Poppet and Fudge are New Zealand’s equine double act – a rare set of twins who have overcome all the odds in their first three weeks of life.
Their arrival on Kate Honour’s Rotorua property on the afternoon of September 29 signalled the start of a long and gruelling haul for the high performance coach with Equestrian Sports New Zealand, with the duo requiring around-the-clock care.
But it has all been worth it, with the pair now growing stronger by the day and feeding well on their own.
Their 18-year-old mum, a thoroughbred mare named Betty, has proven to be a good milk producer, and was even happy to be milked for the 19 days that Kate had to bottle-feed Poppet, who weighed just 12kg at birth. Fudge, who was 16kg, required bottle-feeding for only four days before he was happily suckling on his own.
Betty, who had given birth to six live foals in the past, gave few clues that she was carrying twins from a natural mating to Kate’s Irish draught stallion, in the hopes of producing a dressage prospect.
“She was carrying so beautifully and was so happy,” Kate recalls. “She was just divine.”
She dropped a little condition about four weeks before she was due and Kate had the vet out to check her. All seemed well, and he “swore blind” he could hear only one heartbeat.
Kate had a friend visiting on the Thursday afternoon when Betty went into labour. Betty was grazing just outside the house when Kate saw her waters break.
She raced out and led her into their carport area, which had been converted into makeshift stables in anticipation of the birth.
Betty lay down and delivered Fudge, the bigger one of the two. “I thought she was a very small foal. Then my heart sunk. I realised it was twins.”
Betty stood up and turned around to lick her new baby. Kate saw that she was expelling two placentas.
“Two placentas equal two foals, and one was drowning. I ran around to her rear and reached in, searching for the other foal. I found her feet and nose and just pulled, clearing her nose as her head came into daylight.
“She was breathing whilst only half-born. I caught her as she was born as Betty was standing – another tiny wee dark bay filly.”
Kate said neither could stand, but both were breathing. Poppet, the smaller of the two, was no bigger than a medium-sized poodle.
It had been more than 30 years since Kate had any experience of twins. She was raised in Hertfordshire, England, where her parents had a stud. She was only young when the twins arrived. She has vivid memories of the panic, the running around, and the bottles. “For me, it was quite scary. I was not very old.”
Happily, the pair survived.
Kate, who moved to New Zealand in her early 20s, tackled the care of the twins head-on. Her vet, Gus, arrived and checked them.
“When you have twins it’s round-the-clock. It’s like having a newborn baby. You have got to put the nursing in. That’s the key.”
She slept in the stables and attended to the pair every 20-30 minutes.
For Poppet, it was a close-run thing. She firmly believes that if she had missed even one feed, it might have cost the tiny filly her life. “That is how close it was.”
The birth, she said, was the start of three weeks of 24/7 intensive care.
Fudge and Poppet both struggled to stand but, crucially, both had a good suckling reflex and took to the bottle well. “We only had those magic 20-odd hours when the gut is open for the transfer of antibodies so precious from the colostrum.
“Betty, being the lovely mum she is, allowed me to milk her.”
Kate was under no illusions as to what lay ahead.
The pair were what is referred to as dysmature – as in, they have the characteristics of a premature foal.
“Both had the dimpled head, wrinkly cat-fur-like coats, floppy ears, weak pasterns, bandy legs, little if any co-ordination and blue tinged eyes,” she said. They would flop their heads over their necks and displayed a range of other clues that indicated all was not well.
They were, she suggests, the equivalent of a single foal being six weeks premature – right on the cusp of whether they were capable of surviving.
“Within two hours we could support Fudge enough that she could suckle. Poppet, though, could not stand. She was too frail and small. She would, however, take a bottle with gusto.
“Four hours after birth I could hold Poppet up long enough for her to latch and suck a mouthful or two, but then the energy was gone.
“We slept with them in the stable for the first five nights – getting up every 30 minutes to stand the girls up and feed – with a bottle-feed for Poppet.”
Both girls appeared to be doing well. Both had passed their meconium – but Poppet had not cleared it completely. Two days after her birth, she was constipated and in pain. Kate says it was a sign that they had not gotten enough colostrum into her.
Kate’s vet arrived and put a tube into her stomach, giving her 250ml of water and paraffin. She also received 1ml of Flunixin, an anti-inflamamtory painkiller. Her temperature climbed and she did not look good.
“The last option was an old-fashioned soapy-water enema. That did the job along with bottles of not only Betty’s milk, but manuka honey and boiled water.” Poppet, she discovered, had a sweet tooth.
By Friday, all was looking good again. “Poppet was really trying to stand alone; Fudge had found her speed button, but was not too great on the steering or brakes.”
Come Sunday, and Poppet was lame in her right front leg. The vet returned and diagnosed sepsis, which had not yet gotten into the knee joint. He gave her a penicillin-based antibiotic and more painkilling medication.
Her condition stablised, but then on Wednesday matters took a turn for the worse. The sepsis was causing her internal systems to shut down to a pre-birth state and she was dribbling urine through her umbilicus, which until then had been dry and clean.
“Add to that, Fudge now had snotty foal nose syndrome – with Poppet also showing signs of it.”
More antibiotics followed. Poppet’s legs were covered in nappy barrier cream to prevent urine burn, and the intensive nursing the pair required continued. “Thursday and Friday were hairy but we came through it,” Kate recalls. “Or so I thought.
“Poppet stopped dribbling urine, her lameness appeared to be improving, her temperature was down and she looked good, but on Saturday her temperature spiked to 39.3. We were losing her.
“Her leg had blown up like a balloon and felt like bubble wrap to touch. My heart sank. I knew that feeling. We had gone through all the sepsis – gram negative, gram positive and now anaerobic.”
The bubble-wrap feeling was a build-up of septic gas.
The on-call vet arrived and prescribed more medication, which required a special trip to the urgent pharmacy for Metronidazole.
Poppet had half a pill with honey and warm water every eight hours. “Poppet was good about her oral meds but grumpy about her jabs – she had such a wee butt.”
Kate said bed was by then a distant memory.
By Monday, her temperature was down a little and the snotty noses had gone.
“Poppet had thrown the book at us, with everything that could go wrong with a new foal going wrong. Sepsis like this is often fatal, but Poppet was not going to give up her bottle.
“During this time Fudge developed diarrhoea – a bit more than normal foal diarrhoea.”
She had her backside washed every six hours and creamed with nappy cream. Both fillies were given regular doses of a probiotic to help their tummies.
“We spent a very harrowing week,” recalls Kate.
By Saturday, October 17, Poppet’s swelling was finally started to subside and the lameness was less apparent.
“Poppet was feeding off Betty with gusto,” she recalls. The pair were starting to act like normal foals.
Both had turned a critical corner.
Betty needs to produce more than 35 litres of milk a day to support both girls. Fortunately, she is a good provider and has a tailored diet to help her.
“She is doing exceptionally well. Not all mares will let you milk them or bottle-feed their foals without rejecting them. Betty is an amazing mum.
“Without Betty being as genuine as she is, our nursing skills and the fantastic support of our vets, both girls would not have made it.”
The twins are now just over three weeks old and are doing well. They look and act as if they are two-day-old foals. Both spend about 70 percent of their time sleeping, 20 percent of their time feeding, and 10 percent of their time running or mooching around.
Both have long legs, good muscle and nice conformation, Kate says. They should both kick on to be fine horses, although Kate has been left pondering what she will do with two dressage horses.