'Piggy' misses her mom Foal: Whinnies turn to wails as the weaning process begins.

September 12, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The foal snorted, kicked at her stall and turned in dizzying circles in a desperate search for her dearest ally. Mother was missing, and the frightened young filly wanted her back.

She pawed the sawdust floor, snorted again and reared back on her long hind legs, "Hi-yo Silver" style. Then she whinnied -- a long, shrill scream that pierced the thick, muggy air, a scream that would have brought an old broodmare running, had she not been two fences and several pastures away.

September is weaning time at breeding farms across the country, a traumatic period for mares and foals -- the equine equivalent of the first day of school, except that these youngsters never come home to mama. At Liberty Run Farm in Carroll County, none of the weanlings faced that separation with more defiance than Miss Piggy, a 5-month-old bay loath to get on the bus.

She raised a ruckus in her stall Monday when her mother, Mary Bo Peep, was whisked away. Miss Piggy sniffed at her dam's fresh droppings, reared up and, mane quivering, unleashed another gut-wrenching, mournful cry.

The Sun is following the progress of Miss Piggy, one of 1,500 thoroughbreds foaled in Maryland last spring. Her bloodlines are better than most. Miss Piggy's sire, Waquoit, is an expensive stallion who earned more than $2 million racing. Her dam is a swaybacked, old nag who hit it big as a broodmare: Of Mary Bo Peep's seven race-age progeny, six have won at the track.

All the more reason to boot Miss Piggy out of the nest.

"It's time for her to learn she's an individual," said Mary Joanne Hughes, Liberty Run's farm manager.

It's also time to give mama a break. Like most professional broodmares, Mary Bo Peep, 18, is pregnant again. Why continue to nurse Miss Piggy, who at 500 pounds is almost half-grown?

"By now, foals are growing better on hay and grain than on mother's milk," said Bob Vallance, a longtime racetrack veterinarian who has worked in Maryland for 23 years. "Besides, the mare needs to replenish herself. She doesn't need this drain on her system at a time when she is in foal."

Try telling that to Miss Piggy, who worked herself into a dither.

Her handlers tried to console the filly, surrounding her with supporters. In one adjacent stall was Wally, Miss Piggy's favorite playmate; in the other stood Sly, a calm, old pony who helps baby-sit the weanlings.

Miss Piggy darted from Wally to Sly, poking her head through the bars and touching their noses for assurance.

Everyone spoke in soft, soothing tones to Miss Piggy and the farm's other two weanlings, neither of whom carried on so.

"Ohhh, sweetheart, what is it, honey?" cooed Hughes. "They took your mom away, and then what?"

Miss Piggy whinnied again and backed in her direction. Hughes retreated.

"She's looking to kick butt," she said.

Miss Piggy's behavior is not unusual, experts say. "Look at it from the foal's perspective," said Sue McDonnell, an equine behavioral specialist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Here's this sudden break from mom. It's not the suckling that's important, it's the separation from your guidepost since Day One."

Weaning is "a very, very stressful time for foals," said Margi Stickney, an instructor at Kentucky Horse Park who teaches a course, "Psychology and Behavior of the Horse." "Some foals lose weight. Others hurt themselves by jumping a fence or by sticking their feet through partitions in a stall."

Miss Piggy did none of that. Her screams subsided Monday night, save a few lonely cries after dark. Tuesday, the three foals were turned out in their favorite pasture, where they stuck close to Sly, their stoic nanny. Yesterday, Liberty Run seemed a bucolic postcard: youngsters grazing contentedly at one end of the farm, mothers at the other.

Most foals are weaned successfully within days, Stickney said. But mothers aren't quickly forgotten.

"I've seen foals munching in the field and having a good time," she said. "Then one will raise its head and look off in the direction where its mom left, like, maybe she'll come back."

Not a chance, said Hughes, a longtime handler and trainer:

"The mares all go out in the field, light their cigarettes, lean back and say, 'Thank God that's over!' "

rTC Pub Date: 9/12/96

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