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Joy from sadness: grass sickness survivor welcomes second healthy foal

A Highland mare “who chose to fight” grass sickness and overcame losing a filly, has given birth to her second healthy foal since surviving the disease.

Fife-based Jo Jack’s pony Annie (Nighean An Dalaich of Murrayshall) was diagnosed with grass sickness in June 2016 while at stud as a four-year–old.

Jo, who has lost four ponies to grass sickness in 25 years, told H&H her “heart sank” when stud owner Mary McCall Smith called with the news.

“Because I’d lost four to acute and sub-accute grass sickness in the past I assumed there was no chance Annie would survive,” she said.

“Mary’s vet gave her 24 hours, and there were many times you thought that was going to be it, but then she would rally.”

Annie remained at the stud with Mary, while Jo made the three-hour journey to visit when she could.

“We realised very quickly Annie didn’t want hard food and we didn’t want to force her, but we found she still wanted to eat grass. We believe it was Annie who made the decision to survive,” said Jo. “As I wasn’t seeing her every day, I could really see the differences when I did visit, initially this meant I saw her get worse as she lost weight but as I went back I could then see her getting better.

“Mary was fantastic and would let Annie move around fields so she was always getting the grass she wanted, and one day Mary found her pinching her sheep food and we knew she’d turned a corner.”

Jo said Annie lost around 150kg while she was unwell but around nine weeks after her diagnosis, was scanned in foal.

“Mary was having some mares scanned and decided to scan Annie but we never thought there would be an embryo in there after what she’d been through.” she said. “It was shock and I was terrified thinking how we were going to keep enough condition on her.

“I took her home in October and she eventually began enjoying food again. She’s such a fighter, I wondered if she knew she had to eat for her foal.”

Annie foaled on her due date, 29 April 2017, but within 20 minutes of the filly being born, Jo said she noticed something was not right owing to the noise of the filly’s breathing. She was found to have an issue with her soft palate, and after three weeks of treatment was put down.

“It was absolutely heartbreaking, she was so beautiful and Annie was the perfect mother,” said Jo.

“The vet said it could have simply been unlucky, or it could have been something to do with her development when Annie had grass sickness, but we won’t ever know.”

Jo put Annie to stud again that year, and in March 2018 she gave birth to a healthy filly, Saffron – known as Saffy.

“Annie is a very good mum, she isn’t a stressy mare which we think is what helped her during her fight,” she said.

“Saffy has proved to be a real diva, she struts around pretending she’s the boss.”

The following year, Jo agreed to produce a pony belonging to the Munro family of Loandhu Stud and in return she was offered the opportunity for Annie to go to stud. On 8 June 2020 Annie gave birth to a healthy colt, named Rory, by Strathmore Cameron.

“Alan and Carolyn Munro have been absolutely superb, lockdown happened and they’ve done all the hard work. They’ve already had four fillies of their own and have been patiently waiting on Rory arriving,” said Jo.

“Alan has been sending me lots of photos and videos and Rory is already so friendly. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of the whole Munro family, Annie wasn’t the easiest mare to put there, as a grass sickness survivor, but they’ve made sure she had the best grass and taken such good care of her.”

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Jo hopes to bring Annie and Rory home once lockdown restrictions allow.

“Every year Annie has been looking better and better, she’s such an accepting mare and if she hadn’t chosen to fight I don’t think she’d still be here,” said Jo.

“I still take each day as it comes, and when people ask what will be next for Annie or for her foals I always say I’ll wait and see what happens next. Losing four to grass sickness and then going through it with Annie has been a great leveller; I don’t like to plan too far ahead and prefer to make small goals because you can be so easily disappointed.”

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