The foal whisperer
Christy Hart swapped dairy farming for a new career as a thoroughbred foaling expert
Breeding horses is a fickle business and takes much time, effort and money. Foaling is a particularly anxious time, but none more so than for the owner of the mare who is hoping that all will be well, and perhaps, this foal may well be the next champion.
For over 20 years now a farmer outside Naas in Co Kildare has been providing a valuable service of private foaling to hundreds of small-time thoroughbred and sport horse breeders across Ireland and beyond.
For inexperienced breeders, or simply those who do not have the time or patience, handing over the responsibility to a professional is the perfect solution.
From life as a 12th generation dairy farmer in the 1980s, Christy Hart has grown his business into one of the most successful of its kind in the country. So much so that the 2016 breeding season at Hart Livery Farm has been one of his busiest yet, with some 100 thoroughbred foals safely on the ground.
"It all started 21 years ago when someone asked us to foal a mare for her. We had given up milking and had been doing hunters at the time but were finding it tough going," he recalls. "We ended up with about seven mares that year."
Owing to the nature of the business, there is no long-term booking involved. It is simply a matter of waiting for the phone to ring when the time draws near.
"We started a little later this year and it was February before I got the first phone-call - and the first mare. But from there it just spiralled.
"We are fortunate to have so many loyal, repeat customers and this makes our job so enjoyable.
"Now we are seeing many of those fillies we foaled years ago coming back in as broodmares. It's gone full circle," he said.
While many of Ireland's major stud farms can easily cater for in excess of 200 mares in a season, for Christy Hart and his small team, to ensure the safe delivery of so many valuable foals in a few short months takes immense dedication and sacrifice.
"In this job you cannot afford to be complacent and I rarely leave the farm between February and June. If a foaling alarm goes off and I am 20 minutes away, that is no good. These mares and foals are our responsibility and we need to be on call 24/7.
"However, I am very lucky though that my wife Paula is very involved, as well as my two sons Paul (16) and Christopher (14). We also have Polish native Marius Blazewicz who is here during the day and his wife Ivaona who does night duty."
For someone who has been foaling mares for 20 years, one could say that Christy Hart really knows his business. It is a testament to his success that he has never once advertised. Instead he is continually referred to by many of the local veterinary practices, including Barrack Gate, Troytown Grey Abbey and Anglesea Lodge.
"Touch wood so far this year we have not lost a foal during foaling and long may it continue. However, anything can go wrong and that is why it is so important to be there every time."
Mr Hart has great faith in the foaling alarm system currently in place, but says it is only good once you are there to respond when a foaling commences.
"We use television monitors in the house, as well as in the main office, but the Foal-Alert is invaluable."
This is surgically attached to the mare's vulva and consists of a magnet and a transmitter. When the foal begins to emerge from the birth canal, his front feet will easily pull the magnet out of the transmitter. This then sends a signal to a receiver and activates an alarm which in turn notifies you via a mobile phone.
"From the time the phone rings the time span before the foal is on the ground is very short," he said.
"It's always best to observe from a distance though if everything is going smoothly as some mares will switch off if you get too close."
In the event of something going wrong, Mr Hart will have a back-up team quickly in place. "We've had a few difficult ones in our time. For instance a foal might be breach, or have a leg around his head, or only his hind legs and ears will appear. That's known as a dog-sitter and is very difficult to rectify. I've only ever seen three of those over the years. Fortunately two foals survived."
During these difficult situations the Harts are fortunate to have the services of vets Pippa Henderson from Anglesea Lodge and Kevin McConnell from Barrack Gate. "Both are hugely knowledgeable and it is also great to be able to learn from them when doing post-natal examinations. These are vital as we can always miss something like a broken rib or inverted eye-lid. Also it is important to ensure that all of the afterbirth is passed and checked. Even an inch left behind can kill a mare so quickly."
While the cold weather this year has had an adverse effect on mares' cycles, Christy Hart says another issue has been over-feeding.
"If a mare is too big it can make foaling very difficult. You have to find a happy medium," he said. "Everyone loves to see a big foal, but not a big, dead foal."
With the summer now here Christy Hart and his family are already looking forward to the autumn when hunting gets underway. "We all love our hunting, the entire family do," he said of their close involvement with the West Wicklow Foxhounds. He serves as joint-master.
Aside from that, it's back to his other day job of tending to his near pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus cows, while also prepping a few sales horses, and spending some time on the road with their home-bred hunters which are regularly used for event launches and advertising campaigns.
"One of our hunters was used recently to advertise the Irish Derby at the Curragh so now we see him regularly up on billboards throughout Kildare."
As for a holiday, it seems to be a novel word in the Hart household, especially for Christy who always likes to keep on the move.
"I'm also still working on breeding my first winner, but as the saying goes, 'if you enjoy what you are doing you will never work a day in your life'."
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