Long legs and flexed hooves mark the legacy of springtime

I've ushered dozens of calves into the world, most of which would have arrived just fine - noses twitching and little front hooves flexing - unattended.

In a few cases, though, Charlie's and my presence very likely made a difference - a small leg bent back to impede the delivery was straightened or a particularly large bull calf helped out with a gentle, steady tugging of emerging hooves, timed to the cow's contractions.

But it's been two years since any of our seven retired dairy cows were bred - and so there are no spring calvings to anticipate and attend this year. For all the season's pleasures, it just doesn't seem complete without that expectant edge.

So, when I bumped into a neighbor at the grocery store and learned that a mare at her place was close to her delivery time, my dormant midwifery impulses quickened. I asked Joan if she'd call me when the birthing was imminent.

She promised, and sure enough a few weeks later, the message came: "Any day now."

I began to check in at their barn when I was nearby on errands, gradually getting to know the expectant mare, "Chocolate Patti," and visiting with Joan, Dennis, and their suddenly grown-up son and daughters more fully than I had in a long while.

Their barn's roomy stalls house four lovely mares and a little white cart pony with his own diminutive charm. The animals' stall windows open onto the pastures, exercise ring, and an adjacent yard abloom with all that May offers - phlox, dogwoods, lilacs, and peonies - as well as freshly turned gardens.

My daily visits were pleasant on all fronts, and became more and more frequent as "CP's" due date came and passed. Dennis and Joan juggled their own work and sleep schedules to keep close tabs on the mare and gave me their cellphone numbers should things start happening in their absence.

As the days ticked by, I spent time researching Chocolate Patti's lineage - including a great- grandfather any mare could boast about. He was none other than Secretariat, the legendary racehorse whose winning runs in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes set records, some of whichhave yet to be broken.

The big red thoroughbred ran each quarter mile of the Derby faster than the previous segment in one of the most impressive athletic performances - animal or human - ever witnessed. After outdistancing his rivals by 31 lengths in the Belmont, he went on to win the Triple Crown.

Among his progeny was the grandsire of the dark-eyed bay mare just down the road.

I kept no track of the time I spent with Chocolate Patti. I came first thing in the morning, as quietly as I could to avoid disturbing the household, knowing that the mare had been checked throughout the night.

When "Secretariat" popped up as one of the answers in the daily crossword puzzle, I considered it an omen. That afternoon I saw the foal turn position within the mare, a rolling bulge that I assumed meant business. I called Dennis on his cellphone, but there was no birth that day.

Unlike her great-grandfather in the Derby, CP took her own sweet time getting to the finish, and still held the foal a full week after its due date - by which time the barn down the road had come to feel like a second home to me.

Then dawned the morning when the bay stared back at my questioning entrance in the dim light with huge liquid, inward-focused eyes. She circled her stall purposefully, stopped and strained - again and again.

It was a lot like a calving after all, with one notable difference - those long front legs just kept coming. The head and shoulders emerged at last, and a little colt with a jagged white blaze - and a great big legacy - lay in the straw.

Now that's what I mean by spring.

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