Rural veterinary practice
Live cover breeding
Delivery of a foal
Sleepy foal disease
The birth canal of breeding mares becomes less elastic as years pass by. The vulva that ensures that the vagina is closed slackens and air can flow in and out of the vagina as the mare moves: which is called windsucking. The vagina can become inflamed and the infection may spread to the uterus. This makes it difficult to have the mare be with young. The sucking of air can be prevented by making the vulva and the rear part of the vagina somewhat smaller. This surgical correction (vulvoplasty) involves closing about one-third of the opening. So two-thirds remain open. Still, this procedure is referred to as 'the closure’ of the mare in the horse world.
As a three-year-old, Alide came in fifth place at the national mare inspection in Utrecht. She had an exceptionally good trot. She was serviced, but did not become with young; not even after several attempts. That is unusual, especially for a young mare. Other mares that had been serviced by the same studhorse did promptly succeed in becoming in foal. The sperm was therefore not the problem. It became evident upon examining the mare that the mucous membrane of the vagina was redder than normal. Which is why I took a mucous sample from the uterus for a bacterial culture. Two days later, at the Animal Health Department, the culture showed the presence of apathogenic bacteria: the common garden variety of bacteria that are present in the open air. But these should not be present at all in the uterus. Thereupon Alide was serviced and, after the ovulation, her uterus was treated with antibiotics on two consecutive days. This intra-uterine infusion of antibiotics is called ‘washing the uterus’ in horse jargon. She was ‘closed’ (got a vulvoplasty) after the second treatment. She did not become in heat again and in a later control she was found to be with young.
Cutting the vulva open
If the vulva has been partially closed, it will need to be opened up again prior to the delivery of a foal. Failing to do so increases the risk of tearing during the delivery, which may result in nasty wounds. It is not wise to wait until the delivery has started before cutting the mare open: the foal is forced out in a matter of ten minutes or so. Which means you will always be too late if you still have to drive to the farm concerned. Once the udder of a mare becomes distended, then it is safe to say that the birth will take place within a few days. That is when I pay the farm a visit. After administering a local anaesthetic, I cut the vulva entirely open, following the existing scar, straight upward. I leave the wound open. Following the birth and the subsequent servicing, the uterus is again ‘washed’ twice and then the vulva is ‘closed’ again. Before suturing, the wound edges (being a few weeks old) must be freshened up because only fresh wound edges grow together. By cutting away all of the scar tissue on both sides, the wound will heal better and the closure can be repeated more often.
Urine in de vagina
Ten years later, this mare has achieved the studbook predicates ster, keur and preferent. And so she ranks among the best saddle mares. She gave birth to a foal every year, a total of nine. She was cut open each time before giving birth and then washed and closed after being serviced. She is now in heat and stands in the inspection box. She is neighing to her foal that has been left behind in the stable. Using a tube and a small light, I examine the vagina and find a pool of fluid: the base of the vagina is sagging and urine remains behind. This renders her virtually infertile. Making the distal part of the vagina narrower requires a more invasive surgery. The sagging base must be repositioned so that all of the urine is drained off. Because urine is fatal to sperm. If you look at a drop of sperm under a microscope and you add a drop of urine, you will see all of the sperm die in no time.
Fortunately for Alide, live cover breeding has meanwhile taken a back seat to artificial insemination. The vaginoplasty technique that is required now leaves the vagina too narrow to allow the penis to enter during natural reproduction. But in the case of AI, the sperm is discharged at the cervix using a thin pipette that is inserted in the vagina. Which is exactly how Alide became with young for the tenth time. In the years after that, she gave birth to three more foals. Finally, at the age of seventeen, she is completely ‘worn out’ as a breeding mare. The base of the vagina has fully sagged and lacks any elasticity. She has produced thirteen foals and has been closed and opened up again an equal number of times.
Huub and Tiny van Helvoirt
The story described above takes place at the farm of Huub and Tiny van Helvoirt in Rosmalen. Their successes as horse breeders are manifold. A few examples: In 2003, three of their breeding products could be found in the top ten of best riding horses in the United States (of all fifty States). Furthermore, the stallion 'Broere Jazz', bred by Huub van Helvoirt, performed at the highest dressage level and represented the Netherlands at the European championships in Spain. But, more importantly, he passes his talent on to his numerous offspring. He ranked number 1 dressage talent in the world rankings of all studbooks for a number of years.
No wonder that the studbook organisation enjoyed visiting the farm in Rosmalen during excursions from abroad. Breeders from all over the world paid visits. “As long as you do all the explaning” Huub would say to the guides. Because Huub and Tiny did not engage themselves in speeches in foreign languages. They were not into speeches at all; they preferred just being normal: no fuss or airs.
An open day at the farm had been organised for the residents of Rosmalen. On that occasion, a film was shown in the living room to entertain any children that may come along. Tiny had edited hundreds of home videos that she had made in the course of years at the farm and a variety of horse events and inspections. The film included the natural cover of one of the mares on the farm in earlier days. Upon seeing the images, a small boy asked: “Mama, what is that horse doing?” His mother was caught off guard and felt embarrassed, with so many strangers in the living room listening. But Tiny was quick: “He is checking if he can see the train from Den Bosch rolling in.”
Tiny and Huub passed away in old age in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Dutch studbook organisation honours their reputation by awarding a Huub van Helvoirt trophy every year to the Breeder of the Year in the Dressage sector.
© Leo Rogier Verberne