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And They’re Off! (Foals, too!)

And They’re Off! (Foals, too!)

With the Kentucky Derby behind us and the summer show, competition, polo, racing schedule ahead -- including the third jewel (Belmont) in the Triple Crown, which will be happening here in New York  --  and, not to forget, agriculture and leisure...it is not surprising that our curiosity has turned to a big part of New York culture: Horses.

Belmont Racetrack. Photo: Al Bello, Getty Images.

Truth is, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a handle on the state’s horse population and breeds. Overall, there are over 350 different breeds of horses and ponies. In New York, the New York State Horse Breeders Association has delegates representing 13 categories based on breed organizations that are nationally chartered, while one large breeders website currently shows availability of at least 100 breeds for New York. Equally challenging, if not more so, if trying to determine the full economic and social impact of horses for New York. The numbers are large, variable and hard to measure.

New York has in recent years become a national pacesetter when it comes to horses, particularly Thoroughbred racers. With respect to overall equine economic impact -- revenues and jobs for racing (and racinos), shows and games; farms to board and/or grow hay for them (as well as horses all over the country); jobs for those who tend them; make or sell tack and saddles, trailers, harnesses, and other gear for racing, showing and polo to name a few -- and social impact -- for example, the value of recreation, equine assisted therapy, which connects people with Autism and PTSD to therapy horses, and the return to more natural farming -- the ripple effects within the state are profound both in dollars and jobs and for community and culture.

In one department, however, New York is not a frontrunner; we have no official state horse. Twelve states already do. Each of the honored breeds tend to have some kind of special identity with and/or origin in their state, such as the Tennessee Walking Horse for, of course, Tennessee. Or the Nokota Horse for North Dakota. Or the Colonial Spanish Mustang (the wild horses of the Outer Banks) for North Carolina. So which breed would/should New York pick?

Thoroughbred advocates would certainly have an opinion, especially in these flush times, as undoubtedly others would also, but consider the contender that is arguably the one most embedded in our state’s history. In an article tracing the emergence of our country’s major horse breeds, Dr. Deb Bennett notes “Americans began breeding horses suited to the conditions of this country almost as soon as they arrived on these shores….In Pennsylvania and New York, they bred Hartdraavers---related to the modern Friesian---first for light farm work and, then as suitable roads were built, to pull wagons and carriages.” At least 11 Friesian horse breeders are presently located in New York, continuing that legacy. So we might respectfully suggest the Friesian as the appropriate Official New York State breed...though we don’t really have a horse in any such race.

All that to one side, with spring come adorably gangly foals of all breeds, wobbly as tulip blossoms swaying on their thin stalks...

New York Makers loves baby horses (and pretty much any other baby!) and has wanted to learn more about them and their entrance into the world ever since New York Makers began featuring photographer Lisa Miller’s exquisitely intimate series of fouls being birthed. Here are a few of the facts we have found...

Shop "First to Come Home" Limited Edition PhotographPhoto: Lisa Miller, The Foal Project

After about an 11-month gestation period, mares typically give birth to their foals in the spring (though it can happen at any time of the year). One is the norm -- though twins are possible.  A mare’s hormonal cycle is apparently affected by increasing daylight triggering ovulation such that breeding usually happens in the spring and foaling, the next. This timing naturally also allows for the young one to gain strength before facing its first winter.

Shop "Ima Bird" Limited Edition PhotographPhoto: Lisa Miller, The Foal Project

As for the birthing process itself, “foals are most often born at night, and birth often happens very quickly….In the wild, this nocturnal and rapid birth helps to protect a mare and foal from predators when they are at their most vulnerable.” Although mares and foals “bond very quickly...much of their communication is almost imperceptible to the human eye.”

Shop "First Kiss" Limited Edition PhotographPhoto: Lisa Miller, The Foal Project

Within its first hours, and often minutes, a foal can stand and walk (a bit unsteadily at first!), often trotting and galloping only hours later. According to one source, “Many breeders maintain that filly foals are quicker to get on their feet and nurse than colts.”

Newborn foal trying to stand. Photo Credit: Gordon Clayton

From birth, a foal’s legs are almost as long as if fully grown (80 - 90%), so reaching down to graze is not easy to begin with. Luckily, its mother produces milk to feed it for several months.  Its eyes can focus immediately, and its first teeth will come in the week after birth. “A foal will start to taste grass after they are about a week old. By the time they are about 10 days old, they’ll start to eat a bit of grass and hay.”

Understanding the nomenclature is important for the horse world. It seems there are names for every stage and function. For the first year, the newborn is called a “foal”. Eponymously, once weaned, a “weanling,” and, at a year old, a “yearling”. Between two and three/four years old, a foal no longer enjoys a gender neutral name; a young female is called a “filly”, and a young male, a “colt”. An adult male horse is a “stallion” and an adult female horse is a “mare”, but, as parents, the father is a “sire”, and the mother, a “dam”. Just for the record, a pony is not a baby horse, but rather a full-grown horse.  

The more one learns, the more one realizes that the world of horses cannot be truly understood outside of total immersion -- though it can be greatly admired and appreciated. And New York State has much for which to be grateful when it comes to our equine population.


Shop Lisa Miller's The Foal Project on New York Makers Marketplace here!

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