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Preemie horse survives against all odds

Tamara Rose looks more like a skinny whippet than a Paso Fino horse.

The tiny foal was born on Oct. 17, about six weeks early and weighing only 29 pounds, about one-third the normal birth weight of a horse of her breed.  The cartilage in her legs had not yet converted to bone.

Her chances were slim, but she had a loving owner and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School's New Bolton Center in Chester County in her corner.

About two months ago, Beaverlea Roye-Manderbach, owner of Laota Spring Farm in Sinking Spring, Pa., saw signs that the foal's mother, Chaperona, a 13-year-old brood mare, might be having a difficult pregnancy.

The farm has about 23 Paso Fino horses, which stand  from 52 to 60 inches tall and weigh from 700 to 1,000 pounds when fully grown. The breed — descendants from the time of the Spanish conquistadors — has only been in the United States for about 60 years.

Roye-Manderbach consulted with local veterinarians and brought Chaperona to New Bolton for more tests. The horse was put on antibiotics and hormones. Another few episodes followed, and each time the horse appeared to recover.

Then, on Oct. 17, Roye-Manderbach, a retired doctor, got a call from one of her employees early in the morning. Get to the barn, she was told.

"There is a little baby lying there; Mom is standing over her," Roye-Manderbach said. The foal was not moving. At that point, her training as a physician kicked in.

"She had only been there for maybe an hour before we found her," said Roye-Manderbach. "Between her being a preemie and the cold morning, her odds didn't look extremely good."

Roye-Manderbach took the foal's vitals and made sure the airway was open. Calls were made to the local vet and Michelle Linton, a veterinary  specialist in internal medicine and neonatology at New Bolton.

Roye-Manderbach, her trainer, and her farm foreman piled the mare into a trailer, placed the foal on a thick pad in the backseat surrounded by warm bottles and blankets to keep her core warm,  and took off for New Bolton. Along the way, Roye-Manderbach held the horse's head, and prayed she would make it and whispered encouragement.

"By the time we got there, the baby was moving," said Roye-Manderbach. The foal was making noise and trying to suckle — a small but positive sign.

"She was septic when she came in," said Linton. The foal's legs were ice-cold, and her temperature and blood glucose were not registering. With intravenous lines in place and the preemie  stable, they took X-rays and found there was cartilage where there should have been bone.

"I made the decision right then to try and save her," said Roye-Manderbach. "If they would have said her heart was not formed right, or her brain, or there was a serious physical problem with the baby, that would have been another decision."

Tamara Rose was not out of the woods. She began to have seizures, and there were worries that her kidneys were not fully functioning and that gastrointestinal problems might develop. She developed skin ulcers from lying in the barn after her surprise birth.

In the meantime,  Chaperona, the mother, began to show signs of stress and sleep deprivation, and was becoming hard to handle. Although she was only separated by a gate, the mare had little interaction with the preemie and her milk was starting to dry up. The decision was made to send her back to the farm and her friends, where she would be more comfortable.

"We were not doing her any service by keeping her locked in a stall," said Linton.

The first two weeks of Tamara Rose's life were a roller coaster of medical problems and worries, said Linton.

The typical gestation for a horse is  330 to 360 days, with little chance of survival if a foal is born around 300 days. Veterinarians estimate Tamara Rose was born at 302 to 310 days, she said.

Part of the course of treatment was to keep Tamara Rose in a confined area in the dark to let her sleep and grow. The seizures stopped, medical-grade honey-infused patches helped to heal her wounds, and the tiny foal began to improve.

Now just over 30 pounds, Tamara Rose, who had to be taught to stand, wobbles about her stall. She cries out when she hears the beep of the microwave that warms her milk.

Once the bright-eyed foal begins to gain more strength and explore, it will be hard to stop her, said Linton.

When Tamara Rose's bones are formed, Daisy, a miniature horse from the farm, will be brought in as a companion and to teach her to act like a horse.

Roye-Manderbach said the foal has the best traits of her mare and sire.

"I believe she is going to be awesome when she grows up," she said.