could finish my work at midnight. It didn’t matter, as long as I met my deadlines.
But the idea kept tugging at me to increase our “herd” with a grandchild of Secretariat. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Pumpkin was too old to bear a foal by that point, but not Beauty. So I sent her up to be bred to Secretariat’s son. But Beauty miscarried—twice. And each time was an expensive try.
After the second failed attempt, someone at the breeding farm suggested, “Why don’t you lease a mare? She’ll go back to her owner once she delivers the foal, but the foal will be yours. You might as well lease a Thoroughbred. That way, the foal will have papers that will enable you to get it registered with the Jockey Club.”
“I don’t know anything about registering a Thoroughbred,” I said. “I don’t want to race a horse.” It was true. While I loved to watch the Kentucky Derby, I had no ambition to race. I simply wanted to have a grandchild of Secretariat grazing behind my house, like a snow globe come to life.
“But a horse registered with the Jockey Club will always be more valuable,” I was told. “It’ll serve you well should you ever have to sell or trade it.”
So I started making some phone calls to Thoroughbred racing farms. My vet ended up approving a Thoroughbred, Precocious Pat, a dark mare with some reddish hairs around her muzzle who was due to give birth very soon. Pat’s owner, Don Shouse, was sick. He had had a heart attack, and he asked me to take his mare to our house to have the baby. The plan was that I would raise the baby for six months. At weaning time, by which point Don was expected to recover, I’d give it back to him. But I would be allowed to use Pat to breed a horse of my own with the sire of my choosing—Secretariat’s son. I wouldn’t have to pay to lease her since I would be taking care of her and her new baby for a while.
I said yes to the arrangement, and Pat and I took to each other right away. We immediately set up a large stall in the barn in which Pat could have her foal, making room by storing much less hay than we usually did—100 bales at a time instead of 400.
It was in that stall that before us now lay the baby horse’s wet, lifeless body. Though I’d known from the start it wasn’t going to be mine—this was the horse I’d have to return to Don before Pat could be bred to Secretariat’s son—my heart had already laid claim to this baby and its mother. I thought of performing compressions on its chest, but I knew that wouldn’t have been the proper procedure. Besides, a just-birthed foal is so tiny, so vulnerable. It weighs only about 100 pounds the moment it’s born—all bone, with its body narrowly compressed. I was afraid I’d hurt it.
Miserable with my lack of options to pump life into the fragile newborn, I turned back to Pat to see how she was doing. She was trying to see around me, not aware yet that her baby was dead. Then, perhaps thirty seconds later, well after I had tried breathing into the horse’s lungs via its nose, one of the girls cried out, “It’s moving!”
The baby horse’s head stirred ever so slightly. I leaned over for a better look at its sides and saw the in and out of the breathing. The baby was alive!
I went back down and blew into its nose a second time to assure continued respiration, and also as a sign of affection. I wanted the horse to know my scent. That’s what the mare does, and I aimed to mimic her behavior so the foal would associate me with the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of its time.
It was kind of cold—the middle of the night in early May—and the foal was still wet and also shaking, so I hurriedly finished pulling the sac from around it and vigorously dried it with towels. I then waited for the placenta to come out and put it in a pail of water for the vet to inspect. If even a small part of the placenta isn’t delivered, the mother can get an infection, just as with people.
Pat gave her maternal nicker, a soft, barely audible sound that all mares make to their newborns. The intimate message means “Come a little closer,” and the foals respond to it immediately from birth, without any learning process. The bond between mare and foal is so strong, in fact, that animal behaviorist Desmond Morris once wrote about a case of a young horse who was taken from its mare and transported five miles to a place it had never been before, yet managed to find its way back to its mother in five days.
At the sound of the nicker, the baby lifted its head, its ears flopped to the side. It then let out a whinny, although it was more like the honk of a Canadian goose, and that, combined with our relief, I think, made all of us laugh hard.
I got out of the way so Pat could lick her foal’s face and body, inspect her newborn, bond with it physically. About ten minutes later, I said, “We forgot to even look to see if it’s a girl or a boy.” So, just before the baby attempted to stand, I spread its legs. It was still soaking wet underneath from being born, but I could see there were no “attachments.”
“It’s a girl! It’s a girl!”
