Out of the Mouths of Babes, or What is that thing in my horse’s afterbirth?!

Saunder’s Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary; Second Edition defines hippomanes (hih-poh-MAH-neez; from Greek, meaning “horse, crazy”) as a “small (up to 1.5” thick and 8” diameter), circular, flat smooth body found in allantoic fluids, esp. in mares and cows. Called foal’s bread or foal’s tongue. On cut section they are semi-solid, homoneous, amber-colored”.

Not all are amber-colored, though. Hippomanes (the plural of hippomanes is also hippomanes) range in color from chalky gray to yellowish to darkest brown. They are shaped like thick, oval pancakes–soft, spongy, and rubbery to touch. Hippomanes can be 4-6” long, 3-4” wide, and 1-1 1/2” thick. No two are alike; even twins’ hippomanes can be different sizes and different colors.

Prior to birth, a foal’s hippomanes free-floats in a sea of allantoic fluid, the watery liquid that fills the outer sac of his placenta. The hippomanes will be ejected when his dam’s water ruptures or it might be found nestled in his placental membranes after birth–if he has one, and he probably does

And its function? No one knows. Modern sources voice varying opinions, but most agree that a hippomanes is composed of cellular debris: probably shed endometrial cups that fuse together forming a liver-like mass that gets crushed between the developing fetus and his dam’s uterine wall. Whatever, hippomanes are essentially spare parts found in 90 percent of all equine afterbirth membranes.

Folks throughout the ages have struggled to explain this strange, mysterious mass of cells.

Two thousand years ago the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote, “A love poison called the horse frenzy is found in the forehead of horses at birth, the size of a dried fig, black in color”. He explains that the mare eats the ‘horse frenzy’ and if anyone steals it, she will refuse to suckle her foal. Furthermore, the thief will “descend into madness”.

Pliny derived his ideas from Aelianus, a Greek author who penned this amazing passage in 22 C.E.: “When a mare gives birth, some say that a small piece of flesh is attached to the foal’s forehead, others say to its loin, others again to its genitals. This piece the Mare bites off and destroys; and it is called ‘Mare’s frenzy’. It is because Nature has pity and compassion on horses that this occurs, for had this continued to be attached always to the foal, both horses and mares would be inflamed with passion for uncontrolled mating. This may, if you like, be a gift bestowed by Poseidon or Athena, the god and goddess of horses, upon these animals to ensure that their race is perpetuated and does not perish through an insane indulgence. Now those who tend horses are fully aware of this and if they chance to need the aforesaid piece of flesh with the design of kindling the fires of Love in some person, they watch a pregnant Mare…Any man who as a result of some plot tastes of that piece of flesh becomes possessed and consumed by an incontinent desire and cries aloud, and cannot be controlled from going after the ugliest of boys and grown women of repellent aspects. And he proclaims his affliction and tells those whom he meets how he is being driven mad. And his body wastes away and his mind is agitated by erotic frenzy”. Aelianus goes on to say, “I have heard also this story of the bronze mare at Olympia: horses fall madly in love with it and long to mount it, and at the sight of it neigh amorously. Hidden away in the charmed bronze it contains the treacherous Mare’s frenzy, and through some secret contrivance of the artist the bronze works against living animals”.

Old ideas die hard. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, dried, powdered ‘horse love’ was peddled as a potent aphrodisiac.

Well into the twentieth century, British horsemen believed an unborn foal carried his hippomanes in his mouth and that its function was to shape his tongue. George Ewart Evans (writing in The Horse in the Furrow; 1960) says “The colt-milt or melt is a small, oval-shaped lump of fibrous matter like the spleen (milt is in fact another, older word for spleen). It lies at the back of the colt’s tongue when it is in the mare’s womb”. He informs us that old-time Suffolk horsemen who attended foaling mares were required to show the hippomanes to the farmer the next morning because (according to one such horseman), “The milt would show you were actually on the spot and not asleep when the colt were born. Because to get the milt you had to put your two fingers into the colt’s mouth and prise it out just as it were a-coming out of the bag. Do you leave it a moment later, the colt would swallow it”.

Some found magic in that rubbery mass of cells. Certain nineteenth century horse tamers, members of the Brotherhood of the Horse, carried salt-cured hippomanes in pouches, carefully enveloped in red cloth and anointed with secret “taming oils”, to make them irresistible to horses. One such Suffolk horseman told Evans that horses were attracted to a properly cured milt, so that “a horseman would go into a meadow and there’d be no horses about; but as soon as he got himself into the wind, they’d come a-running up to him, a-neighing and rubbing their noses on him”.

Elwyn Hartley Edwards wrote in The Encyclopedia of the Horse (1977) that “An interesting aspect of foaling is the milt, melt, or melch which is present in the foal’s mouth at birth, and which is quickly rejected”. He adds that its purpose is to prevent fluid entering the foal’s lungs during gestation. He goes on to say, “In many cases it is never found, but according to country lore, when it is, it should be dried and kept in the clothing of the person who found it, or placed on the roof of the stable. It is claimed to hold magic powers, destroying all evil forces that pursue the carrier or inmates of the stable”.

Horse magic!

If you’d like to try it, for whatever reason, preserving your foal’s hippomanes is easy. Within a few hours after his birth, submerge it in a leak-proof container of table salt to which a handful of cinnamon has been added. Don’t worry about smell; kept covered, it won’t. In a few days, throw out the fluid-saturated salt mixture and replace it with fresh. Periodically scoop out the hippomanes and crumble any chunks of salt that have formed. Over the next four or five months it will gradually shrivel until it looks and feels like a piece of salt-encrusted, hard, thin leather. When it does, carefully pick or toothbrush off the salt mixture. It’s done! Store it in a dry place. Don’t bend it, it will be brittle. Keep it away from dogs; dogs love hippomanes jerky. And please don’t munch it yourself; mysterious as they are, hippomanes aren’t aphrodisiac!

Horse magic, horse frenzy–out of the mouths of babes. Mere superstition? Perhaps. But we still don’t know what the hippomanes is for. Maybe we never will.

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