We watched the wonder of the newborn foal repeatedly trying to stand on its spindly legs until finally succeeding, only to fall again seconds later. It’s no act of futility. It’s an equine Pilates class. With each attempt, a foal’s coordination increases, as does its strength.
Proud, finally, to stand on all fours, the baby foal let out another honk, much louder than the first, and we laughed once more at our “Canadian goose.”
Then she stumbled around searching for nourishment. She tried to nurse on everything her muzzle touched, from the front and back of Pat’s legs to my own shoulders and face and even to the back wall of the stall. Patient mother that Pat was, she nudged the foal into proper position, and I assisted in helping the newborn locate its mother’s udder, heavy with milk.
Soon the sun was rising, baby tucked up against mare, and it was clear to every one of us, exhausted and exhilarated, that at that moment all truly was right with the world.
Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Jo Anne Normile and Lawrence Lindner
Foreword copyright © 2013, 2014 by Susan Richards
Excerpted from Saving Baby by Jo Anne Normile, Lawrence Lindner. Copyright © 2015 Jo Anne Normile. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although I have never owned horses, you do not need to be a horse person to immediately become immersed in this memoir of love and life. The first chapter grabs your attention and from then on it's nearly impossible to put this book down. I read it in two days yet it's one of those books that you keep looking at the pages left and don't want it to end. I would say it is inspiring and proves what a powerful motivator love can be. There's a lesson in these pages for all of us and what a better world it would be if everyone heeded these life lessons. Bravo to Ms. Normile!
Jo Anne Normile had a dream – a dream to own a grandson of the famed racehorse Secretariat, and see that horse race. She had no idea how deep into the “Sport of Kings” this dream would take her, nor how it would forever change her life. The first thing Normile needed to make her dream a reality was a top-notch broodmare (a female horse used for breeding) that would produce her future champion. The horse she found was Pat, a sweet Thoroughbred mare that was already in foal. The agreement with Pat’s owner was that Normile would care for the mare and once the horse foaled, she’d be able to re-breed Pat and that resultant foal would be hers. The first foal would go back to Pat’s owner once it was old enough to leave its mother. That foal, officially named “Reel Surprise,” was nicknamed “Baby” and was soon the love of Normile’s life. How could she send Baby back to Pat’s owner? Eventually, Normile was able to work out a deal with the foal’s owner and Baby became her horse. Her horse to love, spoil, and blow kisses to. As Baby grew, however, the time to send him away for training drew near. As part of the sale agreement, Normile had promised Baby’s original owner that she would race the horse and so, reluctantly, she sent her prized horse off to the trainer. A fair amount of Saving Baby relates the ups and downs of Baby’s training, although as Normile admits, many of the experiences were not positive. From his first trainer’s insistence on keeping the horse through the winter (the horse was originally supposed to go home after a few months of initial training), to the second trainer’s feeding poor quality hay and making her horse very sick, to the actual races where Baby lost almost every time, the author honestly tells all. Time after time, she admits that she allowed things, “against my better judgment,” because she was enamored with the “Sport of Kings” and thought all would be well. But slowly, while spending a significant amount of time in the stabling areas of the track, she saw things that made her re-think the world of racing. When Baby became a victim of these track issues, Normile made a promise to her beloved horse to help other racehorses. With her background and connections, Normile was the perfect candidate to start rescuing racehorses that had reached the end of their careers. Whether from age or injury, most of these horses were destined to travel in horrible, terrifying conditions to the slaughterhouse. Normile founded an organization called CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) that grew exponentially once established and word got out about what wonderful sport horses most of these washed-up ex-racehorses would make. Some readers may question why Normile didn’t simply pull her horse out of training and bring him home. This is a valid question and, no doubt, she asked herself that over and over, particularly after Baby suffered at the hands of the racetrack. But as so many people know, it’s very easy to get swept up in the excitement of racing, and think that everything will be okay, that no harm would ever come to your horse. The reader, too, will get swept away in the story, hoping that Baby will return home safely. As the book progresses, the author tells numerous stories of horses that her organization saved, as well as some that they couldn’t get to in time. This story will give fans of racing something to think about next time they head to the track to bet on their favorite horses. Quill says: You’ll get angry, and shed a tear or two while reading about Baby and other racehorses. There’s no doubt, Jo Anne, that Baby would be proud of all you have done for ex-racehorses.
I was expecting a love story and got much more... the light and the darkness of the Thoroughbred racing world. Thank goodness for CANTER.